The Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that was implemented in January 2016 has emboldened Iran and given its leaders additional resources to pursue their regional hegemonic ambitions.
Two years after the deal was reached in July 2015, it is already under strain, as the Trump administration seeks to countenance Iran’s regional resurgence through economic sanctions, renewed US engagement in Syria and vital support for regional alliances that the Obama administration had reigned in, neglected or undermined.
With US Iran policy under review and an October deadline looming for the US president to declare Iran in full compliance of the deal — an unlikely event at this point — it is worth taking a second look at the deal and assessing its outcomes so far.
The Iran deal was touted as a milestone in diplomacy and a non-proliferation success, despite the fact it kept Iran’s industrial-sized nuclear infrastructure intact. It failed to clarify unanswered questions about its military dimensions. It came short of imposing stringent international inspections on suspect military sites. It allowed for the continuation of Iran’s ballistic missile programme. And it guaranteed that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could be eventually fulfilled, albeit with some delay into the next decade, once all current restrictions are eventually lifted.
In short, it awarded Iran for almost two decades of bad behaviour.
As if this were not enough, rosy predictions by Iran deal supporters have so far failed to materialise. The economic windfall of the deal, its supporters believed, would open Iran up to the world, thereby inducing its leaders to behave more responsibly. Iran’s economy is definitely opening up to the corporate world — but Iran’s behaviour has not changed.
Airbus and Boeing are locked into contracts for the delivery of hundreds of planes to Iran’s aviation sector, much of which remains under sanctions for its assistance to the Syrian regime’s ongoing war against its own people through the daily delivery of weapons and military reinforcements. Their main client, Iran Air, has been a key participant in this operation, flying fighters to Damascus at least 134 times since January 2016.
Yet aircraft orders continue to pile up, with Iranian airlines currently slated to buy more than 300 new aircraft, spare parts, maintenance and personnel training over the next decade.
Large corporations like Renault are also lining up to strike lucrative deals with the regime in key areas of its economy, such as the car industry and the energy and telecom sectors even as these are sometimes dominated by local companies controlled by Iran’s revolutionary guards.
Iran’s improved economic circumstances have also enabled the regime to go on a spending spree in military procurement, without even waiting for the end of a five year arms embargo.
Iran’s economy is thus set to recover. Yet, despite the influx of capital, corporate executives and business opportunities, the regime is doing nothing to moderate its ways.
Iran has arrested dual nationals on trumped-up charges of espionage, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, both British citizens. Though estimates vary, there are approximately 40 foreign nationals currently detained in Iran under very harsh conditions – they are, for all intents and purposes, hostages of the Iranian regime.
The Iranian cabinet remains firmly in the hands of regime hardliners despite the cosmetic facelift it received with the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president and his suave foreign minister and master regime-apologist, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Rouhani government mostly contains former senior officials of the ministry of intelligence — hardly the stuff of reform and moderation. It shows: Iran’s human rights record continues to be abysmal, with internal repression against ethnic and religious minorities continuing apace and executions, including of minors, at an all-time high.
Nor is there evidence that Iran’s illicit procurement channels have been rolled up by Tehran. That would be a sign that the regime is sincere when it says its nuclear programme has only civilian goals. Yet old networks continue to operate and seek dual-use technologies abroad.
Iran has also conducted numerous ballistic missile tests in defiance of UN resolutions. Missiles are an integral component of a nuclear weapons programme which requires not only the highly enriched uranium and its weaponisation into a viable explosive device, but it also needs the means of delivery to a target — precisely the kind of long range ballistic missiles Iran is developing and testing.
It clearly was a mistake on the part of the six world powers engaged in negotiations with Iran to allow the ballistic missile dossier not to be at the centre of their diplomatic effort.
Iran is thus on track to perfect the technology needed to deliver a nuclear payload by the time current caps on its enrichment capacity are finally lifted.
And then there is the ongoing violence Iran is fomenting in Syria. Bashar al-Assad and his truculent regime would be history by now had it not been for Tehran’s resolve not to let the Assad clan fall. Iran’s military intervention in the war, alongside Russia, saved Assad. It also provided his henchmen with cover to perpetrate war crimes that include the extensive and repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians and combatants alike, the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Sunni countryside, widespread torture and the mass murder of political opponents and their families.
