The key thing to understand about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear accord announced on April 2 between the P5+1 and Iran, is that it does not exist. The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said at one point, “We envisage being able to deliver a narrative,” adding that this might not be written and—these being forgiving times—Iran’s narrative need not match the West’s. In other words, nothing was signed or agreed to. This is the reason for the wild discrepancies between the American and Iranian JCPOA “factsheets”: both are drawing from a rolling text that is ostensibly to lead to a “final” or “comprehensive” deal and spinning it to their own respective advantage. The administration has as much as said so with its mantra that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
The purpose of the announcement of the JCPOA therefore was, charitably, to “build political momentum toward a final agreement“. Less charitably it was intended to “demonstrate progress in order to fend off congressional action,” as Obama’s former nuclear adviser Gary Samore put it. In that at least it was successful. Congress had been set to pass sanctions that would be triggered if Iran refused to sign a final deal verifiably surrendering a weaponized nuclear capacity by June 30; now those sanctions will not even be passed into law until after June 30. The legislation being moved by Senator Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to allow Congress a say in the Iran deal is likely to be watered down so much, in search of bipartisan support, that it won’t even require that “the administration certify that Tehran has not directly supported terrorist attacks against the United States”.
One can assess the “Lausanne framework” on the technical details and whether this prevents Iran gaining nuclear weapons, and the administration has sent out U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, armed with his PhD in theoretical physics and a ferocious hairdo, to sell the deal on these terms. But the real consequences of this diplomacy are on the ground in the Middle East, where the United States is underwriting the expansion of Iranian hegemony.
The nuclear accord is a means the Obama administration is using to the end of détente with Iran, which is based on the idea that the U.S. and Iran can mutually benefit from common interests, especially in combatting (Sunni) terrorists like the Islamic State. Obama has said that America will “hopefully at some point” stop Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region and will be in “a stronger position to do so if the nuclear issue has been put in a box.” Unfortunately this compartmentalization is a fantasy, and the concessions Iran has wrung from the U.S., in the nuclear negotiations and in the region, are permanent, and even if Iran is kept from nuclear weapons, it now has a regional Empire that has escalated the killing and chaos in an already unstable region and which poses a direct threat to Western security.
The dynamics of the nuclear negotiations were set early. The President accepted that “to reach an agreement at all, Iran would have to be able to preserve a narrative of not backing down”. Iran got more than the narrative. Until America signed the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA)—the six-month “interim” deal we’re now more than eighteen months into—in November 2013, there were six extant U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions saying Iran could not enrich uranium on its territory. The JPOA shredded those resolutions and by early 2014 the U.S. acceded to Iran’s “unbending position” in favour of an indigenous enrichment capacity, and lowered its “overall objective”. Instead of reshaping Iran’s capabilities by “dismantling structures,” which the Iranians resolutely refused to do, the U.S. looked to technical solutions to put Iran a year away from getting enough enriched uranium for a bomb (“breakout”). This “early yield would set the tone … with the U.S. making steady concessions over the course of the talks.”
The Iranian and American factsheets disagree about the extent of the concessions on some key issues:
Possible Military Dimensions (PMD)
America says, “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program.” Iran makes no mention of PMDs.
Iran was supposed to disclose information related to its previous work on weaponizing its nuclear program. It has not. This is not a minor issue.
Those competent to judge the technical aspects of the deal are few, but among them are David Albright and his team at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Left-wing counter-proliferation institution, which put out a report on the JCPOA.
“Unless [the PMD] facet of Iran’s nuclear program is dealt with, no agreement should be made,” ISIS say. If a final deal lifts sanctions before Iran has given a full accounting of its nuclear-weapons-related activity it would imperil “regional security and peace”. Last year, Albright noted that signing a deal without establishing the baseline of what weaponization work Iran has done would “throw the IAEA under the bus“. A final deal must allow surprise inspections at military sites like Parchin, where Iran is believed to have tested nuclear detonators, and access to key individuals in Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, ISIS note. The JCPOA does not include strong enough provisions for the PMDs, and if this is transferred to the “final deal” it would be a poison pill.
By the Iranian factsheet, “all of the sanctions will be immediately removed after reaching a comprehensive agreement”. America’s factsheet says, “The architecture of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance,” and sanctions related to terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place.
