The Iran Deal Didn't Change Tehran's Behavior
It is often argued that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has not constrained the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing activity in the Middle East or stopped its ballistic missile testing. When responding to this argument, one of the oddest rebuttals is the claim that such destabilizing activity and missile testing were not a part of the agreement and therefore are irrelevant. This line of thinking says that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, has constrained Iran’s nuclear activities for a ten to fifteen-year period and therefore is working. Those in favor of the JCPOA claim that, whether or not Iran follows the spirit of the law, Iran is in compliance with the agreement and that is what counts.
This rebuttal is odd because it reveals everything wrong with the agreement. While the JCPOA is certainly a considerable diplomatic achievement given the four decades of mutual enmity between the United States and Iran, its success ultimately depends upon improved relations between the two countries. However, both the nature of the regime in Tehran and the diametrically opposed interests between America and Iran make improved relations quite the pipedream. A deal focused narrowly on Iran’s nuclear ambitions places limits on the weapons one side can wield against the other without addressing the core issue—that Iran is an aggressive, revisionist power that is antithetical to the United States and its allies.
Yet hopes for improved relations are stated in the JCPOA’s preface, “[The signatories] anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” Supporters of the deal now say too much is being made of that line- a line that appears but once in 159 pages. But why would negotiators bother making such a grand proclamation at the outset of such an important treaty if it was not meant to be taken seriously? Perhaps it is because the JCPOA is about more than just nuclear weapons.
If there is anything supporters and detractors alike agree on, it is that Iran is a destabilizing force in the Middle East that acts contrary to American interests. Tehran supports numerous violent state and non-state actors, including the Bashar al-Assad regime of Syria or Shia Jihadist groups like Hamas of Gaza and Hezbollah of Lebanon. The first, Assad’s regime, is the focal point of a civil war that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands since 2011. The latter two, Hamas and Hezbollah, are militant terror groups locked in a decades-long war with Israel, America’s staunchest ally in the region. Finally, Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, weapons that, one day, would serve as delivery options for a nuclear arsenal, in addition to posing a persistent conventional threat to Israel and America’s allies in the Persian Gulf.
But, most importantly, the fact remains that the Iranian revolutionary regime was founded on anti-Americanism. Like North Korea, the two “bad boys” of the world derive their legitimacy in large part on their opposition to the United States and a rejection of American and, more broadly, Western, ideals. Not all Iranians believe this way, of course. But if anti-Americanism continues to serve as a raison d’etre of the Islamic Republic’s very existence, relations between the United States and Iran are unlikely to improve in the long-term. This also means they certainly will not improve over the short ten-to-fifteen-year lifetime of the nuclear deal.
So, while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has declared Iran in compliance with the agreement, this should serve as cold comfort to any who acknowledge the unfortunate realities of the regime in Tehran. Compliance with agreements are a very low standard; of course, Iran should hold up its end of the bargain. However, such a low bar should be placed within the context of Iran’s other activities in the region and throughout the world. When this is done, it becomes clear Iran is doing what it always does: the right thing when others are watching and behaving irresponsibly when it believes nobody is watching or when it thinks it can get away with it.
Ironically, supporters of the deal, along with critics of President Trump, accentuate the problems with the deal when claiming Iran’s non-nuclear activities do not violate the JCPOA. For instance, the left-wing Vox notes, “Iran’s support for terror and missile testing—while problematic—aren’t prohibited by the deal, so Tehran isn’t violating the pact by doing so.”
But in the same piece, it concedes, “Iran’s behavior is extremely problematic in a whole host of ways,” implicitly suggesting the United States could counter Tehran. When looking at the totality of both assumptions and facts surrounding the JCPOA, it matters little how well Iran adheres to a piece of writing if it’s overall behavior is indicative of a power uninterested in changing its ways. When followed to its logical conclusion, the deal is based on the shaky and dangerous assumption in that 2025 Iran will not be an enemy of the United States and the West. Furthermore, the deal assumes that Iran will not pursue nukes ever again because it will not feel the need to do so, just like many of America’s other allies in the Middle East.