NMDB and the JCPOA
Another way to answer is to consider any reason that keeping or killing the JCPOA would induce Iran to do more NMDB or less of it. Opponents of the JCPOA have tried to make an argument about financial resources unfrozen by the agreement being used for NMDB, but that argument has ignored Iranian economic priorities and any consideration of how the position of Iranian political leaders depends overwhelmingly on applying resources to improvement of the domestic economy. Most of all, it ignores all the other influences on Iranian foreign policy and presumes that the level of NMDB is determined by how many rials are in the regime’s bank account. The same anti-JCPOA voices who so often describe Iran as under the sway of crazed mullahs describe Iran instead, for purposes of this argument, as a nation of bookkeepers.
Here’s a more clear-sighted way to approach the answer. Which of these two possible Irans is more likely to rely on NMDB? Is it an Iran that is being reintegrated into the community of nations, that sees material benefit from negotiating restrictions on itself and then scrupulously observing those restrictions, and sees the opportunity for gaining more respectability and influence as long as it plays by the international community’s rules? Or is it an Iran that is kept isolated and punished, sees any significant agreement that it does negotiate get destroyed or reneged upon by other parties, that is the target of unending confrontation and hostility, and that is treated forever as a pariah? The answer should be obvious.
The JCPOA has been in effect long enough that if there are to be any signs of increased Iranian NMDB as a result of the agreement—and not just as an artifact of the flow of events elsewhere in the region—we should have seen that by now. But we haven’t. To the extent there is measurable change in Iranian conduct that could be considered NMDB, it has if anything gone in the opposite direction. Those opposed to any dealings with Iran were talking plenty about NMDB before the JCPOA was concluded and before there was any sanctions relief.
It is a safe bet that the same opponents will still be fulminating about NMDB in the coming years, no matter what happens to the JCPOA. If you believe, in the event the JCPOA is killed, that those opponents will later be saying, “Ah, I’m glad to see that, having gotten rid of that awful deal from Obama, there is now less Iranian NMDB,” there is a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.