Announcing his “historic understanding” with Iran, Obama said Tehran would receive “phased” sanctions relief, both from America and the UNSC, “as Iran takes steps to adhere to the deal.” However, not only did Iran’s factsheet say Iran would get immediate relief, but a week after the deal was signed both Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said no deal would be signed that did not immediately lift sanctions. Perhaps sensing that Congress would interfere with this aspect of the diplomacy, Obama has now said Iran will receive up-to-$50-billion as a signing bonus.
The idea of “snap-back” sanctions is also very problematic. Sanctions do not offer quick solutions; they are cumulative, and it took twelve years to get to a point where sanctions really affected Iran. Obama added a new round of UNSC sanctions and after the passage of the sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank in late 2011—which Obama opposed—effectively blockading Iran from the entire global financial system, the Iranian currency underwent a precipitate collapse in value in late 2012, and tumbled even further in early 2013. But after the JPOA, by early 2014, Iran’s economy was stabilizing, and even growing. Obama said Iran would get $7 billion in sanctions relief from the JPOA; the real figure is at least $16 billion and probably nearer $20 billion.
Even if Iran got less immediate relief in a final deal than is suggested by the Iranian version of the JCPOA, Iran has restored its position with the sanctions relief already given, and with the signing bonus for a final deal and the fighting needed against the economic lobby within the West this process has created, which opposes new sanctions and is pushing for the erosion of all remaining ones, it would take years to restore the kind of economic pressure the U.S. had on Iran in late 2013. And this assumes that sanctions would be passed in a timely manner after an Iranian violation; there is no reason to think that is true.
Charles Duelfer, who wrote the final report on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program, pointed out that if the enforcement mechanism has been given to the UNSC—something that seems to have been done largely to checkmate Congress into accepting the deal as a fait accompli—then it is hostage to China and Vladimir Putin. In Iraq in the 1990s, the UNSC’s fragmentation—and Saddam’s payments to Russia and France—ensured that nothing serious was ever done against Baghdad. By 2000, Saddam was essentially victorious: all the international pressure had turned on America and Britain to lift the embargo, rather than everyone else to help contain the dictator. Judging by this history, the effort to reimpose sanctions is likely to isolate America, not Iran.
Claims in the U.S. factsheet that an as-yet-non-existent “dispute resolution process” will be set up, or media claims since that the enforcement mechanism would “bypass” the UNSC, are as ephemeral as the JCPOA itself, so much so that even James Baker has voiced concern.
Asked directly about this, Obama’s answer was not encouraging:
[A] request will have to be made [for an inspection of a suspect site]. Iran could object, but … that it is not a final veto … [S]ome sort of international mechanism will be in place that makes a fair assessment as to whether there should be an inspection, and if they determine it should be, that’s the tiebreaker, not Iran.
Given the time needed for this process—whatever it turns out to be—”snap-back” is not the best description for the process by which sanctions would be reimposed, and this throws into doubt the entire premise of the negotiations, namely keeping Iran one-year from “breakout”. Pushing aside the doubts that one actually can devise a system that keeps a State one-year from breakout, former head of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden, former deputy at the IAEA Olli Heinonen, and Ray Takeyh have argued persuasively that one-year simply isn’t enough time to stop Iran.
First an Iranian violation would have to be identified. Iran’s history is one of never doing anything that rises to the level of a technical breach. “The Iranian regime cheats incrementally, not egregiously, even though the sum total of its incremental cheating is egregious,” Mark Dubowitz says. Assuming an Iranian violation is identified, then it has to be technically verified, then politically verified at the UNSC over a Russian veto, and even if it was determined to be a serious breach and sanctions were then imposed, it would be a couple of months out from one year, and it would be after Iran had had the massive cash infusion from the sanctions relief. It took twelve years to get a sanctions system that was anything like effective in place; once it is dismantled it is not going to “snap back” in time to stop Iran.
Additional Protocol (AP) to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and inspections
The AP ostensibly allows inspectors greater access to military sites suspected of nuclear-weapons work. Iran says it will be implemented “on a voluntary and temporary basis”; America says “Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol,” and will allow the IAEA access to “both declared and undeclared facilities.”
Having Iran sign the Additional Protocol would be a positive step—though Iran has signed it before, in December 2003, and stopped adhering to it in February 2006. But it would hardly be sufficient, as Heinonen has explained. The AP “does not provide the IAEA with unfettered access”—the necessary anywhere, anytime, inspections. ISIS agrees that “the Additional Protocol alone is not sufficient to obtain access quickly enough”.
Insufficient as the AP is, Iran has not even conceded to that. The U.S. factsheet says that the “IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, … including the use of the most up-to-date, modern monitoring technologies.” Those are not the same things. The first part is clearly untrue, at least for now, as ISIS notes: military sites like Parchin remain off-limits. Further, does “regular” mean that notice has to be given? What if Iran objects? What if Iran starts a new facility off-the-books? And the technological fix is not encouraging. One of the ways Stuxnet worked was by sending false video footage through the cameras in the enrichment chambers. The Iranians would have be able to replicate this tactic had they needed to, but Zarif has since announced that no online cameras will be allowed in enrichment facilities.
The factsheets and public statements actually do agree on some things—and none of it is cause for optimism about a final deal.
Iran will have 6,104 centrifuges. This was claimed by the U.S. as a two-thirds reduction from Iran’s current 19,000 centrifuges. This is misleading in three ways. First, Iran has 9,400 operational centrifuges, so it got to keep two-thirds of them. Second, not a single centrifuge will be destroyed: they are being “placed in IAEA monitored storage”. This means, if Iran decides to dash for the bomb, its entire nuclear infrastructure can be put back online. And finally the U.S. started this process with the official position that Iran must “give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions” i.e. zero enrichment. In private, the U.S. would concede an absolute maximum of 1,500 centrifuges—a token nuclear program. But now Iran has 6,000 centrifuges, which is conveniently too small for civilian energy but just the right size to produce a nuclear bomb.
Iran had been conceded so many centrifuges on the understanding that it would only have 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at any one time, sending the excess to Russia, which would (assuming Iran had no hidden facilities) keep Iran one year from breakout. However, right before the deadline Iran declared it had no intention of sending any of its LEU abroad; it is apparently now to be put in “IAEA monitored storage,” again leaving it available if Iran breaks out of this agreement. But Iran still got the 6,000 centrifuges.
In December 2013, Obama said Iran had no need of the Arak heavy-water plant, the plutonium path to the bomb, or the Fordow facility, which is buried into the side of a mountain near Qom, if its program was peaceful. Iran has been allowed to keep both, albeit with technical alterations designed to remove the immediate danger.
According to the U.S. factsheet, Iran will “redesign and rebuild” Arak, with the core being “destroyed or removed from the country,” and all spent fuel being sent out of Iran. This is one of the few areas of the JCPOA that ISIS unambiguously praises (“a model for this agreement and future arms control efforts”). ISIS adds: “[Arak] will produce plutonium, but in smaller quantities and of a lower quality” that necessary for nuclear weapons. But this is still a troubling concession: if Iran’s intentions were wholly peaceful, it should not have had any objections to converting Arak into a light-water reactor.
There is no excuse for leaving Fordow open and operating 1,000 centrifuges, even if they are ostensibly only using medical isotopes. ISIS notes that because of the massive research and development loophole in the JCPOA—”far more than should be allowed”—Iran can develop its more advanced centrifuges over the ten or fifteen years (another point where the factsheets disagree) and install them once the deal elapses, which would make Fordow “capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon within a few weeks”. And that’s just if Iran keeps the deal.
Obama has claimed Iran kept the terms of the JPOA, but in fact Iran has violated it in at least three ways:
- The above-mentioned PMDs, about which Iran has answered just one question of the dozen put to it by the IAEA.
- Iran has more than the 300 kilograms of LEU it is supposed to. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who recently wrote in a devastating op-ed about the JCPOA in the Wall Street Journal, previously noted that the JPOA contained an “unusually circuitous mechanism” by which Iran was allowed to build up its LEU and was supposed to dissolve it down to the required limit before the expiry of the “interim” deal’s deadline. Iran therefore has larger stocks than it is meant to for most of the period between renewals of this “interim” accord, “adding to its leverage in the follow-up negotiations”.
