The Many Faces of the Iran Deal

By: Avneesh Chandra

The Iran Deal (or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) has, from the time of the interim agreement in 2013 that laid its foundation, to its signing and ratification in 2015, and till President Trump’s recent announcement of his refusal to recertify, has been in the news repeatedly. President Obama and his national security staff hailed it as a landmark peace deal. At the same time, his Republican opponents characterized it as a massive failure of US foreign policy and a “bad deal”. Iran has called the deal both “historic” by the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister, and an exercise in “pointlessness” by the Supreme Leader.  With these widely differing views, what then is the truth of the JCPOA?

Bailout For Iran

A way to begin to understand the Iran Deal is to listen to its greatest critics, namely, US Congressmen. The deal faced harsh disapproval from almost all prominent members of the Republican Party, whose concerns included:

  • The “sunset” clause, which would effectively allow Iran to re-engage with its now-legitimized nuclear weapons program after the deal expired.
  • The inability of the JCPOA to address, beyond the weapons program, any of Iran’s aggressive behaviors in its region (including the alleged funding of multiple militant and terrorist groups in conflict zones).

Was the Iran Deal, then, simply the West saving a hostile state from the brink for no good reason? Aside from these arguably legitimate criticisms, the most significant fault in the JCPOA was said to be that it took economic sanctions off the table. The sanctions were considered the most effective methods the Western world had to discipline Iran through the United Nations. Prior to signing the Deal, Iran seemed to be struggling under the weight of the sanctions – high inflation rates, soaring unemployment rates, and reduced trade were stifling the nation’s growth.

Allegations of American Imperialism

In addition to the attacks lobbed at the Obama administration’s alleged gift to Iran, there were also many in Iran who rejected this idea. How much did the Iranians actually want this agreement, and why? Although reported as having sober support from a moderate President and his Foreign Minister, there were more than a few domestic critics. The Supreme Leader himself showed ambivalence toward the process more than a few times, attempting to appease the factions of his country that saw the deal as yet another example of American overreach and interference – continuing the American threat to Iran.

Yet, amid continued chants of “Death to America”, the Iranian administration stuck to the interim agreement, and the Deal was eventually hashed out. This combination of lip service to a domestic audience and a consistent desire to reach a deal represents a larger internal problem with which Iran is struggling: a popular anti-Western sentiment and a moderate government hoping to stabilize itself on the world stage.

Somebody Else’s Problem

The previous questions are complicated and largely unresolved. Cynics argue that the deal was little more than an empty, rushed agreement—a capstone to add luster to the Obama Administration’s failed foreign policy. It lifted a subdued Middle Eastern nation out of the dirt, succumbed to the threat of nuclear proliferation, and gave unchecked latitude to an adversarial power to continue exerting destructive regional influence. The failure in Syria, the continued funding of radical terrorist groups, and the empowerment of Iran through trade and a lack of fear of sanctions can be traced to the JCPOA—and all at the cost of ten years of Iranian patience.

A nuclear program that was started in secret, in violation of international norms and regulations, has been legitimized. The violator has been welcomed into the international community, and more has been lost than has been gained—Iran will be back on the path to having nuclear weapons in a decade, simply creating another problem for the Western world.

If all this is true, then why are there suddenly many erstwhile opponents of the Deal who are back in its camp? What has changed in the years since the JCPOA’s signing that makes the preservation of an agreement that should’ve supposedly never been signed suddenly so paramount?

Genuine Path To Peace

In a series of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections since 2015, Iran has continued to come up clean. Besides the launch of a ballistic missile, which was more in violation of the spirit of the Deal, not the letter, Iran has complied with the JCPOA. Under President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Iran has signaled that it is committed to a denuclearized Middle East. Though its aggressive actions in the region continue, could it be that Iran truly intends to give up its quest for nuclear weapons? An optimist would argue that, under more progressive leadership, and with increased international trade ties, the Islamic Republic might find itself, in ten years’ time, transformed into a less disruptive force in the world order. How this will happen, and to what extent the hostility between Iran and Israel will make this possible, remains an open question.

That Iran might have worked the deal and the West to its own advantage is a very real possibility. That it truly has, under Rouhani, committed itself to a marginally more responsible position on nuclear proliferation can also be argued. What can be said definitively, however, is that the world is a much safer place for the next decade without a nuclear Iran. As for what happens after that, it is impossible to say.

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