Friday marks the second anniversary since Iran signed a landmark nuclear agreement with six major world powers led by the United States. Over the past two years, the Islamic Republic has violated the nuclear terms of the deal at the margins and pursued a much more aggressive military campaign across the Middle East, confirming concerns first raised by the deal’s critics.
Already last year, Bret Stepehns, then a columnist with The Wall Street Journal, observed:
Mr. Obama says Iran is honoring the nuclear deal, but German intelligence tells us Tehran is violating it more aggressively than ever. He promised “snapback” sanctions in the event of such violations, but the U.S. is operating as Iran’s trade-promotion agent. He promised “unprecedented” inspections, but we’re not permitted to inspect sites where uranium was found. He promised an eight-year ban on Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles, but Tehran violated that ban immediately and repeatedly with only mild pushback from the West. He promised that the nuclear deal was not about “normalizing” relations with a rogue regime. But he wants it in the WTO.
A year later, the consequences of the nuclear deal have gotten even worse, and the accuracy of its critics’ predictions have been repeatedly confirmed.
Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, warned a week after the deal was announced that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would strengthen its hold over Iran as a result of the deal. Saeed Ghasseminejad and Emanuele Ottolenghi, both fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), similarly cautioned that the groups most likely to be strengthened by the nuclear deal were businesses controlled by the IRGC and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
A week before the deal, Reuters published an assessment bolstering Smith’s forecast.
The IRGC has been instrumental in supporting the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and has significant ties to Shiite militias in Iraq.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of FDD, described the IRGC in March as “Tehran’s instrument of domestic repression and overseas terror.” They argued that the group, which answers directly to Khamenei and is estimated to control one sixth of Iran’s economy, should be designated a terrorist organization.
Ghasseminejad reported in April that the IRGC, many of whose former members now serve in Iran’s parliament, has been allocated $7.4 billion under the 2017-2018 budget. The sum accounts for 53% of Iran’s military spending and reflects a 24% increase over the previous year. The IRGC’s growing influence and budget means that “Tehran’s capacity to destabilize the region is gaining steam,” Ghasseminjad observed.
The threat of Iranian destabilization of the Middle East was one of the likely outcomes anticipated by numerous experts ahead of the deal. The ongoing killing and ethnic cleansing in Syria, the terrorizing of Sunnis in Iraq, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and Hezbollah’s growing hold over Lebanon all bear out those predictions.
The threat was summed up by Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf in April 2015, who noted that “focusing on the Iran nuclear deal without simultaneously addressing Iran’s regional threat is a serious error.”
A systematic, 35-year campaign of regional meddling, destabilization, and extension of Iranian influence is seen as a much bigger issue. And restoring cash flows and assets to Iran, as well as giving the country greater international standing, clearly exacerbates that threat. It gives Tehran the wherewithal to continue to underwrite terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, prop up dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and buy ever greater influence in places like Iraq and Yemen.
Former State Department official Aaron David Miller observed later that month that the Obama administration “will be enabling [Iran’s] rise in the region because of this nuclear diplomacy, not constraining it.”
Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz also wrote at the time that “Unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts.”
Mehdi Khalaji, Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffrey, fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, similarly observed that “Iran’s imperial ambitions are not new,” and that even with a nuclear deal, “do not expect Iran to compromise its principles any time soon.”
Iran’s heavy involvement in the conflicts wrecking Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; its growing hold over Lebanon; and even its nearly-realized goal of establishing a land bridge from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea all reflect the accuracy of these predictions.
Moreover, while Iran has not outrageously violated the deal, it did not wholly abide by it, either.
At the time the deal was agreed to, Dubowitz observed that it was structured in a way that “incentivizes” Iran to cheat “incrementally, not egregiously, even though the sum total of its incremental cheating is egregious.”
This is what we’ve seen. Iran hasn’t been caught with enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, but it has exceeded the amount of heavy water it is allowed at least twice; it has tested numerous ballistic missiles in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which implemented the deal; and as Benjamin Weinthal recently reported, German intelligence once again caught Iran seeking “products and scientific know-how for the field of developing weapons of mass destruction as well [as] missile technology.”
Predictions that the nuclear deal would strengthen the IRGC, that it would lead to further regional destabilization by Iran, and that Iran would would cheat incrementally have all been borne out.
President Obama claimed in August 2015 that the deal “cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb,” and mocked critics of the interim deal, saying, “They insisted Iran would ignore its obligations. They warned that sanctions would unravel. They warned that Iran would receive a windfall to support terrorism. The critics were wrong.”
Two years ago, Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew dismissed concerns that Iran would use the windfall it received from sanctions relief to destabilize the region. Given its numerous obligations, Lew said, “Iran is expected to use new revenues chiefly to address those needs, including by shoring up its budget, building infrastructure, maintaining the stability of the rial, and attracting imports.”
Unfortunately, Iran has predictably chosen to use its windfall to boost its defense budget and finance its military adventures across the Middle East.
Given that the nuclear deal’s critics had their fears confirmed, despite assurances by the Obama administration, maybe they were also correct when they pointed out that the deal didn’t actually cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.
David Gerstman is Associate Editor of The Tower. Follow him on Twitter @soccerdhg