- Most significantly, in November 2014, the IAEA reported that Iran had fed uranium hexafluoride into an IR-5 centrifuge, one of the more advanced models. Obama was quick to say this wasn’t a violation and was even a mistake, but it was not a one-off; it was clearly Iran probing where its red lines were.
Iran found that the President was keener to preserve the diplomatic process than to punish Iranian transgressions. This is an insight that has been reinforced time and again, including with the President’s extending his own deadline for the JCPOA once he realized Iran was using it against him—it meant a lot politically to Obama and nothing to Iran, so Tehran pressed Obama to gain concessions in order to let him have his deadline. The fact that the deadline was missed by two days anyway, and still the U.S. stayed at the table, told Iran all they needed to know about who wants this more.
Since the JCPOA announcement, Russia has said it will complete a deal to give Iran an S-300 air defence system, which would defend against an effort to forcibly disarm Iran. In a best-case scenario, Putin doesn’t really want to help Iran get nuclear weapons but is engaged in the classic Kremlin tactic of “causing problems in order to solve them“. Given Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, it is likely in that theatre he would extract the concessions—not a contribution to world peace or order. Iran has also announced that it plans to complete previously announced new nuclear facilities. And it has been discovered that Iran has received missile components from North Korea since the JPOA was signed—and Obama “cherry-picked the intelligence” to ignore this.
Isn’t this better than the alternatives?
There was one prominent person prepared to go into cyber-print to say the JCPOA non-deal was The Best Thing Ever, but generally advocates of this process will eventually fall back on saying that this flawed agreement is better than the alternatives (see here, here, here, here, and here), and those alternatives will usually be portrayed in hysterical terms. Advocates of more sanctions are told that Iran has gone from 2,000 to 19,000 centrifuges under sanctions since 2003, and only crazy neocons and other specimens of ill-pedigree seriously consider the military option.
As mentioned above, the 19,000 centrifuges talking point is misleading. In reality, Iran under sanctions has advanced about 800 centrifuges each year. Not brilliant, but less than if Iran had billions more dollars. The idea that Iran would, if these negotiations collapse, dash for the bomb is belied by the above-mentioned history: Iran’s strategy is one of incrementalism, of legitimizing each minor cheat before it moves onto the next one. The aim should be to raise the cost of each of these increments. The idea that unilateral U.S. sanctions are ineffective is also mistaken: if sanctions give buyers a straight choice—do business with Iran and sacrifice access to the U.S. market—then “U.S. sanctions can succeed even if there is a perception that they are unfair,” as Takeyh notes.
On the thorny question of the military option, by some estimates it is now too late. Certainly the Obama administration now thinks it is too late for Israel: “our pressure” prevented an Israeli strike, the administration has boasted. True or not, this is dreadful negotiating: After President Obama’s catastrophic retreat from his own “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons of mass destruction being used against civilians, nobody in the region believes the U.S. would strike to disarm Iran, but there was a wariness in Tehran about Jerusalem. Now that lever has been voluntarily thrown away, too.
One anti-strike argument that should be discarded is that “you can’t bomb knowledge”. A truck driver from Wisconsin can have the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon; he does not therefore need to be conceded a full-scale enrichment capacity. Saddam’s chief nuclear scientist, Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, has made clear that even after the regime had the knowledge, the difficulty was in acquiring the equipment to build a bomb. It has taken Iran twenty-five years to get this far, acquiring the materials on the black market and through shell companies, because it has no indigenous capability to build the necessary infrastructure—and that was while nobody knew what was going on. Now, with the sanctions in place banning the sale of sensitive materials and many intelligence services closely watching Iran, if Iran had its nuclear infrastructure forcibly removed there is no reason to think it would be back anytime soon.
Ehud Barak thinks a military strike against Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities would “be closer [in scale] to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden than to the invasion of Iraq,” and would set Iran back five years. Barak also notes what too often gets left out in this debate: a strike would set a precedent and make Iran legitimately fear a repeat.
