The Big Picture
After much debate in Washington, President Obama has secured enough votes from Democrats in Congress to pass the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name for the Iran nuclear deal. Rather than being an end to hostilities between America and Iran, however, this agreement marks a new, more dangerous chapter in the conflict. It cannot be denied that this deal empowers the Iranian regime to unprecedented levels through sanctions relief and international legitimization. Beyond being able to have a vast, industrialized nuclear program whose most important restrictions have clear expiration dates, Tehran will gain far more resources and avenues to pursue destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
Because this deal puts Iran in a stronger position to pursue behavior opposed to American interests and those of U.S. allies, it is more pertinent than ever to have a clear strategy for dealing with the Islamic Republic and its place in the Middle East. Without such a strategic vision that all relevant policies are geared towards achieving, America’s regional policy will be confusing andwithout purpose, making it more difficult to attain political objectives. Therefore, it is necessary to ask what the strategy behind the JCPOA is and what kind of path President Obama wants to pave for his successors.
So far, the Obama administration has portrayed the JCPOA as simply a transactional agreement over Iran’s nuclear program that ignores its bad behavior, but many people believe the president sees this deal as the start of a rapprochement with Iran’s ruling ayatollahs. Regardless, U.S. allies are not comforted by either explanation and will pursue their interests as they see fit, like any state would do.
Without a clear strategic posture showing America’s commitment to the Middle East and stopping Iranian expansionism, regional allies will likely feel forced to counter Iran with countervailing aggression. Some may argue that this would be a positive development because countries in the region would be taking part of the security burden off of Washington’s shoulders, but this path would actually lead to increased conflict and instability in the Middle East – not a positive direction.
The Iran agreement will eventually be judged by whether it helps prevent nuclear proliferation and brings more stability and less violence to the region. Tehran, however, is showing signs of increasing bad behavior rather than stopping it, so the U.S. will need to oppose Iranian aggression to promote order and secure its interests in the Middle East, which requires articulating and implementing a strategy that goes beyond the nuclear program. If no such steps are taken, Iran will gain more influence and U.S. allies will respond accordingly with increasing disregard for Washington, inevitably leading to more sectarian conflict instead of less and likely undermining nonproliferation in the region.
This downward spiral would take place because American allies are primarily concerned with Iran’s subversive activity in the Middle East more than its nuclear program. Israel may be more worried about the nuclear issue because it views Iran with a nuclear weapon as a truly existential threat, but Jerusalem is very troubled by Tehran’s support to Hamas and Hezbollah and the Arab Gulf states are definitely focused on Tehran’s regional behavior. An unsigned editorial in The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, says as much, declaring, “What Iran does with the money [sanctions relief] will determine how the Gulf views the deal.” Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told John Kerry in July that everyone in the Middle East wants “a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear program,” but “if Iran should try to cause mischief in the region, we’re committed to confront it resolutely.” In other words, Tehran’s expansionism through proxies like Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen is the main issue and determinant of whether an agreement will work.
Therefore, regardless of any limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, regional allies like Saudi Arabia will take matters into their own hands to counter Tehran’s destabilizing actions unless America helps do so effectively. Yemen is an early example where Riyadh gave Washington almost no notice before launching airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis. That country is now a disastrous failed state and sectarian battleground, which also helps empower Sunni jihadist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is obviously harmful to U.S. interests, and Yemen is only one example of many (most notably Syria) showing how the region is descending into chaos because of American withdrawal and Iranian aggression.
Since the JCPOA was announced, the Obama Administration’s only public solution to counter Iran is to arm regional allies. Washington has said it will increase and expedite arms sales to Sunni Arab states and is trying to increase security cooperation with Israel, all in an attempt to alleviate fears over the Iran deal. This brings to mind a question Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, asked President Obama through a Jeffrey Goldberg article in The Atlantic:
You have argued that the Iran deal enhances Israel’s security and those of our Arab Gulf allies. At the same time, your administration has offered the Gulf states a huge security package by way of compensation and you have expressed frustration that the government of Israel has not yet entered into discussions with you to discuss ways to bolster its security. But isn’t this a paradox? If the Iran deal bolsters their security, shouldn’t their security needs be going down, not up?
