Iran and the New Middle East in the Aftermath of the Nuclear Agreement

August 5, 2015

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ray Takeyh argues that there is precedent for Congress turning down agreements until a better draft is negotiated as in the case of arms control deals between the United States and the Soviet Union. Given the role Congress plays in ensuring that the United States negotiates the best possible agreement, it should aim to do no less with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

CFR's Ray Takeyh testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Image credit: Javad Nikpour)

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  • The Islamic Republic of Iran still behaves internationally as a revolutionary state. As such, ideology remains an important factor in Iranian foreign policy, which also serves a domestic identity. Given that the regime's ideology is religious, it is difficult for Iran to progress into a post-revolutionary state that other non-Western, revolutionary states such as China have managed to do.
  • Today, the guardians of the Islamic Republic see a unique opportunity to project their power in a region beset by unpredictable transitions. The key actors defining Iran’s regional policy are not its urbane diplomats mingling with their Western counterparts in Europe, but the Revolutionary Guards, particularly the famed Quds Brigade. The struggle for supremacy started in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but has now moved onto Syria. The survival and success of the Assad dynasty is now a central element of Iran’s foreign policy, particularly as hardliners see the attempt to dislodge Assad from power as really an effort to weaken Iran.
  • In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, Iran has embarked on a dramatic new mission to project its power into corners of the Middle East in ways that were never possible before. This marks a shift from their traditional foreign policy of sponsoring terrorism and supporting Palestinian rejectionist groups targeting Israel.
  • This foreign policy shift is economically burdensome for Iran. Without an arms control agreement and the financial rewards it will bring—such as sanctions relief, the release of funds entrapped abroad, and new investments—Iran would find it difficult to subsidize this imperial surge. At the same time, Iran will invest a portion of the economic spoils on domestic needs. President Hassan Rouhani belongs to the wing of Iranian politicians that has long been attracted to the so-called China model, whereby a regime purchases domestic consent by providing a measure of economic opportunity to its stifled citizenry. While Iran's small, badly mismanaged economy may not be able to emulate China's authoritarian model successfully, Rouhani needs to ameliorate the misfortunes of some of the regime's constituents.
  • The terms of the impending agreement with Iran offers the Iranian regime all that it wants. The accord would concede a vast enrichment capacity, as well as accepting both a heavy water plant and a well-fortified underground enrichment facility that the United States once vowed to shutter. It would permit an elaborate research and development program while relying on an inspection regime that falls short of indispensable "anytime, anywhere" access. In the meantime, the sanctions architecture will be diminished, and the notion of ever "snapping back" sanctions into place once they are lifted is delusional. And because the agreement itself would be term-limited, there would be no practical limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions upon its expiration.
  • The agreement will impede the United States' ability to contain Iran if it ultimately also wants to work with it; the notion of constraining Iran has no place in a policy that looks for areas of cooperation between the two states. Moreover, the United States may not have the necessary coercive power to push back against Iran in the wake of this nuclear deal. For future U.S. presidents, the option of applying economic sanctions on Iran as a form of punishment would be removed.
  • Revolutionary regimes, such as Iran, that enter nuclear agreements tend to see them as pathways to asserting power. Today, the Islamic Republic looks upon the United States as a crestfallen imperial state seeking to dispense with its Arab inheritance. In Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's rhetoric, the United States is a declining power that needs an arms control agreement as a means of paving its exit from the Middle East. With Iran's actions and posture suggesting it is about to embark on its own expansive imperial mission, a hegemonic Iran may yet be the most consequential legacy of a nuclear accord.
  • The United States should return to the negotiating table and revisit the agreement's most problematic aspects, including extending the sunset clause, limiting Iran to IR-1 centrifuges, instituting a more intrusive "anytime, anywhere" inspections regime, enforcing similar procedures on uranium and plutonium enrichment, and reducing Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal.


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