Iran_negotiations_about_Iran's_nuclear.jpgEnergy & Environment Risk & Security 

The JCPOA Matters Less Than You Think

By Jonathan Cristol

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. “The Iran Deal,” is one year old. Today, the Middle East is more dangerous and less stable than it was a year ago, in part because of the JCPOA. The agreement itself was a good policy, but was built on a stack of bad policies.

The JCPOA did not cause the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, or Iraq; nor did it cause the ongoing conflict and proxy wars between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Iran has engaged in covert action against Saudi Arabia since the 1980s, while Saudi Arabia provided $20 billion in aid to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. In 2011, Iran mounted a convoluted scheme to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington while he dined at his favorite Georgetown restaurant. Iran has always had regional interests and ambitions, and it has never been afraid to pursue them. The deal did not change anything except marginally decrease Iran’s political and economic costs in its pursuit of regional ambitions. Iran has correctly calculated that the U.S. will tolerate an increased level of Iranian aggression, so long as it does not develop nuclear weapons. But, if the sanctions regime had collapsed without an Iran Deal, as I argued it would six months ago, there might have been a nuclear-armed Iran with similar interests and ambitions.

The Obama administration lied about the immediate need for the JCPOA and presented a false binary of “war or deal.” President Obama said, “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war—maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.” This statement is what, in political science jargon, is known as “a lie.” We know now with certainty that the president used the “deal or war” narrative to disparage the deal’s opponents, and make its passage seem imperative. After the deal, critics of the administration, including myself, thought that Obama believed the JCPOA would bring some sort of change to Iran. I was incorrect in that assessment. The administration had no illusions that this would actually change the behavior of the Iranian government. In an interview with The Atlantic, Susan Rice, the current U.S. National Security Advisor, said, “The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open up a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran….No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.” And indeed it has not been any more benign. Instead, it has become even more hostile toward the U.S.

This hostility should not surprise anyone. Despite Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s public protestations that the JCPOA has not opened up Iran’s economy to the West as much as promised, he has also been very clear that the JCPOA was a one-shot deal and did not indicate any change in relations between Iran and the U.S. The Islamic Revolution is premised on opposition to the “The West,” and to the U.S. and Israel in particular; and while the Iranian government can be pragmatic, it is also ideological. To show his own people that the JCPOA is not a prelude to internal reform, Khamenei cracked down on insufficiently modest hijab, detained dual citizens, and closed moderate newspapers.

One major American criticism of the JCPOA is that it has not stopped Iran from conducting ballistic missile tests. One major Iranian criticism of the JCPOA is that its people have not seen any of its economic benefits. Both of these criticisms are rooted in domestic and not international politics. The JCPOA only dealt with the international sanctions specific to the nuclear program, while the U.S. has separate sanctions on Iran that deal with the ballistic missile program. It should not be news to the U.S. that ballistic missile tests do not violate the JCPOA, and that Iran’s general strategy is to abide by the letter of the law, not the spirit. For example, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 “calls upon” Iran to cease missile tests, which Iran argues is a request, not an obligation. As Khamenei has said, “[The U.S. has] engaged in a lot of hue and cry over Iran’s missile capabilities, but they should know that this ballyhoo does not have any influence, and they cannot do a damn thing.”

Just as Washington must have known that the deal would not stop missile tests, Tehran knew that it would not result in an immediate lifting of all sanctions. They knew what they were agreeing to, yet it makes sense from a domestic political standpoint to continue to lambast the U.S. The Iranian press attacks on perceived U.S. duplicity is having an impact—Al-Monitor reported that “a majority of 54 percent [of Iranians] now opposes military cooperation with the United States against the group that calls itself the Islamic State—a reversal from the 59 percent who favored such cooperation after the JCPOA was signed.”

The JCPOA benefits Iran more than it does the U.S. It made sense for Iran to agree to the deal. It has allowed Iran to pursue a more aggressive policy throughout the region. And Iran’s perceived need for a nuclear weapon decreased as U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan decreased. However, linking the international sanctions regime to the nuclear issue made it impossible to reject the agreement without losing the support of China, Russia, and our European allies. It was a good agreement that rested on years of bad policy. Critics of the deal are correct that it punts the Iranian nuclear issue 10 years down the road; but that isn’t nothing—it was the best we could have gotten, and we were in no position to reject it.



Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. He has written two previous posts on the JCPOA: The Iran Deal: The Best of Bad Options and Rethinking the Iran Deal.  Follow him on Twitter: @jonathancristol. 

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

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