The Iran Deal Didn't Change Tehran's Behavior
Though Obama tried to insist otherwise, the Iran nuke deal means nothing in the absence of improved relations with Iran. Which brings us back to the original question – what purpose does the Iran deal ultimately serve? If the JCPOA was not part of a larger strategy to bring Iran into the “community of nations,” or if the JCPOA did not expect more responsible behavior from Iran, then what was the point? To simply deny Iran nuclear weapons capability for ten to fifteen years with no plans for the day after? The absence of the expectation of better relations with Iran and more responsible behavior on their part reveals the JCPOA to be meaningless. The deal was a tactical move at best, that, for the United States and European Union, kicked the can down the road. All it did was end up buying time for the Iranians on their road to acquiring nuclear weapons.
An easy way to test this theory would be to ask President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry if they would have signed the JCPOA knowing Iran would ultimately acquire nuclear weapons, all the while remaining hostile to the United States, Israel, and the West by the time the deal expired. Though neither Obama nor Kerry would ever subject themselves to such intense scrutiny, we know the answer is an unequivocal ‘no.’
None of this is to suggest President Trump was right to withdraw from the deal on May 8. In fact, the United States stands to gain very little from doing so, though it will not lose a whole lot from doing so either. Overall, it was an unnecessary move. The deal has not resulted in the economic boon promised to the mullahs and the Iranian people by President Hassan Rouhani, who expended a lot of political capital in Tehran when the deal was signed. The protests earlier this year are proof-positive of serious problems lurking beneath the surface, even in the presence of the JCPOA. Moreover, if Iran does not alter its regressive tendencies, it will only continue to be viewed as a pariah by the world.
But the United States has given the Ayatollah and the mullahs a short-term political boost by pulling out of the deal without having developed a convincing case as to why nixing the JCPOA is in the American interest, if Iran was indeed in compliance. The JCPOA was not popular with the Ayatollah; it may be a major propaganda victory for him given the United States pulled out of the deal, as Iran can then do what it does best—play the role of victim. Most importantly, withdrawal was met with immediate opposition from the European allies; the United States would have found it much easier to deflect blowback if they could have presented a united front to the world, the same kind that made the 2015 deal possible. Otherwise, Iran will play their victim card to turn the European allies against the United States.
In the end, whether the U.S. had stayed in the deal or not, America and its allies must turn up the heat on Iran to continuously remind Tehran it is never off the hook. Strengthening the JCPOA is no longer an option and a new deal is not likely. This should not stop the U.S. from mending ties with European allies while reinforcing those with Israel and Sunni Gulf Arab allies. America should also counter Iran’s support for terrorism, tighten economic sanctions related and unrelated to the nuclear program, and, finally, be willing to forcefully push back against Iran if necessary.
When it comes to Iran, it is past due for the Trump administration to put its money where its mouth is on the matter. This means taking on Iran’s militant and terrorist group proxies both in Syria and elsewhere, responding resolutely to Iran’s reckless behavior in the Persian Gulf that threatens the free flow of commerce, taking measures to deter Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, and consistently demonstrating a willingness to defend American allies and interests with the use of force.
This last point has often been the missing ingredient in U.S. policy towards Iran. President Obama cast the JCPOA as part of a binary choice that would lead to either war or peace, with nothing in between. Even now, alarmists claim withdrawing from the deal or confronting Iran would place America on the path to war with yet another large Middle Eastern country. But this is a false choice- there’s already enough hostility between the two countries to have started multiple conflicts over the last few decades but deterrence has prevailed. Only once did the United States physically wage open warfare against Iran and that was thirty years ago. Finally, and more importantly, Iran’s aggressive behavior alone assured war would always loom on the horizon, whether or not the JCPOA was implemented in the first place.