With the Iran nuclear deal on the verge of collapse, it is lethal for diplomats gathering in Vienna to entertain illusions about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s worldview. Rather than assume that the only alternative to diplomacy is the military option—with strikes against Iran’s nuclear program raising the risk of an Iran war—it is time for a new Iran policy that reframes the nature of the strategic threat posed by the Ayatollah.  

Since assuming the office of supreme leader in 1989—by virtue of 60 votes cast by the Assembly of Experts—Mr. Khamenei has not only acted as the godfather behind Iran’s nuclear program, but as the revolutionary cleric whose fundamentalist ideology guides Iran’s foreign and domestic policy. Iran’s nuclear brinksmanship, regional belligerence, and ballistic missile program are not isolated diplomatic issues; they are manifestations of a revolutionary ideology—a toxic brew of Marxism and Islamism codified in the 1979 Iranian constitution. It is impossible to address the deadlock around Iran’s nuclear program without recognizing the historical and ideological animus behind the Ayatollah’s hatred for the United States and hostility towards the West.

There is no more room for confusion about the Ayatollah’s peaceful intentions. In early November, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared that Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium stockpile had reached “25 kilograms (55 pounds).” Uranium enriched to these levels poses a major proliferation risk. It reduces the breakout time—the time needed to produce weapons-grade uranium—to about one month. Iran’s nuclear advances make it highly unlikely that Iran would return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the key metric of which would require the reestablishment of a 12-month breakout time. As Raphael Gossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has noted: “A country enriching at 60% is a very serious thing—only countries making bombs are reaching this level.”   

Sadly, instead of recognizing the gravity of the fundamentalist threat to world order and regional stability, China and Russia view Iran’s nuclear program as a battering ram for pushing the United States out of the Middle East. In exchange for providing the Ayatollah with cover for his nuclear gamble, Russia and China have used the shadow of sanctions to extract massive oil and gas concessions from the Ayatollah. The Iranian and American people are forced to assume the price of the Ayatollah’s Iran deals, which are nothing but corrupt bargains for China to fund its economic growth with millions of barrels of stolen Iranian oil. In exchange for funding the Ayatollah’s crackdowns and corruption, China draws Iran into the quagmire of fundamentalism, poverty, debt and war. Moreover, the nuclear deadlock allows China to secure an endless supply of cheap energy, an unfair economic advantage that allow it to decimate American corporations and industry.   

Iranians do not need to look to the stalled negotiations in Vienna to understand the price of Khamenei’s nuclear gamble. Indeed, Khamenei does not view Iran’s negotiations with the West as an opportunity to bring peace and prosperity to Iran.  Just as sanctions serve as a cover for his kleptocratic corruption, his belligerence is designed to nourish faith in the ideological roots of Iran’s theocracy. As with the Soleimani assassination, a new round of American sanctions or Israeli strikes will allow the Ayatollah to resurrect the myth that the United States is the Great Satan, with Iran and the Islamic world its victims.  

Herein lies the flawed assumption in the Faustian bargain with the Ayatollah and the false premise of the diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. What fuels Khamenei’s theocracy is not nuclear energy, but martyrdom. The actual value of Iran’s nuclear sites does not come from a few pounds of enriched uranium; rather, it comes from their value as targets that can generate mass casualties. Sadly, the Iranian people serve as a human shield covering the price of the Ayatollah’s nuclear folly.

According to the Pentagon’s military planners, strikes designed to permanently cripple Iran’s nuclear program would include more than 400 targets including personnel, auxiliary sites, and infrastructure. The target list would include leadership and command, communications structures, missile facilities, centrifuge workshops (some of which are located in urban centers), uranium mills and mines as well as military complexes. In The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble, a study on the human cost of military strikes of conventional strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the estimated casualties from a conservative strike scenario targeting facilities in Isfahan, Natanz, Arak, and Bushehr stood at 5,500 people killed or injured from the direct impact of the bombing on day one of the conflict, with another 5,000 to 70,000 people exposed to toxic plumes and radiation.   

It’s time to move past the false binary in which the only alternative to a nuclear deal that rewards the Ayatollah is sanctions and strikes that harm the Iranian people. It is the Ayatollah—not the United States—who is waging a war against the Iranian people.  And while the nuclear negotiations allow him to project the illusion of strength abroad, they conceal a deeper reality. Khamenei’s position as Iran’s supreme leader has cratered at home. Under the Ayatollah’s fundamentalist rule, Iran is turning into a failed state. Khamenei has failed at any semblance of effectively governing Iran by failing to provide water, food, electricity, housing, health, education, jobs, justice, freedom, or hope for a better future.  

The Iranian people have already made the transition to a post-fundamentalist society.  They have no use for outdated leaders, policies, and strategies that cling to the past.  No one wishes to return to the status quo ante—not the nuclear deal of 2015, not the election rigging of 2009, and certainly not the fundamentalist revolution of 1979. 

In 2021, the Iranian people do not look to the Ayatollah’s nuclear program as the solution to their problems but as the cause of their suffering and impoverishment. And far from being a symbol of Iran’s renewal or the Islamic world’s revival, 70 percent of the Iranian people now live under the poverty line. They see the Ayatollah’s brand of fundamentalism—the promise of an Islamic utopia—as a grave and growing threat to Iran’s sovereignty, security, and survival as a nation. 

There is no basis for nuclear negotiations with Iran’s hardliners—and no reason for a war against the Iranian people. Rather than build trust in the peaceful intentions, nature and policy of Iran’s supreme leader, it is time to draw back the nuclear curtain to expose the real reason behind the nuclear deadlock. The Ayatollah’s theocracy is a kleptocracy: corrupt, criminal, broken and bankrupt. His nuclear gamble is a desperate bid to resurrect the fortunes of fundamentalism by waging a war against the United States and Israel.

Instead of returning to the status quo ante, it is time to up the ante. The way to pull the plug on the Ayatollah’s nuclear program is to recognize the Iranian people’s right to a future that radiates with peace and prosperity, not enmity and war. Instead of bargaining with the Ayatollah, it is time to end Iran’s captivity. The key to preventing an Iran war is a referendum: a free and fair election, monitored by the United Nations, premised on recognizing the Iranian people’s right to step out of the shadow of the Ayatollah.

Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American philanthropist, is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: the Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities.” Amir Soltani, a human rights activist, is the author of Zahra’s Paradise. 

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