It is always perilous to predict what future historians will say. But regarding the nuclear deal with Iran it is likely historians will observe the remarkable fact that at the moment of its greatest weakness, Iran’s enemies suddenly reversed course. In the name of enticing it not to build nuclear weapons, they dismantled years of carefully built economic and political sanctions, saved its crumbling economy, and empowered the regime against its domestic and foreign enemies, including the West itself.
Doing so they accepted Iran’s attacks and insults, left its nuclear enrichment program intact and under minimal supervision, guaranteed Iranian threats to neighboring countries and efforts to expand regional hegemony, and did nothing to help the Iranian people, who struggled under harsh repression. Whether it will have succeeded in preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon is unlikely. What is certain is that a new period of instability will have been created — that period is already upon us.
It is an extraordinary moment in world history, perhaps a turning point, based, as many such moments are, on an extraordinary convergence of lies and self-delusions. But for those interested in the two goals of an Iran free of nuclear weapons and free of religious fascism, perhaps it is also a moment of opportunity. Iran is about to undergo a kind of opening to the world. Taking advantage of that is now a vital goal for Western intelligence and public diplomacy. It is the art of the making lemonade out of lemons.
Western businessmen are already flooding into Iran seeking deals, selling all manner of wares in exchange for Iranian cash. Those businessmen, the various branch offices they will establish, and the goods they will sell, represent an important opportunity for Western intelligence agencies to gather information and to subvert the Iranian regime.
One simple method are thumb drives, containing viruses to disrupt computer networks, encryption tools to evade official Iranian surveillance and firewalls, and perhaps even Western music, literature, and movies to subvert repressive traditional values, and classics of Western political thought to inspire Iranian society toward a liberal democratic future. Jazz and rock, blue jeans and samizdat literature played roles in the collapse of communism; their 21st century analogs should be enlisted to help Iranian society reform itself.
In reality, this sort of ‘subversion’ should have been an important goal for Western public diplomacy and intelligence work all along. But there is no evidence that significant efforts have been made, especially under the Obama administration. Iranian jamming of Western broadcasts and Internet censorship have been extensive and have gone unprotested by the West, as has repression of dissidents and even the imprisonment of American citizens.
New access in Iran means new opportunities to introduce cyberweapons such as Stuxnet into Iran’s strategic computer systems. Stuxnet and its variants were designed to slow and damage computer controlled systems in Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, apparently with success. But they were eventually detected, and bizarrely, the Obama administration leaked information that led the trail back to the US. Iran’s computers were hardened against attack.
New cyberweapons aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, along with missiles, military radars and aviation, regime communications and record-keeping, and much more, are all likely under development in the West — or should be. Certainly Iran is developing its own cyberweapons, and has virtually unlimited access points to introduce them. But its weapons are aimed Western banks and critical infrastructure, such as electric grids. It is in everyone’s interest that more targeted cyberattacks on the Iranian regime and its weapons systems succeed first.
More access to Iran increases its vulnerability, as will more trade. Iran has long acquired items legally and illegally, including computers, industrial machinery, and materials for its weapons programs. With increased trade come more opportunities to sabotage equipment by introducing computer viruses, contaminating materials used in specific industries, and delivering products that do not meet stated specifications. One result may be that nuclear weapons programs can be slowed and that computer and communications systems can be monitored and disrupted. Another is that all imported trade goods become suspect, requiring expensive counterintelligence monitoring and testing. Openness should have a high price for Iran, both real and imagined.
Human intelligence opportunities directed against Iran will also increase, albeit slowly. Businessmen and academics have always been spies, and opportunities to recruit spies and saboteurs. More fundamentally it will increase the opportunity to innocently distribute information about the West through direct contacts. Keeping track of Westerners will in turn require more Iranian counterintelligence efforts. Here, too, the costs of Iran’s opening to the West should be made as high as possible.
Access to Iran’s people also raises the potential to eventually inspire them to overthrow the repressive theocratic fascist regime. Iran’s vulnerability to ethnic uprisings is often underestimated. The Persian-led regime rightly fears Ahwaz Arab tribes in the southwest, ethnic Baluch and Pashtun in the east, and Azeris and Kurds in the northwest. All these have long histories of rebellion against the Persians, and the regime is highly sensitive to the West stirring dissent.
More access will not easily bring such dissent about, much less the arming of ethnic dissidents. Indeed, such activities seem utterly antithetical to the Obama administration, which could not even be moved to support the Green movement that arose after Iran’s corrupt 2009 elections. But putting the regime under stress is an important means to bring about its transformation or demise. At the very least more broadcasts and translations should be aimed at these minorities, bringing them the news that they have not been forgotten by the West.
Even if the territorial integrity of Iran is somehow taken for granted by the West, the values of the regime cannot. The rights of ethnic minorities in Iran, and human rights generally should become a Western demand, supported by tough negotiations and public diplomacy. Such demands featured prominently in American relations with the Soviet Union and should have an equally central place in dealings with Iran. Of course, they will not under Obama, but perhaps they will under the next president.
In all this, Iran’s paranoia should be exploited to the fullest. The opening to the West is — or should be — a counterintelligence nightmare for Iran and they should be forced to devote scarce resources and increase internal repression to try and stay one step ahead. Iran’s youth are already deeply alienated against the regime and to some extent Islam itself. How to increase alienation is a paramount strategic goal for the West.
More positively, the opening to Iran must be seen as an opportunity for the West to promote its own values, of openness, tolerance, liberty and human dignity. If it does not, then those values no longer exist in the West, just as they do not in Iran.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel