By Jonathan Cristol
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, a.k.a. “the Iran Deal”) is now six months old. At the time of its release, I wrote that the United States and Iran couldn’t achieve their jointly-held goals of destroying the Islamic State and al-Qaida, weakening the Taliban, and enjoying greater regional stability without “close and cordial cooperation between the two governments.” In my analysis, I made two major errors. The first was in assuming that the United States was the only major viable partner for Iran in these specific military endeavors, and the second was in confusing Iran’s interest in stability on its own borders with an interest in regional stability.
The JCPOA is not a bad deal on its surface, and once negotiated, signed, and passed, it was the only viable option. The European Union, Russia, and China wanted a way out of the sanctions, and had the United States negotiated and then failed to sign a reasonable agreement, the sanctions regime would have fallen apart. Ultimately, the deal will do a great job of postponing, if not preventing, Iran from going nuclear. But, like the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, a major initiative in the Middle East was undertaken without a high-level plan for what comes next. In the months following the negotiation of the deal, the Obama administration’s desire for its success has allowed Iran much more freedom of action than would any nuclear bomb.
In October, November, and December 2015, Iran tested precision-guided ballistic missiles. These missile tests do not violate the JCPOA. However, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, part of the U.N. sanctions regime on Iran, states that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” Thus, the test of these missiles warranted and received a strong reaction from members of the U.N. Security Council. President Obama’s reaction to the tests, however, was so weak that on Jan. 6, seven Democratic congressmen sent a letter to the president stating, “Inaction from the United States would send the misguided message that, in the wake of the JCPOA, the international community has lost the willingness to hold the Iranian regime accountable.” An additional 105 congressmen have called on Obama to “freeze the deal,” but President Obama seems to value the deal over all other interests and actions in the region. Iran is smart enough to exploit the president’s prioritization of the deal and will continue to test limits, pushing both literal and figurative boundaries. Iran, like Russia, is a revisionist state, and that such states test limits should come as a surprise to nobody.
Iran, like all states, values stable borders, which is one of many reasons why it has mutual interests with the United States in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Iran could still choose to work with the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the meantime it has chosen to work with Russia in the more complicated conflict in Syria instead. Iran and Russia share an interest in Bashar al-Assad’s continued hold on power and, more importantly, Russia is willing to expend blood and treasure in Syria in ways that the U.S. is not. Had the United States acted decisively in Syria long ago, perhaps when Obama’s red line was crossed, Iran and the U.S. might now be working together in a post-Assad Syria. Or, had the United States given up its increasingly unrealistic insistence that Assad must go—which it has already walked back from significantly—it could have been a viable partner for Iran. Instead, Russia gains a foothold in the Middle East, Assad will stay, and Iran is drawn from isolation into a close relationship with an even more dangerous pariah-on-the-precipice. Russia, Assad, and Iran have all outmaneuvered the United States in Syria.
Though Iran values stable borders, it does not necessarily value stability in the region. Countries that openly opposed the deal, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, and other states that quietly opposed it understood this fact far better than the United States. Now, Saudi Arabia finds an Iranian presence in three of its neighbors—Yemen, Syria, and Iraq—as well as a crashing economy. That is why Saudi Arabia will fight hard against Iran and its proxies in Yemen. It also explains why Saudi Arabia pushed back against Iran by executing Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which set off a dangerous chain of events that has yet to abate.
None of this should have come to pass. Nor was it inevitable that Russia would emerge as the rainmaker in Syria. The United States could have had its cake and eaten it too (after all, what else do you do with cake?). The Obama administration may have listened to its allies’ concerns, but it apparently thought it could manage the deal’s consequences and even regional realignment and instability. Perhaps if the administration had articulated a comprehensive strategic vision, before the Vienna talks, for how it saw the future of the Middle East, including a means of achieving those goals beyond just “no nuclear Iran,” things would be different. On the narrow subject of nuclear weapons, so far so good. But in the end, the Obama administration’s lack of vision, poor judgment, shocking naivety, and extraordinary fecklessness may make what could have been a good deal turn into a regional disaster.
Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristol. He reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.
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