It continues to do so, and in the process it has supervised over the emptying of the country by its people, half of whom are either internally displaced or destitute refugees abroad. Meanwhile, Iran has built up a 21st century Shia equivalent of the international brigades that went off to fight Fascism in Spain in the 1930s.
Much like their predecessors, the Shia militias are fighting a totalitarian version of Islam — that of the Jihadist Islamic State — on behalf of a different totalitarian vision, and once they win they will seek to export it to other places in the region, ensuring that regional sectarian conflict will outlast the Syrian civil war.
While Iran is sustaining the Assad war effort, it is also ensuring that Hezbollah’s rearmament continues apace. Iran has helped Hezbollah improve its fighting capabilities in the last six years. To this end, it has sought to transfer — and mostly been successful at delivering — new advanced weaponry and missiles to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is also developing an indigenous capability to build rockets — with Iran’s guidance and assistance. In short, Iran is setting the stage for a third round of battle between Israel and Tehran’s Lebanese terror proxy. This time it will be worse than all previous rounds combined.
Everywhere one looks the evidence is overwhelming that the nuclear deal has emboldened a resurgent Iran to increase, not control, its worst ideological instincts and geopolitical ambitions. Given that Iran, in less than two decades, could have the means to build nuclear weapons within weeks of deciding to do so thanks to the deal’s provisions, the idea that a nuclear compromise that lifted sanctions and let Iran rejoin the international community would moderate the conduct of its rulers over time, was central to the deal’s success. Clearly, this has not happened yet and all the signs are that it will not happen in the future either.
The deal can only be salvaged if much tougher measures are added; or by helping the demise of Iran’s regime.
The latter seems noble but is hardly achievable and should not happen with outside intervention anyway; the former could occur if Western economic leverage is restored. If Iran’s economic windfall from the deal was rolled back, Iran would be put to a choice again — between seeing its economy fade or holding on to the promise of economic development in exchange for a veritable about-face in its political behavior.
It is entirely understandable that the United States under its new administration has already embarked on a path to pass new sanctions, both through congressional legislation and by executive fiat. In the past few months the Trump administration has blacklisted, under existing sanctions, more Iranian entities involved in the ballistic missile project than Barack Obama had done in years.
Congressional sanctions aim to target Iran’s revolutionary guards as a terrorist entity and to designate its business interests. These actions are all justified and permitted under the current deal as they do not re-impose prior nuclear sanctions the US suspended once the agreement was reached.
Yet Iran has signaled repeatedly that any one of these actions may trigger an Iranian abandonment of the nuclear deal. Europe and Britain are, as usual, caught between a rock and a hard place. Washington remains their traditional ally and partner but European capitals are committed to the nuclear deal and its success at all costs.
Europeans would much prefer to ignore the aforementioned warning signs and consign the Iranian dossier to history — a problem solved that need not be revisited.
The recent attendance of European dignitaries in Tehran at the second inauguration ceremony for President Rouhani, even as his jails hold European nationals hostage, are evidence of this sentiment.
Iran remains a threat to regional stability and core European national interests and values. While neither Europe nor the US should willingly and carelessly violate the deal, they should certainly push back against Iran’s regional ambitions, against its aggressive military procurement, against Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad, and against Iran’s inexcusable behaviour taking hostages.
Trouble no doubt lies ahead with an emboldened Iran whose regional ambitions were left unchecked for far too long by Washington and continue to be condoned in European capitals.
Europeans should thus consider joining Washington in making common cause against Iran. After all, the mistake of leaving the ballistic missile out of the deal now creates an opportunity — namely to build leverage against Iran’s missile programme through new economic sanctions.
They should also contemplate targeting Iran’s worst human rights abuses, starting from the hostage taking of Western nationals. Europe should retaliate in kind, scaling down relations or expelling diplomats.
The ultimate goals of the deal were to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the hope that by the time its temporary restrictions expired, Iran would have morphed into a more benign, responsible and benevolent power.
The opposite is happening. We do not have the luxury of time at this point and therefore, unless the provisions of the deal are backed by renewed leverage against Iran in the forms of economic sanctions, we should not delude ourselves. Within less than two decades, this regime will have the technological know-how and capability to quickly develop, deploy and deliver nuclear weapons.
Recognising that Iran still remains an implacable foe of the West whose ambitions must be contained would be a good step in the direction of fixing some of the agreement’s worst flaws.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC