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.
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.
America has options that do not involve taking a hands-off approach to Iran or invading and occupying it. While the risk of a major conflict should never be dismissed, no nation in the Middle East, Iran included, is spoiling for a fight if they do not have to directly participate. The sheer number of non-state militants, terrorists, mercenaries, and unconventional forms of warfare have created a unique environment where all participants can express their disdain for one another without having to throw a single punch themselves. As cynical as this sounds, it means the United States and its allies can fight back against Iran without having to lob a single cruise missile towards Tehran. And if instead the U.S. ever had to launch such an attack, it is ready, as always.
In 2015, Democratic presidential candidate Jim Webb broke with his party by expressing opposition to the JCPOA, stating the deal was “accepting the eventuality that [Iran] will acquire a nuclear weapon.” History will be the judge of the validity of this remark. But, even if one were to assume good faith on the part of everyone who negotiated and signed the Iran deal, either the JCPOA merely delayed Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons at great cost or it was a gamble based on the misguided belief better relations would arise in its wake, thus ending Iran’s nuclear quest.
If the answer is the latter, then it was quite a gamble with billions of dollars and the lives of millions at stake. If history proves Iran to be after nuclear weapons after all, the irresponsibility to pursue the JCPOA should be treated with the same level of disdain and skepticism directed towards the decision to waste thousands of American lives in Iraq based on flawed premises.
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in the National Interest and War Is Boring.