Friday, July 15, 2016

The Iran Deal One Year Later: Success or Failure?

For many years, Iran has been perceived as a threat to world order. The Iranian government has said on more than one occasion that it wants to wipe Israel off the map. In general, the terrorist organizations it supports destabilizes geopolitical relations in the Middle East, thereby creating a neoconservative boogeyman. One year ago was the signing of the Iran deal that was meant to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. As is customary in U.S. politics, both sides of the spectrum were in full force, from doomsday scenarios to improved diplomatic relations with Iran. When looking at the Iran deal a year ago, I concluded that while the deal does have flaws, it was still better than remaining with the status quo. Now that a year has passed, we can go off of more than mere predictions and speculation. Has the Iran deal worked, or were the naysayers right in that we have simply given Iran what it wants?

Before I even begin, I have to preface by saying that this analysis is preliminary. I used a similar disclaimer when analyzing the effects of marijuana legalization after one year, or when analyzing the central banks using negative interest rates when it only had been in practice for a short while. Even so, there are still initial findings that can be stated. In the case of the Iran nuclear deal, the main question is the capacity of the Iranian government to have a sufficient stockpile to create nuclear arms. Did the deal hasten Iran's nuclear ambitions, did it halt them, or does it ultimately not matter because there is a certain inevitability to the occurrence?

One thing we have to remember is that Iran is still funding terrorist groups. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Iranian government is calling the shots in the Iraqi government with regards to dealing with ISIS, perpetuating the Syrian war machine that is causing the genocide in Syria, and is starting covert Shia terrorist cells in the Middle East. It doesn't address human rights violations or the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Without the use of economic sanctions, the United States has less options to keep the Iranian government in check, although the deal also has sanctions "snapback" in the event that Iran reneged on the deal. While the point has some validity with regards to stabilizing Middle Eastern geopolitics, it is still wanting because it does not answer whether the Iran nuclear deal itself was effective.

Jeffrey Lewis, who is the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury, stated in a recent interview that proponents expected that the Iranians were going to behave like Boy Scouts. When looking at this deal last year, I even said that there was no deal that was going to bring peace in the Middle East because Iran was going to continue to be an instigator, regardless of having a "Deal or No Deal." If Iran was really that nice, there wouldn't be a need for a nuclear deal in the first place. What we have to ask ourselves here whether they have the capabilities to instigate on a nuclear level, particularly with regards to whether they have enough centrifuges and uranium to create the nuclear weapons.

Instead of a "breakout time" of two months, the deal has lengthened that to a year, which would give world powers plenty of time to respond in the event that Iran decides to break the deal. Other major benefits (see Congressional Research Service [CRS] report here) that came with the deal: the number of centrifuges have been reduced two-thirds from about 19,000 to 5,060. Nuclear research has been limited, and Iran's uranium stockpile has reduced about 98 percent. Iran is redesigning the Arak reactor so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been allowed unprecedented access to help ensure compliance. The aforementioned CRS report (p.10) stated that Iran has complied with the major provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon recently stated that the Iran deal has made it so that Iran is no longer an "immediate, existential threat to Israel." Plus, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed the Lance Amendment, which would not give Iran access to the U.S. dollar.

The concern for naysayers is the sunset provisions and what happens when the deal completely expires 15 years down the road. Iran is, and still very well could be 15 years later, a kleptocratic, theocratic mess of a regime. Figuring out a way to make Iran the country it was prior to the Ayatollah's usurping of Iran in 1979 is a tricky goal, although it would address root issues in Middle Eastern power politics. It is going to have to be a long-term game since the U.S. government tried to install a friendly regime back in 1953, and failed miserably.

That set aside, we can't ask ourselves whether this deal will fix things forever. We also have to remind ourselves that the final verdict won't play out for years to come. The question is whether conditions are better with the deal than they would have been without the deal. The main goal was to block Iran's path to nuclear arms for an extended period of time, and in spite of whatever imperfections exist, the primary goal has been achieved. There is worry as to what happens when the deal expires, and we should prepare for that, although conversely, the deal might show the Iranian government that it is better for Iran to not pursue nuclear weapons. We should also be prepared for more rounds of diplomatic meetings to help mitigate tensions in the Middle East. There is also the issue of whether the Iranian government blames the state of their economy on world powers on delaying the lifting of the sanctions, although Boeing is looking to enter the Iranian market. There is expected to be a bumpy road ahead (see GAO report here), such as the making sure that China also plays ball with regards to securing the proper procurement channels, the 2016 U.S.-Iran Naval Incident, and Iran testing ballistic missiles. Again, Iranian officials are not Boy Scouts, and we can't expect them to be. We have to remind ourselves of what our options were, and which was the best option given what was on the table. There is no guarantee that the deal will play out nicely, but enacting this deal seems to be our best option to move forward.

12-11-2016 Addendum: The Brookings Institution put out a nice article on how the Iran deal is working, and how Trump's attempt to negotiate a better deal would, at the very least, be ineffective.


  1. Nice, detailed analysis. I grow weary of the conservatives who constantly bash the deal and seem to regurgitate the strategies of the Bush Administration while not giving the deal a chance. It is a gamble long-term, but if the theocracy gives way to a tolerant, non-fundamentalist society, the deal will be a major success.

  2. Iranians are very well-educated, and their birth rate is very low-- the result of a systematic literacy and birth control campaign undertaken by Iran's previous rulers that not even Khomeini could reverse.

    The U.S. is at least partially responsible for Iran's transformation into a theocracy, and it's a real tragedy because it all could have been avoided. The Iranian-Americans I grew up with, and I'm sure you knew them too, came from very wealthy, well-educated, cosmopolitan families. These were not poor refugees carrying their possessions in bags- these were substantial people emigrating to maintain their standard of living.

    I suspect that the Iranian theocracy is on its last legs, and that when Iran does become a democracy, we will find very few hard-line Muslims when we visit, just as there were very few ardent Communists in the former East Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

    I often wonder if Afghanistan might have benefited from a longer period of Soviet rule. Women in Soviet Afghanistan wore Western clothing, and men and women were getting educated and going to college-- when I saw pictures of Kabul in the 60s and 70s it hardly looked like the same city. But no, to countervail our fear of the Soviets in the East, we armed Taliban fighters instead. You know where THAT led.