Provocative missile tests. The 'Death to America' slogan. The US needs to respond.
The year since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program was announced has been a strategic windfall for Iran and a disaster for the United States. Many of the deal’s shortcomings were glaring from the beginning, yet they have been magnified by serial and gratuitous U.S. concessions to unilateral Iranian demands.
Both parties are about to formally choose their presidential nominees, and whoever becomes president must develop a coherent strategy to address the challenges created by the JCPOA and its implementation. The first step is admitting there’s a problem: Current U.S. policy is guided by several fallacies the Obama administration employed to sell the deal over disapproving majorities in Congress and the American public.
The administration claimed this agreement would prevent a nuclear Iran, but in reality it allows Iran to ramp up its nuclear infrastructure and then expires. As the name suggests, the JCPOA is touted as comprehensive, however, it only addresses one component of nuclear weapons capability – enrichment – with no restrictions on the other two: means of delivery and weaponization activities.
Administration officials emphasized the agreement would make Iran’s nuclear program transparent, yet we know dangerously less now than before the JCPOA. This undercuts another claim, that there are no side deals, since the reducing reporting by inspectors on Iran’s enrichment under the agreement had not been spelled out before it was announced.
In Congressional testimony administration officials repeatedly said the United States would maintain pressure on Tehran during the JCPOA. Instead, the administration repeatedly lowered the heat, thereby diminishing American credibility regionally and globally. It is so invested in the deal that it avoids any tension, even when Iran threatens the United States.
When Iran took 10 U.S. sailors hostage and paraded their images before releasing them, Secretary Kerry thanked Iran for its “cooperation in quickly resolving the matter” and said it was a “testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong.” Months later a U.S. Navy investigation declared Iran’s behavior repeatedly violated international law and norms.
President Obama’s hope that the JCPOA would strengthen Iranian moderates has also been dashed. Hardliners have strengthened their grip domestically and sharpened anti-U.S. rhetoric – words echoed by supposed moderates like President Rouhani.
Worst of all, Iran is debunking the administration’s claim that it’s this deal or war. Indeed, the JCPOA is already deepening conflicts in the Middle East. Sanctions relief provides Tehran with additional resources to destabilize the region, encouraged further by unfulfilled U.S. promises to push back against Iranian aggression via proxies and surrogates. The deal also decriminalizes Iran’s ballistic missile program by removing the U.N. Security Council’s legally-binding ban. Tehran has taken advantage of this to launch provocative missile tests and escalate its involvement in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
The Obama administration’s fallacious assumptions, and Tehran’s readiness to exploit them, creates multiple problems for the next president. Though Iran’s breakout time is now allegedly stretched to one year, it can still expand its enrichment capacity — and possibly its ability to produce a nuclear device — while complying with the deal. At the same time, its nuclear program will remain opaque due to the weakening of IAEA reporting, despite multiple reports that Iran’s illicit procurement efforts continue.
Weakened U.S. deterrence, and increased reliance by allies on their own armaments and other security partners in the face of Iran’s continuing threat to regional security, spells a Middle East that will become more rather than less prone to conflict and additional proliferation challenges.
To address these issues, our JINSA Gemunder Center Iran Task Force proposes a new approach to begin restoring American credibility, bolstering regional stability and ensuring Iran’s nuclear program cannot advance. If Iran persists with provocative missile tests, the United States and other JCPOA parties must consider a full range of serious steps to respond, including military options. In tandem, the big strategic fact that Sunni Arab states, Israel and Turkey share a common objective of resisting Iran’s bid for regional hegemony should be reinforced by integrating U.S., Israeli and Arab missile defense capabilities into a multi-layered system to defend against Iran and its proxies region-wide.
The JCPOA must be strictly enforced. All unilateral post-deal concessions should be reversed, as a new administration will not be obligated by any informal or secret pledges already made to Iran. Through the deal’s Procurement Working Group, the United States can leverage authorities granted by the U.N. Security Council, including use of force, to prevent Iran accessing nuclear materials abroad. The United States and its partners must also convince Iran to make the deal’s time-limited enrichment restrictions permanent.
These policies are vital to reestablish American credibility and constrain Iranian aggression. Otherwise the prospects of successfully contesting Iran’s nuclear advancement and regional ascendance will diminish and the costs will rise, long before the JCPOA sunsets.
Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009, is a scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and chair of JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force. Mike Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Jonathan Ruhe is Associate Director of JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.