Two years on, the Iranian nuclear deal is a failure.
Some will surely protest that this cannot be; on Monday, the Trump administration just indicated that it plans to certify Iranian compliance to Congress. But that certification does not mean what it may seem to.
But of course there’s no evidence of that. This was the central flaw of the Iran deal: There was never any reason to suspect that the nature or aims of the Iranian regime had changed. Iran of course has scaled back its nuclear advances, but the Supreme Leader and his cronies still seek to obtain a nuclear weapon to fortify their regime, advance Iranian regional hegemony, and threaten Israel. Until this changes, the Iranians can safely be expected to use any deal to better pursue those aims. This is why it matters when H. R. McMaster, director of the National Security Council, explains that Iran has violated the spirit of the agreement.
So why does Trump plan to certify compliance? One debilitating weakness of the Iran deal is that there are no punishment mechanisms short of re-imposing sanctions, at which point Iran can reasonably argue that the deal is dead and it is free to pursue whatever nuclear advances it wants.
As Eric Lorber and Peter Feaver wrote in Foreign Policy, “An effective sanctions regime consists of a legal basis, the institutional capacity to implement the sanctions, and the political will to carry it through. This course of action only provides for the first.” Indeed, if the sanctions are rejected by Russia or opposed by European allies eager to continue trading with Iran, both of which are likely in the absence of truly flagrant Iranian violations, the sanctions regime will not be effective. It might not even get off the ground and certainly will fail to pressure Iran the way our previous sanctions regime, which took a decade to ratchet up, did. That’s why formally alleging Iranian misconduct is extremely risky: It would unleash Iran and offer only weak and disunited sanctions.
This means that incremental Iranian cheating will likely continue to go unpunished. The best we can do is remain neutral, neither certifying compliance nor alleging noncompliance. But even with this meek third route, declined by the Trump administration this time, the deal leaves us helpless to stop Iran from slowly — never radically — preparing itself to push for a nuclear weapon once the deal’s restrictions wear off in ten and 15 years.
That’s why the deal will be certified. But why is it a failure? Some might say that pushing back a confrontation with Iran by ten or 15 years is a major accomplishment. We’ve bought ourselves time, claimed the deal’s advocates, over and over again.
Philip Gordon and Richard Nephew, two of the Obama-administration officials who negotiated the Iran deal, now repeat this mantra in The Atlantic. The deal was supposed to “buy time for potential changes in Iranian politics and foreign policy,” they write. But have we actually bought ourselves time?
What if it is Iran that has been buying time, using the sanctions relief to put itself in a stronger position for an eventual confrontation? What if, at the end of the Iran deal, Iran is stronger economically, geopolitically, and domestically, while we find ourselves with less power in the region and bereft of an international sanctions coalition?
Then, you might say, we got swindled.
In 2015, the Iranians were weak. Years of sanctions had decimated the Iranian economy, putting pressure on the regime at home. Iran was also facing an impressive and unified American-led international coalition dedicated to halting its nuclear program.
By the time the deal expires, Iran will be in a position of strength. Pocketing the money from the deal and once more able to export oil, the Iranian economy is recovering. Should oil prices ever rise, expect to see a boom. Iran has also quickly re-integrated itself into the global economy. Iranian exports to Germany, for instance, rose 26 percent in 2016. Germany’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry expects trade to rise to 5 billion euros by 2020. Do you think Germany will be eager to punish Iranian cheating and re-impose sanctions? Of course not.
It will be nearly impossible to reassemble a unified international coalition against Iran in the near future. Our allies will have been coopted by Iranian oil and money. Already Iran has locked in large contracts with major American and European companies including Boeing, Airbus, Total, Peugeot, Danieli, and Saipem.
The same story holds in geopolitics. Iranian influence is advancing through the Middle East. Iranian-controlled Shia militias are gaining power through their victories against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has amassed hundreds of thousands of missiles with which to attack Israel. New reports show that Iran is now manufacturing missiles in fortified, underground facilities in Lebanon. It is also continuing to improve its ballistic-missile program, testing out medium-range missiles on ISIS. These missiles will soon be able to target Riyadh or, if placed further afield, Jerusalem.
Economically, internally, militarily, and geopolitically, Iran is now in a stronger position than it was before the deal.
This is all allowed under the nuclear deal, as its advocates continue to remind us. But that is the problem. Without violating our agreement, Iran is putting itself in position to seriously damage our allies should we try to stop it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Indeed, one of Iran’s first actions after the removal of sanctions was to purchase advanced S-300 air defense missiles from Russia. With each year, it will become tougher and tougher, more and more costly to intervene in Iran.
All of this points toward a frightening conclusion: Economically, internally, militarily, and geopolitically, Iran is now in a stronger position than it was before the deal. Iran is more ready for a confrontation in the future. It is better prepared to challenge the international community and build nuclear weapons. The deal didn’t buy us time, it turns out — it bought Iran time to recover from sanctions, coopt our allies and businesses, and advance across the Middle East.
It is worth recalling that Iran refused to sign any deal that would surrender its right to enrich uranium. It refused to be pushed beyond a one-year “breakout time,” the time it would need, given its allowed capacities, to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon. It ensured that the most important provisions of the deal would begin expiring after eight, ten, and 15 years. Why? Because Iran has never given up on its ambition to possess nuclear weapons. It merely agreed to delay its final nuclear push in order to get into a more secure position. Consequently, when the deal expires, Iran will be ready to pounce.
Finally, what is America doing with the time that we supposedly bought? We are watching as our coalition splinters, as Iran fortifies itself and its proxies gain power in other lands. We are watching as the North Koreans, surely able to transfer technology and know-how to Iran, advance their nuclear program. In doing so, we make the benefits of nuclear capabilities crystal clear to the Iranians.
The Obama administration signed a deal to kick the can down the road. But the crucial variable was always what would await us down that road. Right now, it looks like an ambush.
— Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review.