Maybe Barak’s wrong about the scale of a military operation to disarm the Islamic Republic, but it would greatly help Western leverage if more leaders spoke as he does and made clear that they were prepared to use force if it came to it. The paradox of strategy is that those who least want war should be the most adamant in restoring the credibility of the military option. At the present time it is obvious to everybody that the American threat of force constrains only the American President, who is determined to never find Iran in so serious a breach of its obligations that he has to order airstrikes on its nuclear-weapons facilities. With the dismantling of the sanctions and Iran’s lack of fear that it has any “red lines,” it is backing the U.S. into the exact position Obama doesn’t want to be in: the binary choice of allowing Iran the bomb or bombing Iran to prevent it.
Bottom Line on the JCPOA
The signing bonus now being offered means Iran has every incentive to sign a “comprehensive agreement” to pocket this money. With Iran’s infrastructure remaining in place—even if in storage—and Iran able to continue to develop its advanced centrifuges under the banner of “research and development,” it means Iran would be able to accumulate income as the sanctions are removed while reducing its breakout time. Obama himself—accidentally—conceded that, after a comprehensive agreement finished, breakout will be “almost down to zero“. Should Iran simply exit the deal at some point before that, after it had perfected its advanced centrifuges, it would be able to dash to a bomb well before any sanctions could even be reimposed, let alone take effect.
Somewhat worse than that is the fact that, as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his controversial speech to Congress, “Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal.” The concessions that have now been baked into a final agreement—the erosion of the sanctions plus the early lifting of the rest and/or the massive signing bonus, the sunset clause that lifts all restraints after ten or fifteen years, the massive research and development loophole, the untouched ballistic missile program—and the ambiguous predicament with regard to inspections and PMDs, which show every sign of being tilted in Iran’s favour, mean that for the duration of the agreement, according to Heinonen, Iran would be “a nuclear-threshold state“. After that, Iran could “walk, not sneak, into the nuclear club.”
The regional powers know this. Saudi Arabia has already said it will “match the nuclear capabilities Iran is allowed to maintain,” and it is an open secret that the Saudis have a nuke on the shelf in Pakistan. Egypt would likely follow suit, as would Turkey. If Turkey has a nuclear weapon things in the Balkans get very interesting with many States there not remembering the Ottoman era with the fondness of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu. In short, if Obama succeeds in signing a “comprehensive agreement” with Iran on the present terms he will ignite the very regional proliferation his diplomacy was supposed to prevent, and demolish his hopes for a “nuclear-free world”.
The real problem with the nuclear deal
So why sign up for a deal this awful? Because preventing Iran getting nuclear weapons is not the main aim of this diplomacy.
A couple of months ago I wrote:
[T]he nuclear negotiations are being used by the Obama administration to further its ambitions of a regional accommodation that allows Obama to claim as his lasting legacy the lowering of the American footprint in the Middle East.
Obama wanted to replace U.S. hegemony in the region with a “concert of powers” system that would “balance” the interests of America’s allies against Iran and Russia, allowing the U.S. to withdraw significantly. Something would have to fill the gap left by the U.S., and the President has become increasingly convinced U.S. interests are best served by Iran being that something. The nuclear agreement was the means to draw Iran into the regional security architecture:
[Since] the central policy wasn’t Iran’s disarmament but Iran’s cooperation in (allegedly) stabilising the Middle East, what the U.S. really wanted was a nuclear deal that could get them past this thorny issue and to more pleasant pastures like fighting the Islamic State. … [T]he process was the interest, which allowed Iran to turn the tables; now Iran could threaten to walk away from the negotiations if it didn’t get what it wanted. Iran gained sanctions relief, and every six months Iran can now say, “Pay up, or we leave.”
As Michael Doran recently phrased it, while the President has convinced many that he is negotiating an arms-control agreement, “In fact, the primary goal is détente with Iran.”
One incautious administration official even gave voice to this idea:
The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what everyone agrees is the biggest threat to the region.
Iran is reading these tea leaves too: while building up their nuclear capacity and shortening the breakout time should they decide to build the bomb at some point, Iran is extracting the most crucial concessions on the ground in the region—by the mere threat of developing nuclear weapons. Actually having a nuke now would ensure Iran is a pariah, but this threat has brought Iran to the brink of normalization—and it didn’t have to change anything, neither its militant revolutionary ideology nor its violent efforts to export that revolution. Once Iran has regional dominance and a commercial lobby in the West in favour of maintaining cordial relations, if it goes for the bomb later, there is much less that can and will be done about it.
