Remember “snapback?” That was supposed to be the enforcement mechanism for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal. If Iran cheated, the U.S. would re-impose sanctions. Administration spokespeople spent the summer assuring anyone who would listen that the mechanism for punishing Iranian violations would be sure, swift, and painful.
But while “snapback” remains a theoretical possibility, it depends on the willingness of the U.S. government to risk a showdown with Tehran. At the moment — and for the next year — it is plain that this administration will not under any circumstances risk such a confrontation, no matter what Iran does.
An Iranian state-sanctioned mob ransacks and burns the Saudi embassy in Tehran. What does the U.S. do? The State Department issues a statement condemning Saudi Arabia for executing 47 prisoners including the Shiite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, whose death “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.” Yes, Nimr’s execution was wrong, but so too was the invasion of the Saudi embassy — a tactic that the Iranian regime has long used to attack countries it dislikes. Why isn’t the U.S. leading the charge for an international condemnation of Iran?
Perhaps for the same reason that the U.S. withdrew its plan to impose sanctions on Iran for two missile tests in recent months that were conducted in violation of United Nations sanctions. The Iranian regime threatened that these sanctions could unravel the nuclear deal and would only cause Iran to accelerate its (illegal) missile program. So the Obama administration immediately and cravenly backed off.
Just a few days earlier the same thing happened when Iran complained about new legislation that would mandate visas to enter the United States for anyone who had visited Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria or other high-risk countries since 2011. This was not even legislation aimed at Iran per se, but Iran is worried that it would dissuade some business executives from visiting the Islamic Republic. So Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif threw a hissy fit, and Secretary of State John Kerry promptly promised to use executive authority to make the issue go away.
What happens when Iranian Revolutionary Guard ships fire rockets within 1,500 yards of the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman in the Persian Gulf? Nothing beyond a mild protest from a low-level American military officer.
And of course there has been no real U.S. pushback against Iran for its support for the Assad regime in Syria which is guilty of crimes against humanity — the kind of crimes that United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power has spent her career denouncing. Nor does the U.S. inflict any kind of cost on Iran for holding five Americans hostage, or for the rather hostile habit that Ayatollah Khameini and other Iranian leaders have of regularly chanting “Death to America.”
Sense a pattern here? Whenever Iran acts up, the U.S. looks the other way.
This is particularly egregious given the fact that Iran has not actually received its sanctions relief yet. Soon — possibly in a matter of weeks — Iran will get access to over $100 billion in frozen oil assets. Until that happens all of the leverage is on the American side. Iran should be on its best behavior until it gets its payoff for signing the nuclear deal. But that’s not the way Tehran sees it. The Iranian regime knows that President Obama is so desperate to implement the JCPOA that Iran can get away with murder and not suffer any consequences. So that is precisely what Iran is doing.
This is creating a very dangerous precedent for the future. The devastating loss of American credibility means that a future president, even if he or she is so inclined, will have a hard time restoring our deterrent power and convincing Iran not to secretly pursue its nuclear ambitions. It also means that the value of American security guarantees continues to erode, which helps to explain why allies such as Saudi Arabia are pushing back against the Iranian threat in their own crude fashion, e.g., by bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen and by executing a Shiite rabble rouser. In sum, it means that the Middle East (and indeed the rest of the world) will continue to become more dangerous and more hostile to American interests — hard as that may be to believe.