The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was supposed to mitigate the threat Iran’s nuclear program posed and thereby, according to the deal’s supporters, reduce the threat of war.
The agreement did not end the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, but rather just kicked the can down the road thanks to the unprecedented sunset clause to which Secretary of State John Kerry agreed. The logic within the Obama administration seems to have been that whatever flaws exist in the deal (and there are many), these will cease to be so important if the rewards showered upon the regime tipped the balance in favor of more moderate or reformist factions. Never mind that, in the context of the Islamic Republic, such labels are relative and do not correlate to any notion of liberalism or tolerance in the outside world.
The irony, here, is that the same logic pervaded the Clinton administration in the run-up to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. In interviews conducted with both U.S. diplomats and military officials involved in the negotiations with North Korea while conducting research for my history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes, all suggested that negotiators realized the deal they struck was poor. They figured, however, that the communist regime would collapse long before the commitment to provide nuclear technology to the paranoid, totalitarian regime came into force.
But even if Iran’s nuclear program is put on ice, has the JCPOA reduced the threat Iran poses to the region?
Here, unfortunately, it seems the answer is no. Recent Iranian statements underscore how the Iranian defense industry has experienced a resource boom in the wake of the post-JCPOA unfreezing of assets as well as new investment flooding into Iran.
Here, for example, is Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan last month bragging that the indigenous Iranian defense industry has expanded by more than two-thirds over the past three years. Over the last year, he says, Iranian defense sector growth has been especially strong, increasing at least 45 percent “in the field of armaments and weapons.”
None of this should surprise: Between 1998 and 2005, when European foreign ministers sought to engage in a critical dialogue with Iran to take advantage of the ‘reformist’ administration of President Mohammad Khatami, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled and the price of oil increased five-fold. Rather than moderate, the Iranian government invested the hard currency windfall in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Kerry and crew were not being clever or trying anything new. Rather, it seems they were doubling down on a strategy that had not only failed to achieve its aims but which had already once backfired tremendously. Sometimes, history does repeat.