Clare M. Lopez, 20 April 2020
One might be excused for wondering why the Iranian regime is pressing the International Monetary Fund (IMF), headquartered in Washington DC, to give Tehran an emergency $5 billion loan. Hardship, says Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—and the urgent need to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But the mullahs’ regime in fact seems quite flush with funds, given the bulging bank accounts of its Supreme Leader and apparently unlimited resources available for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, not to mention funding for a long list of Islamic terror proxies.
According to a 2013 Reuters report, the personal net worth of Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported to be at least $95 billion; the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad more recently estimated it at nearly $200 billion. And yet the Tehran regime continues to fund its nuclear weapons work, as documented on a regular basis by The Institute of Science and International Security. We’ll recall how the extent of that work was revealed in alarming detail in a riveting briefing by the Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) on 24 April 2017. A year later, on 30 April 2018, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed what the NCRI had briefed and reported that a daring Mossad raid on a Tehran warehouse had seized thousands of files about Iran’s nuclear weapons “Project Amad.”
Fast forward to early April 2020 and we have it directly from the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, who asserted in an 8 April message that “nuclear activities, as well as research and development on the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium conversion, and enrichment” were all continuing. He also confirmed that new construction work on Iran’s heavy water Arak reactor as well as two other new reactors in Bushehr was proceeding with assistance from foreign partners, including Russia. IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) reporting from March 2020 accuses Iran of stockpiling highly enriched uranium even while blocking IAEA inspectors from visiting suspect sites. The Iranian Defense Ministry has announced plans to start construction on a 6,000-ton destroyer, while a former Mossad official, speaking at an April 2020 conference, suggested that Iran’s reported program to develop a nuclear submarine may be a cover for even more uranium enrichment. Tehran’s successful 20 April 2020 launch of a military satellite into orbit means that all that’s left to deliver a nuclear ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) to its target of choice is fitting one of their warheads to a nosecone. Worse yet, that Iranian satellite is on a polar trajectory that passes over the U.S. daily from south to north (i.e., from our “blind side” that has no radar or missile defense). We do not know if that satellite is armed with an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) nuclear weapon or anything else.
Despite all this, supporters of the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal within the Trump administration in early 2020 obtained another extension on a set of waivers that allow Iran to continue nuclear work. Several leading Republican Senators , including Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Marco Rubio of Florida, in addition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, all expressed strong disapproval for extending the waivers. Inside the Trump administration, however, sources say that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin prevailed upon Trump to renew them. Reportedly, Mnuchin is among those who prefer ultimately to find a way to preserve the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. Mnuchin thus joins with European counterparts who value diplomacy and lucrative trade relations more than they do countering Iran’s dangerously malign behavior. Preserving the nuclear deal for Mnuchin and others means at all costs, including allowing Tehran to continue progress towards a deliverable nuclear weapon. This stance unfortunately serves to undermine Trump’s hardline policy toward Iran while advancing those of the murderous Iranian regime.
In addition to continued funding for Iran’s nuclear program, support to its terror proxies across the region doesn’t seem to be much restricted either. Billions of dollars annually flow to Iraqi Shi’ite Hashd-e Shaabi, Lebanese Hizballah, HAMAS and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the genocidal regime in Damascus. As the Jewish Policy Center’s Shoshana Bryen wrote in a 21 April 2020 newsletter, the Tehran regime prioritizes what it values most: a Shi’ite Crescent across the north, encirclement of Saudi Arabia to the south, and establishment of a commanding base of operations in Yemen (from which to threaten the Bab al-Mandab and Red Sea approaches to the Suez Canal).
All of which is to say that Tehran seems to have plenty of money to spend on what it prioritizes.
Meanwhile, though, millions of ordinary Iranians suffer in absolute poverty, unable to afford the bare necessities of life, including adequate food for their families. Yes, the official death toll of the Wuhan Coronavirus is nearing 4,000, but then why did Tehran turn away Doctors Without Borders from helping the Iranian people? Why has the regime refused the offer of help from President Donald Trump? Could it possibly be because each of those offered actual medical supplies, not the fungible cash the regime would rather receive?
The U.S. and our European allies need to call “bogus” on the Iranian regime’s attempts to extort money and sanctions relief from the international community. To its credit, the State Department actually did term Tehran’s behavior “nuclear extortion” in early April 2020. The U.S. Treasury Department likewise weighed in to oppose Iran’s request for IMF financing, citing the regime’s “malign and destabilizing activities” and the fact that Iran’s central bank, which is under sanctions, “has been a key actor in financing terrorism across the region and we have no confidence that funds would be used to fight the coronavirus.”
But mere monitoring and the occasional demarche are not enough. The Tehran regime shows no willingness to end its human rights abuses against its own people, curtail its WMD programs, or cease supporting regional terror proxies. Instead, in early April 2020, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) brazenly admitted to a reckless provocation against U.S. warships in the northern Persian Gulf. Iran’s IRGC Navy Commander, Admiral Alireza Tangsiri even threatened to attack U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers. Tehran’s agenda is clear: it demands the removal of all U.S. forces from the region—even while pleading for more Western cash to pursue exactly this objective.
In the May/June 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh laid out a comprehensive and sober-minded policy of regime change in Iran. Arguing that the Iranian regime’s revolutionary rulers will never simply “change their behavior,” Edelman and Takeyh urge the U.S. to adopt instead a “pragmatic and effective goal for U.S. policy toward Iran” that is based on reality instead of accommodation and wishful thinking. Pointing to the weakened state of the Islamic Republic, given a “disaffected populace” ever more desperate and willing to confront the regime’s security forces on the streets, an economy devastated by sanctions and the global oil market collapse, and now the coronavirus, the authors advocate covert action to support elements inside Iran already confronting Tehran’s rule, secret financial support, Farsi language information programs, and an open U.S. government public diplomacy stance that asserts our support for regime change. The Trump administration’s no-nonsense military posture against Iranian aggression in cooperation with regional allies and partners like Israel and Saudi Arabia must remain firm.
Much more will need to be carefully considered for a policy of regime change to succeed, but there will never be a better time to support the Iranian people’s decades-long quest to achieve their liberation from an oppressive, tyrannical regime that tramples their human rights and spreads chaos across the entire region. Most important of all, regime change in Tehran is in the national security interests of the U.S. “Time to try something different,” as Edelman and Takeyh conclude.
Clare M. Lopez is the Founder/President of Lopez Liberty LLC and a Senior Analyst for Ravenna Associates, a strategic corporate communications firm based in Virginia