Iran Strategy Council Reports
The final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has potentially grave strategic implications that directly threaten to undermine the national security of the United States and our closest regional allies. By allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state and enabling it to become more powerful and expand its influence and destabilizing activities – across the Middle East and possibly directly threatening the U.S. homeland – the JCPOA will place the United States in far worse position to prevent a nuclear Iran. This study aims to analyze and understand the likely impact of these consequences on U.S. national security, to help policymakers craft and implement a response.
The JCPOA will not prevent a nuclear Iran. No later than 15 years, the deal’s major nuclear restrictions will lapse, Iran will stand on the brink of nuclear weapons capability, and once again the United States will likely have to devote significant resources and attention to keeping Tehran from attaining nuclear weapons.
The JCPOA will enable Iran to increase support for terrorist and insurgent proxies, aggravate sectarian conflict and trigger both nuclear and conventional proliferation cascades. It will provide the expansionist regime in Tehran with access to resources, technology and international arms markets required to bolster offensive military capabilities in the vital Persian Gulf region, acquire long-range ballistic missiles and develop other major weapons systems.
Our long-standing allies feel betrayed – even angry – with the JCPOA, seeing it as a weakening of U.S. security guarantees and reversal of decades of U.S. regional security policy. The mere fact that such perceptions persist, regardless of their veracity, will undermine U.S. credibility, threatening to turn them into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Simultaneously, sequestration is diminishing the ability of the United States to respond to Iranian aggression, mitigate security threats emanating from Iran and protect U.S. regional allies. Leaving it with fewer and older ships and planes as well as fewer and less well-trained troops, these cuts will severely damage the U.S. military’s ability to project power in the region, even as the Iranian threat grows.
The United States is in a far better position to prevent a nuclear Iran today, even by military means if necessary, than when the JCPOA sunsets. The strategic environment will grow much more treacherous in the next 15 years. Comparatively, Iran will be economically stronger, regionally more powerful and militarily more capable, while the United States will have a smaller, less capable fighting force, diminished credibility and fewer allies.
Contrary to the false choice between support for the JCPOA and military confrontation, the agreement increases both the probability and danger of hostilities with Iran. Given the deleterious strategic consequences to the United States, implementation of the JCPOA will demand increased political and military engagement in the Middle East that carries significantly greater risks and costs relative to current planning assumptions.
The final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was only agreed last summer, and as predicted the strategic balance in the Middle East is beginning to tilt dangerously toward Iran, its allies and its proxies. This Council’s initial September 2015 study assessed that the JCPOA could have “grave strategic implications that directly threaten to undermine the national security of the United States and our closest regional allies.” Now, the pace and degree to which this shift in the regional balance of power is occurring exceeds even our prior analysis, and it threatens to overwhelm the ability of the United States to correct course.
As we asserted last September, the JCPOA fails to prevent a nuclear Iran, while granting Iran the resources to improve its military capabilities and increase its support for terrorist and proxy forces in the region. But Tehran is not simply receiving this strategic windfall passively. Ever since the JCPOA was officially adopted in October 2015, Iran has become startlingly more belligerent in both word and deed.
Increasingly, Iran’s military and proxy forces are engaged across the region. Thousands of Iranian soldiers backed by Russia and Hezbollah have turned the tide of the war in Syria, with their campaigns far outpacing even ISIS in numbers of civilians killed or forced to flee. At the same time, Tehran did not even wait for United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against its ballistic missile program to expire before undertaking two test launches. Since then it has conducted several more launches, with “Israel must be wiped off the earth” stamped in Hebrew on two of the missiles. It also brazenly provoked U.S. forces in the region by taking 10 sailors captive and firing missiles in close proximity to U.S. and allied ships in the Persian Gulf. These and other actions demonstrate how Iran’s dangerous regional ambitions are unmoderated, and in fact encouraged, by the JCPOA.
By tolerating these provocations, the United States has unwisely exceeded its own obligations under the JCPOA. In recent months, this includes: assuring Iran it would not be subject to new counterterrorism measures to restrict entry to the United States for foreign nationals; dismissing charges or granting clemency to more than 20 Iranians charged with sanctions violations or cyberwarfare; and delaying new sanctions for Iran’s ballistic missile tests.
Unaddressed, Iran’s violations of both the letter and the spirit of the JCPOA will likely worsen as its dividends from the deal grow. Energy export revenue, the Iranian regime’s lifeblood, will be rejuvenated now that sanctions are lifted. Its military capabilities likewise will improve as it regains access to international arms markets and advanced technologies under the JCPOA. With more butter and guns alike flowing to Iran, and from Iran to its proxies, U.S. policymakers should expect Tehran’s uptick in destabilizing behavior of the past few months to become ever more aggressive over the course of the nuclear agreement.
If these trajectories hold, the ability of the United States to influence events in the Middle
East will continue eroding at an alarming rate. The moment at which U.S. power is no longer sufficient to protect our regional interests and allies might arrive sooner than expected. This outcome is only encouraged when the United States reacts piecemeal or not at all to Iran’s serial encroachments. Waiting for a new Administration and Congress in 2017 is an equally high-risk approach. The United States urgently needs a coherent and comprehensive strategy to counter Iran’s unchecked and unabashed pursuit of its revisionist goals in the face of the JCPOA.
We believe there is a set of actions that can meet with bipartisan support to stanch the spread of Iranian-driven instability and conflict, and restore dwindling U.S. credibility and influence
in the region. These actions reflect the fact that Iran – with its adversarial and far-reaching objectives, and growing potential to accomplish them – is the preeminent national security challenge to the United States and our Middle East allies. To counter this growing threat, we recommend the United States articulate a comprehensive strategy with the following five mutually-supporting elements:
Prevent a nuclear Iran – Ensure compliance with the deal and the existence of credible military options to detect, deter and if necessary defeat Iranian violations. Congress should pass a resolution declaring U.S. policy to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability and authorize use of military force (AUMF) against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure under certain clearly-defined breaches of the JCPOA.
Confront Iranian aggression – Mitigate the JCPOA’s negative strategic consequences by recognizing Iran as the prime mover of conflict, rather than an honest broker, in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Strengthen ties with regional allies:
Preserve the United States’ military edge – Rebuild U.S. capability through recapitalization, investment and modernization of our forces.
Restore U.S. credibility – Strengthen the bedrock of U.S. deterrence with a clearer declaratory policy underscoring assurances of protection for our allies, laying out penalties for Iranian non-adherence to the JCPOA and stating other forms of Iranian belligerence against which the United States will respond forcefully. This is fundamental to clarifying U.S. intent and resolve toward Iranian behavior, and to restoring U.S. credibility around the globe.
Maintain our commitment to Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME) – Reach a new, expanded memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defense assistance that raises the total from the current $30 billion to as much as $50 billion over ten years. Given the growing range of shared threats, both since the current ten-year agreement was signed in 2007 and going forward under the JCPOA, greater cooperation is vital as the current agreement ends late next year. While still less than Israel might need, this amount is vital to any realistic hope of maintaining Israel’s QME as Iran’s annual defense spending could grow by more than $30 billion over the same period.
Improve regional coordination – Collaborate more closely and increase support to our Arab allies. A coherent shared strategy and appropriate capabilities, including theater missile defenses, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare platforms, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, are needed to deter or deny Iranian aggression. The United States must expedite the transfer of these capabilities.
Reengage wavering partners – Bolster significantly efforts to rebuild our relationship with countries being pulled into Iran’s orbit, principally Iraq.
The United States must acknowledge the stark reality of Iran’s regional ambitions in the face of the JCPOA. Now is the time to begin taking serious actions to confront the rising Iranian challenge.