I have written of the copious evidence that Obama’s policy is détente, but more has surfaced recently. In Iraq, Iranian proxy Shi’ite militias led the offensive against the Islamic State (Daesh) in Tikrit and received U.S. air support. The U.S.-Iranian coordination in Iraq is flagrant:
In the battle to retake … Tikrit … the United States and Iran have found a template…: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between.
The atrocities committed in Amerli, where Iranian proxies conquered the town with the help of U.S. airstrikes, nor the numerous sectarian atrocities by Iran’s proxies in the Tikrit campaign, seem to have caused any pause for thought about the wisdom of this “template,” though the people of Mosul were watching, and if the Shi’ite militias are now sent into that city every military-age Sunni male—knowing that they are considered fair game by the militias—will look to Daesh for protection.
At the same time as the U.S. began airstrikes in support of Iran in Iraq, the U.S. voiced support and provided some logistics for the Saudi-led military operation to push back the Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen. Incongruous as this seemed, the disparity in the support Iran and Saudi Arabia received cannot be overstated, and the U.S. legitimized Iran’s push into Yemen. The Saudis had tried to shut Iran out of Yemen but the U.S. insisted that “dialogue” between Riyadh and Iran’s assets was the needed settlement. Where previously the U.S. was the leader of a coalition in the region and punished those who tried to disrupt the order it enforced, now adversaries’ interests are being accommodated. Thus, the pro-Iran tilt continued, despite a public relations campaign.
Obama himself has linked this deal with regional order, promising Iran that he will let them keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime going and join them in the fight against Daesh if they sign a deal and push breakout beyond Obama’s term. Obama has even refused to commit to protecting the Syrian rebel army he is training—which is only designed to fight Daesh—if the Assad regime attacks it because he does not want to do anything to weaken Assad, i.e. cross Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has been able to orchestrate a multinational Shi’ite jihad that moved tens of thousands of furiously anti-American militiamen connected to Iran’s global terrorist network into Syria to rescue Assad without any American pushback—unlike, say, the “Khorasan Group“. And the U.S. has allowed its best assets inside Syria, notably the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and Harakat Hazm, to be destroyed by al-Qaeda while U.S. planes were overhead because Obama will not properly support a force in Syria that can oppose both Iran’s proxy regime and the Salafi-jihadists for fear that Iran will retaliate against American servicemen and diplomats in Iraq. In plain language: America has handed Syria to Iran, and will not act in Syria without Iran’s say-so.
Iran is quite happy for the U.S. to launch airstrikes against Daesh and Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria—and Iran could not have been more pleased than when the U.S. struck at Ahrar a-Sham, alienating all Syrian oppositionists. It was one thing to attack transnational forces like Daesh and Nusra, but Ahrar has expressed no intentions beyond Syria’s borders. The optics of the U.S. hitting Ahrar said that the U.S. was now attacking all of Assad’s enemies. The U.S. strikes in Syria have allowed Assad to “perform an economy of force“; he focuses, as he always has, on the nationalist rebels. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies waged a propaganda war from the beginning of the uprising to portray it as a jihadist conspiracy incited from outside, and the Assad/Iran regime has done everything it can to make takfiris the dominant force within the insurgency, with the hope that it will rally the population around the regime and draw in international support to put down the insurgency. The U.S. has played along better than Assad/Iran had any right to hope.
All of this doesn’t even mention Afghanistan and Lebanon, where Iran is engaged in vigorous efforts to expand its influence, and the Obama administration has offered no resistance, and it was all done while Iran was under the constraint of sanctions. There can be no doubt that Iran would use funds freed up by sanctions relief to export terrorism and expand its Empire.
