Biden’s New Iran Deal Must Reign in Iran’s Proxies

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March 12, 2021 Topic: Iran Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Middle East Watch Tags: Iran DealJCPOAJoe BidenIranMiddle East

Biden’s New Iran Deal Must Reign in Iran’s Proxies

A failure to do so the first time set up the original deal for failure. Failure this time would mean war.

There is no doubt that the Barack Obama Administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, colloquially called the “Iran Deal,” was a great achievement of diplomacy. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was as much an uprising against the Shah, as it was against Washington and London. Yet thirty-five years later, the two antagonists did manage to come together and agree to an international treaty.

Nevertheless, the Iran Deal was critically flawed, in a way that made it unsustainable from the outset: it may have successfully contained Iran’s nuclear capacity, but left Tehran free reign to attack other American interests and allies in the Middle East. And Iran has long had an extensive network of proxies throughout the Middle East dedicated to just that goal, and who were always going to keep doing what they were already doing.

Iran provides funding, supplies, weapons, and training to its proxies. In fact, it often even directly coordinates the strategy and tactics of groups. These actors include the anti-U.S., anti-North Atlantic Treaty Organization Assad government in Syria and the anti-Israel dominant Islamist Hezbollah party in Lebanon. Other proxies also include the militant Hamas group in the Palestinian occupied territories and the Houthis in the Yemen civil war. Indeed, in recent years Iran has even begun helping the Afghan Taliban, with whom they were previously antagonistic, in their efforts to expel the United States from Afghanistan. On top of that, they have sustained a myriad of smaller terrorist groups and cells which carried out attacks against U.S. diplomatic and military assets for decades.

A Democratic-led Washington could take on those proxy threats regardless of the Iran Deal. But any anti-Iran hawk could later come in and use the activities of those proxies against American interests in the region as a pretext to sink the JCPOA and set America on the path of direct military confrontation with Tehran. And Washington certainly has no shortage of anti-Iran hawks who were (and are) keen to do just that.

So yes, it is imperative that President Joe Biden resurrects the Iran deal to make sure that Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons. The only other way to potentially stop Tehran from pursuing and achieving that goal is out and out war. Which, in the aftermath of the experience of Iraq, should obviously be avoided. Iran is a much bigger and more powerful country than Iraq was. And the people of Iran, even those who loathe the Islamist government, would hate Western intervention even more and would rally against invading forces. To say nothing of the fact that Iran has close economic and strategic ties to both Russia and China, and both would aid Tehran’s war effort. War is not only a morally wrong course of action: it would be a ruinous course of action for America’s interest. Washington may not lose that war, but they are likely to lose the peace.

But if war is to be avoided during this Administration and also subsequent administrations, the treaties between Washington and Tehran that would guarantee the peace need to politically sustainable long-term. Future U.S. Administrations must not have so easily accessible pretexts to rescind the agreements and re-initiate hostilities. And that primarily means that Tehran must be constrained from continuing its proxy wars against U.S. interests and allies in the region.

Of course, this works both ways. Tehran is also replete with anti-American hawks, and their own nationalist conservatives have strong political incentives to undermine any détente with America and instigate direct confrontation. For this reason, Washington must also make concessions. Above all, Washington must publicly acknowledge that it was the former President Trump who reneged on the JCPOA agreement first, that Tehran did in fact comply with the actual agreement itself despite their malign activities in the region. In addition, Washington must note that the people of Iran perhaps deserve some kind of compensation for the economic hardship following the reimposition of sanctions by the Trump administration.

All those things are true, and recognising them as such must be the foundation of any good-faith effort to rebuild the nuclear agreement. But in exchange for that good faith, it should be demanded of Iran that they respond with equal good faith and stop funding every proxy and terrorist group opposed to America in the Middle East. If an agreement is to be reached, it must be engaged in by both parties in good faith. And an agreement must be reached, because failure to reach that agreement is almost certain to lead to war, and in that war there will be no winners: Washington will lose status, money, power and the lives of American soldiers, the Islamist government of Iran will lose their lives, and millions of innocent people caught in the middle will suffer and die needlessly. That is a scenario no one can afford.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC.

Image: Reuters.