The Nuclear Deal has spurred Iranian aggression
November 24, 2017
Defenders of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is known, have argued that Iran’s aggression was intentionally not addressed by the deal.
For example this week, Federica Moghereni, the high representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said, “The Iran deal has been designed to address one thing only: the Iranian nuclear issue.”
One problem with this argument is that it isn’t true. The agreement addressed a number of other issues between Tehran and the rest of the world, and when it did, it went easy on Iran.
For example, in UN Security Council Resolution 1747, passed in 2007, Iran was categorically prohibited from importing or exporting arms. However, in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, Iran was allowed to export weapons with prior approval from the Security Council.
Before the nuclear deal, Iran was categorically prohibited from developing ballistic missiles. However, resolution 2231 weakened the language and ended all restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile development after eight years.
Contrary to Moghereni’s assertion, the JCPOA did indeed address Iran’s other challenges, unfortunately it did it by loosening restrictions on Iran.
The argument that the deal was only about Iran’s nuclear program is a dodge. That the deal would embolden Iran was predictable and, indeed, was predicted by numerous experts in 2015.
For example, former State Department official Aaron David Miller wrote in a commentary for CNN in April 2015:
Sanctions relief will make the mullahs more secure and give them the resources to buck up, not tamp down, their regional aspirations... A nuclear deal will avert a crisis over the nuclear issue for now. But unless it really does change Iran’s behavior, we’ve only bought ourselves a bigger one down the road.
In a similar vein the editors of The Washington Post noted in March of that year that the Obama administration’s behavior during negotiations was encouraging Iranian aggression:
While the nuclear negotiations have continued, Mr. Obama has refused to support military action against the Assad regime in Syria, in accord with his letter’s reported promise, and his administration has tacitly blessed an ongoing, Iranian-led offensive in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. It took no action to stop the ouster by an Iranian-backed militia of a pro-U.S. Yemeni regime. Nor has it reacted to Iran’s deployment of thousands of Shiite fighters to southern Syria, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The nuclear deal has encouraged even more Iranian aggression: by weakening restrictions that had earlier been imposed on Tehran, by giving Iran billions, and by turning a blind eye toward Iranian aggression.
Iran’s increasing boldness in recent weeks cannot be separated from the JCPOA no matter how much its supporters wish to.
On Oct. 15, Iraqi troops backed by Iranian-backed Shiite militias attacked and captured the city of Kirkuk in the Kurdish autonomous area. The city had been in Kurdish hands since the Kurdish Peshmerga had chased ISIS out in 2014. (Regular Iraqi troops fled instead of fighting). The capture of Kirkuk was a blow to Kurdish hopes for independence and further strengthened Iran’s control over Iraq.
Last week, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile towards the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, marking an escalation of the Houthis against Saudi Arabia, leading to the creation of a coalition to fight Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
Also last week, Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon fled to Saudi Arabia and announced his resignation, blasting Iran for controlling Lebanon through its proxy, the terrorist group Hezbollah, and suggested that his life was in danger. Hariri’s father had been assassinated in 2005, and an international tribunal has indicted five members of Hezbollah in his killing. David Daoud wrote that Hariri left Lebanon after meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and expressed that Iran was responsible for Lebanon’s stability.
In addition to asserting even greater control over Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon since the nuclear deal was agreed to two years ago, Iran has stepped up its support with the help of Russia and of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. That has included the capture of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban area, late last year.
As time goes on, Iran is working toward capturing the necessary territory in Syria to establish a land link to the Mediterranean Sea, and be in a position to attack Israel directly.
Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior has increased since the agreement on the JCPOA. This is something that President Donald Trump noted in his Oct. 13 speech announcing his administration’s new strategy towards Iran:
The nuclear deal threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic lifeline, providing urgently needed relief from the intense domestic pressure the sanctions had created. It also gave the regime an immediate financial boost and over $100 billion dollars its government could use to fund terrorism.
Overall, Trump, unlike his predecessor, understands the need to confront Iran across all of its threats. And while Trump’s instincts appear to be sound, his actions, so far have not matched his words.
The capture of Kirkuk came just two days after Trump’s speech. The United States did nothing to help the Kurds resulting in “the Iranians laughing off their faces in Tehran while the Kurds are humiliated and defeated,” The Israel Project’s Senior Fellow Julie Lenarz said when assessing the situation.
The U.S. has done little against Iran since then, though it has backed up both Hariri and Saudi Arabia. Still, that’s not enough.
John Hannah, a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned this week that Iran is on the verge of establishing a land link to the Mediterranean and if it is successful in doing so, Trump’s “Iran strategy will be stillborn, embarrassingly consigned to history’s ash heap within a few short months of its unveiling.”
Hannah said it won’t be easy, and highlighted that it will be necessary for the U.S. to stand behind the Syrian Democratic Forces—a Kurdish and Arab group—even after the battle with ISIS is over.
If Trump nevertheless decides that Iran’s hegemonic designs must be foiled in eastern Syria, he can still do so. With the support of U.S. air power and Special Forces, the SDF remains an extremely capable combat force. Its tens of thousands of Sunni Arab fighters are an especially valuable asset in Sunni-dominated Deir Ezzor. From that vantage, it’s entirely within the U.S. coalition’s capabilities to decide that they—not the pro-Iranian forces—will seize Abu Kamal and the Syria-Iraq border from the Islamic State. Washington can assure its SDF partners that it will remain in Syria even after the Islamic State is defeated to assist them in holding strategic terrain and assets that they have liberated—even in the face of intimidation, threats, and attacks from the Syrian regime and its backers.
Iran’s hegemonic appetite was whetted by the JCPOA. If Trump chooses, he stands a chance to deny Iran one of the strategic gains it has been working to achieve.
It’s not too late to do the right thing. Yet.
David Gerstman is senior editor and policy analyst at The Israel Project.