TSG IntelBrief: The New Dilemma of the Iran Nuclear Deal
July 24, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Two years after the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement, Iran has increased its influence across the Middle East.
• Iran is demonstrating that it can expand its regional influence even after delaying, or perhaps abandoning entirely, any effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
• The Trump administration has decided to maintain the nuclear accord, focusing instead on countering Iran’s regional malign activities and strategic weapons programs.
• U.S. options for rolling back Iran’s regional reach are limited, in part because the Trump administration seeks to restrict the level of U.S. military involvement in the region.
At the two-year anniversary of the the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, Tehran’s regional influence is more extensive than at virtually any time since the 1979 Islamic revolution. This contradicts one of the expected, if optimistic, results and key selling points of the deal—that Iran’s regional influence would wane if it agreed to give up the potential to easily acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s decision to bargain away that capability, even temporarily, has recast Tehran as a more acceptable regional actor. Iran’s regional diplomatic re-engagement has helped Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to rebuff U.S. efforts to constrain Tehran’s involvement in Iraq, which is exercised primarily by Iran-backed Shi’a militias that are advised by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—Qods Force. Iran’s regional diplomatic reintegration also positioned it to exploit the June 2017 rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
By providing comprehensive relief from most international sanctions, Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA enables the country to devote more financial resources to its regional activities. However, Iran’s regional influence has broadened not necessarily because of greater financial inflows into Tehran’s coffers, but rather because of the abundance of strategic opportunities presented by the region’s many conflicts, which often pit pro-Iran groups against those backed by the United States and its allies. The Arab Spring uprisings, the rise of the so-called Islamic State, as well as the longstanding hostility between Israel and its neighbors have all compounded these conflicts, with each one presenting a strategic opportunity for Iran to expand its influence. It is noteworthy that Iran was able to provide ample support to its regional allies and proxies even during the period when international sanctions had their greatest adverse effect on Iran. The reduction in Iran’s government revenues resulting from the sanctions also proved unable to effectively slow its nuclear program.
Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA, along with its increasing diplomatic acceptance in the region and beyond, have presented the Trump administration with a significant policy dilemma. The administration has criticized the JCPOA as merely delaying, not permanently ending, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. However, the administration faces significant opposition among its European and Asian partners to terminating the agreement. Even the staunchest initial opponents of the deal, Israel and the GCC states, have come to accept the JCPOA as an established feature that has reduced the prospects of a nuclear Iran, at least for a decade. The administration, for now, has concluded that abrogating the agreement would further inflame the region and has decided to continue adhering to the accord. On two occasions, once in April and again on July 17, President Trump has agreed to certify that Iran is complying with its JCPOA commitments. The president was reportedly reluctant to certify Iran’s compliance, but did so largely on the advice of his senior national security aides.
At the same time, the regional opponents of Iran have found in the Trump administration an eager partner to try to roll back Iran’s regional reach. The administration has identified Iran as a key national security threat and supporter of international terrorism, and it has articulated a policy of countering Iran’s regional influence. However, rolling back Iran’s regional influence is a goal more easily envisioned than accomplished on the ground. Iran now exerts extensive influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain. It also provides support to Shi’a allies in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Rolling back Iran’s regional influence would require a significant escalation of U.S. involvement in several regional conflicts, particularly in Syria and Yemen, and would directly counter the administration’s hesitancy to embroil U.S. forces in the region’s intractable disputes. In Syria and Yemen, two countries where the United States could potentially escalate involvement against pro-Iran governments or factions, the Trump administration has chosen instead to largely de-escalate—working with Russia toward a ceasefire in Syria, and refraining from more direct military backing for the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis in Yemen. The administration’s direct efforts against Iran, to date, have been largely limited to sanctioning additional companies worldwide that provide technology or funding to Iran’s missile program or to the IRGC. Barring a shift in the administration’s willingness to commit to greater—and riskier—involvement in the region’s many conflicts, U.S. efforts against Iran are likely to retain a narrow focus for the foreseeable future.
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