A breakout moment for a new approach to Iran

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Mohammad Khatami, a sociable, intellectual clergyman who believed in the Islamic revolution but wanted more humanity and democracy in the government, unexpectedly won the Iranian presidential election on May 23, 1997. His victory marked the beginning of the Western left’s belief that that clerical regimes evolve into a less religious and repressive system.

But that doesn’t work. Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric known for his ruthlessness, became president this week, seemingly replacing Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. Joe Biden may be forced to answer a question presidents preferred to avoid: Would Washington use force to stop the development of Iranian nuclear weapons? American presidents have declared since 2002, when the Islamic Republic’s secret nuclear program became known, that Iran’s possession of such weapons is unacceptable.

President Biden appears unprepared to unleash the US Air Force, and the government cannot plausibly argue that opening up trade harms the theocracy’s aggressive, Islamist ambitions. This leaves few options beyond the economic sanctions. The White House probably doesn’t appreciate the irony that it is now allegedly considering further sanctions against Tehran to force Mr Khamenei to re-enter the nuclear deal after Mr Biden and his Iranian team ridiculed Donald Trump’s “maximum” sanctions diplomacy have pressure ‘campaign.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, with its sunset clauses and the nonchalance of aggressive inspections, made sense as an arms control agreement if the agreement was only one step in a process. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said just that in his own way, advocating the need to make the agreement “longer, stronger, broader”. That would not be necessary if the JCPOA actually, as the former Secretary of State John Kerry put it, stopped “all roads” to the bomb and did something against the ballistic missiles and the imperialism of the theocracy.

Messrs Raisi and Khamenei have made it clear that there will be no follow-up talks, however. By resuming the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington would at best grant the clerical regime tens of billions of dollars in sanctions for a short-term solution. Iran has already started building advanced centrifuges; With the JCPOA, Tehran can build 400 advanced machines in two years and install rotors in four years. Even as a mechanism to get the can off the ground, the nuclear deal no longer makes much sense.

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