While it is important for America to strengthen its allies against Iranian aggression, it is hard to see how the Middle East arming itself to the teeth, with Washington’s help or not, can end well. The reality is that the Sunni Arab states will not tolerate Iran’s destabilizing behavior. The growing bilateral divide in the region goes beyond geopolitical issues, concerning both religious (Sunni-Shia) and ethnic (Arab-Persian) rivalries that will not go away because of an agreement. And U.S. allies are not the only ones gearing up for battle. Iran will purchase large amounts of hardware from Russia and increase military ties with China, and this is even before the conventional arms embargo is lifted, which will allow Tehran to legally buy more weapons. This will lead to a qualitative advancement in Iran’s conventional military capabilities, not just a quantitative one.
Additionally, deterring Iran by providing allies with conventional weapons may not work well because Tehran generally uses asymmetric methods to cause trouble. Some members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force are on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria, but the regime prefers using proxies, which are primarily Arab rather than Persian, to pursue its hegemonic ambitions, all in an effort to project power and spread its influence. This strategy gives Iran a degree of plausible deniability, pushes fighting away from its borders, and keeps Iranians themselves out of the line of fire for the most part. There is also an asymmetry with respect to commitment of resources. For example, the U.S. can provide billions of dollars of advanced weaponry to the Gulf states, but Iran gives Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based terror proxy, only $200 million a year. While the former is very expensive, and the recipients may not be effective at utilizing the military aid, the latter is relatively inexpensive and produces a globally engaged terror militia that is more effective than most armies in the region. Additionally, Iran wants to subvert the Gulf states rather than invade them, so unless Saudi Arabia plans to go to war with Iran, military technology like Patriot Missiles will do little good at deterring Iranian aggression. In short, Tehran can largely circumvent conventional threats from American allies by continuing to destabilize the region through asymmetrical warfare and avoiding direct confrontation. Moreover, with more money at its disposal from sanctions relief to pour into its proxies, Iran can further exploit its asymmetric advantage if it so chooses.
The Way Forward
The United States must do more to counter Iranian behavior if it wishes to actually lessen the chances of nuclear proliferation and bring more stability to the Middle East. This chiefly requires a broad strategy different from the current policy trajectory. Whether the president thinks Iran’s non-nuclear activity can be dealt with on an ad hoc basis or that a rapprochement/strategic partnership with Tehran is possible, the reality is that U.S. allies will not accept either position and will act on their own if necessary. This will ultimately lead to more instability rather than less and is a direct consequence of the JCPOA.
Therefore, a proper U.S. strategy should not only prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but also contain and ultimately diminish the Islamic Republic’s influence in the region while simultaneously seeking a shift in Tehran’s strategy. This would be the only way to truly secure American interests in the Middle East and potentially end the nuclear issue.
For any specific policies to be effective, however, Washington needs to restore its credibility in the region so that Iran and other bad actors will take its threats seriously. One step the U.S. can take now is to clearly articulate specific, harsh penalties for Iran when it gives money to proxies like Hezbollah (which it has already done without consequence) and raise the cost for pursuing its destabilizing activities. America must also think creatively beyond arming allies to both effectively deter the Iranian regime and actually push back against it. The best form of deterrence would be to make clear to the Iranians that the U.S. will use military force if they ever move toward a nuclear weapon, a step that would bolster any American actions against or rhetoric regarding Iran’s destabilizing behavior.
In the end, putting the JCPOA into a larger strategic context is essential because the Iran deal on its own does not necessarily lead to a more stable region. Even if all parties abide by the agreement, which is unlikely given Iran’s track record of cheating, the issue of Iranian behavior becomes a greater threat to U.S. interests given Tehran’s stronger position, not to mention that in 10-15 years, the Islamic Republic’s breakout time to get a nuclear weapon will, in President Obama’s own words, “have shrunk almost down to zero.”
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