What’s the Deal with Iran?
July 14 marks a year since President Barack Obama announced an unsigned agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), perhaps the most important diplomatic event in recent memory. A majority of Congress and Americans opposed it; Obama considers it his crowning foreign policy achievement. Given these starkly different views, and the high stakes for our national security, it is worth asking, after one year, what has the JCPOA accomplished?
President Obama claimed last year that, as a result of the JCPOA, “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off” for Iran. The Islamic Republic has reduced its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 97 percent, shipped out its spent fuel, cut by half its operating centrifuges, and junked the Arak plutonium reactor core. Together, these actions have extended from a couple months to perhaps one year the time it will take Iran to break out to nuclear weapons capability.
However, these are relatively temporary benefits. In seven years, Iran can begin R&D and production of advanced centrifuges that are 25 times faster than existing ones. And within 14 years, all meaningful restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program fall away, freeing it to pursue a robust nuclear weapons capability, legally and legitimately. The JCPOA doesn’t cut off Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons, but paves it.
Despite Obama’s promises that the JCPOA would bring full transparency, we know less about Iran’s nuclear program than before. Iran has been allowed to self-inspect suspicious facilities, while reports on known facilities from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remain woefully short on critical details, including how much uranium Iran is producing and stockpiling and how many centrifuges it is operating. Indeed, IAEA reports now provide less information than before by which to judge Iran’s nuclear program.
An even more important result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the effective legalization of Iran’s ballistic missile program. Contrary to Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances to Congress last year, the prior ban on ballistic missile development has been replaced by the pusillanimous plea, in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which incorporated the JCPOA, that “called upon” Iran to refrain from such activity-and in an annex on page 99, no less. The United States’ most important objective regarding Iran should have been to ensure it could not launch nuclear weapons at the American homeland or our allies. Yet now Iran is legally testing ballistic missiles that, within a decade, could deliver such weapons here.
Another key dynamic of the JCPOA is Tehran’s redoubled radicalism. President Obama argued that the JCPOA offered Iran the “opportunity” to follow “a different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict.” Supporters of the deal argued it would aid moderates such as Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s key foreign policy strategist, has since acknowledged that this was a manufactured narrative used to sell the deal.
Indeed, Rouhani and his colleagues continue to demonstrate just how hardline they all are. Rouhani last week bragged that the JCPOA “was the cheapest way to achieve Iran’s goals and interests,” including “liberating Palestine.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addressed Iran’s ambition to establish “a unified anti-U.S. and anti-Zionist front.” And Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati-who has declared, “We are an anti-American regime. America is our enemy, and we are the enemies of America”-was recently elected chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which selects the next supreme leader.
This regime has been strengthened financially, though perhaps not as much as critics feared. Reports differ, but it appears Iran has thus far repatriated roughly $30 billion. This represents about 7 percent of the country’s GDP and 20 times what Tehran gives its military/terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. This windfall has enabled Iran to increase its defense budget and its mischief-making abroad.
The JCPOA has demolished American credibility perhaps even quicker than expected. By agreeing to the JCPOA, the United States abandoned its longstanding Israeli and Arab allies, sending a clear signal of timidity, fecklessness, and unreliability reverberating worldwide to friends and foes alike.
Tehran has been emboldened to assert and insert itself more aggressively abroad. It is more active and aggressive in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen than ever before, arming the Bashar al-Assad regime, Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi rebels, and Iraqi Shiite militias. Iran has become more brazen in seeking to subvert American allies-stoking unrest in Bahrain and developing a presence on Syria’s border with Israel. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s terrorist Quds Force, with the blood of hundreds of U.S. soldiers on his hands, has become a regional rock star, publicly traveling to Russia, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Iran has also provoked the United States directly. It fired rockets that endangered a U.S. aircraft carrier. It test-fired ballistic missiles. And Iran even illegally detained ten U.S. sailors, forcing them to kneel at gunpoint, and then publicized the photos.
The Obama administration’s response to all these provocations has been to do virtually nothing, except in the case of the abducted U.S. sailors, when Kerry fantastically championed their subsequent release as evidence of improved bilateral relations resulting from the JCPOA. Any remaining American credibility vanished.
Other countries have noticed. Russian president Vladimir Putin threw his military might behind the Assad regime, reversing four decades of American success in keeping Russia out of the region. He also sold Iran advanced S-300 air defense systems, which had once been seen as a red line-until Obama last year said he was surprised they hadn’t been sold already. Reflecting this new reality, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the most pro-American leader in the world, has met with Putin in Moscow four times in the last year.
There has been one very positive if unintended consequence: The Sunni Arabs have felt compelled to collaborate more closely with Israel and with one another. They are now alone together and share a strong need to constrain Iran and its proxies, as well as ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia will now honor the Egypt-Israel peace treaty regarding Red Sea islands, prominent former Saudi officials have publicly appeared with Israelis, and the United Arab Emirates has permitted an Israeli diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi.
It is critical to begin undoing the JCPOA’s disastrous consequences. Pressing for new sanctions on Iran, however welcome, won’t suffice; there is little international support for such sanctions, and Iran is less vulnerable economically. Instead, expanding U.S. and allied ballistic missile defenses throughout the region, and threatening to use them to shoot down any Iranian-launched missiles, even if only test-fired ones, could exert significant leverage. If credibly delivered by the next U.S. president, it could help halt Iran’s ballistic missile program and begin to reestablish U.S. credibility among allies and enemies. The next president could also pressure the International Atomic Energy Agency to deliver on its promise of a fully transparent verification regime, even threatening to cut off IAEA funding, if that’s what it takes.
The United States must move beyond Obama’s embrace of Iran and his belief that Iran should “share the neighborhood.” Instead, we must challenge and oppose Iran and its allies in the region and constrain its capabilities and influence.
We should adhere to the JCPOA, which is not legally binding, only as long as it serves our interests. We should commit that under no circumstances will Iran develop its ballistic missile and advanced nuclear R&D programs. At some point we’re going to have to confront, whether diplomatically or otherwise, a more robust Iran and ensure that its nuclear program is ended. It could get very messy and very dangerous. And we will be able to thank President Obama and his crowning foreign policy achievement for putting us in that position.
Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on July 8, 2016.