This is quite clear to people in the region. On one side, Iran and its allies “view this deal as a capitulation by Washington,” former DIA director Michael Flynn said, and they didn’t make a secret of this. On the other side, there were some rather unconvincing noises from Riyadh in support of this deal, likely to avoid the treatment meted out to Netanyahu, which included trying to topple his government. (In an interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama warned the Arabs that they shouldn’t be making a fuss over Iran because the real problem was their internal arrangements. Not exactly a subtle message.) In reality, the Gulf States see this deal as empowering Iran by freeing up cash to fuel Iran’s imperial march across the region, and they see this as the U.S. deputizing Iran to combat Sunni terrorism—mostly by using Shi’a terrorists like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Lebanese Hizballah, and the Iraqi militia Kataib Hizballah. Nor is it just the Arab governments. Mouaz Moustafa, a Palestinian refugee and senior adviser to a secular Syrian political opposition group, says there will definitely be “increased support for Assad as a result of lifting sanctions.”
There is reportedly a split within the administration on whether a deal will moderate Iran. In the Friedman interview, Obama said he hoped a final deal would empower people inside Iran who put “an emphasis on the economics and the desire to link up with a global economy”. But this is wholly irrelevant: what the deal does is strengthen the most hardline forces around Khamenei, who are seen as vindicated: they will emerge from this with their nuclear infrastructure intact and threshold weapons capacity, sanctions relief, and a sphere of influence from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. Obama’s deal strengthens the hardliners inside Iran, and gives them the means to expand across the region. Tony Badran has argued that this is not accidental. “Obama’s prophecy that meek Iranians shall one day inherit the regime is a cover for aligning with Iran now, under its current leadership,” Badran writes. “It’s the Qods Force run by the extremists of today [like Qassem Suleimani] that Obama is counting on, not the meek Iranians of tomorrow,” and “[a]s Obama’s letter to Khamenei makes clear, securing the deal simply legitimizes this partnership”.
Arab liberals like Hanin Ghaddar—of Shi’a background, incidentally—feel utterly betrayed by this policy, which has the U.S. picking the “Resistance Axis” over the democrats and allowing the States in the region become “yet another governorate in Iran’s empire,” where the liberals are destroyed as furious sectarian fights take hold and the men with guns take the lead, strengthening extremists on all sides as communities close ranks for the sake of security. “Our deaths are simply collateral damage in the process of striking a big bargain so that Iran can get its nuclear bomb and rule our region,” Ghaddar writes. “Reality now tells us that today’s America does not care about our aspirations for freedom.”
Even if, however, ones takes the “soft” questions like human rights out of the equation—though these are by far the most consequential matters over the long-term—the realpolitik case for supporting Iran as a stabilizing, counter-terrorist force simply falls. One would have to ignore Iran’s record of terrorism, which includes assistance to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But one also has to ignore the fact that Iran’s Imperium is fated to instability. As Aboud Dandachi likes to say, “Not every failed State is an Iranian protectorate, but every Iranian protectorate is a failed State”. The structures Iran works through are deeply sectarian and produce many more Islamic State members than they kill. Iran simply doesn’t have the power to bring order to the Fertile Crescent. In Tikrit, there are reports of up to 6,000 Iranian proxies killed and U.S. airstrikes had to be called in—in a battle with 500-750 Islamic State jihadists. Moreover, Iran doesn’t want to stabilize the region, at least not right now. Under the cover of this war—while Shi’ites in Baghdad and Alawis in Damascus are terrified of the Takfiri Caliphate—there are many fewer dissenters to Iran colonizing Iraq and Syria, and those who do object have a curious way of shuffling off this mortal coil.
Many “realists” seem to have bought the idea of Iran-as-stabilizer but it should be they who are the most alarmed at the tilt in the balance of power toward Iran, an unavoidable facet of a policy seeking “balance” in the region because while Iran has asymmetric structures like the Quds Force, the Sunni Arab States do not. The only regional force that can resist Iran is Israel, and for well-understood reasons, not solely of capacity, there is a limited amount Israel can do—though let it be said Israel has acted to blunt Iran’s bid for WMD and has carried out strikes in Syria that help the entire opposition to the Resistance Axis. Doran put it best: “Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium is strengthening the player, Iran, with the greatest tools for projecting power … Détente, therefore, will deliver disequilibrium, the exact opposite of the effect intended.”
Kissinger and Shultz concluded their op-ed by noting that even if Iran is prevented from having nuclear weapons, “Unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts … [and] America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony.” Worse, this will not lead to a stable, if nasty, new order in the Middle East that allows America to withdraw, but will “necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms.”