Reports this week that Iran has enriched uranium to 84%, a key indicator of Tehran’s progress toward having bomb-grade uranium, show that the narrative behind the Iran deal of “a deal or war” continues to erode.
Back in 2015, the logic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was that if the West didn’t push for a deal with Iran, the regime would build a nuclear bomb – or there would be war.
At the time, US president Barack Obama spelled out a very stark choice.
Obama's choice: Deal or war
“Absent a diplomatic resolution, the result could be war, with major disruptions to the global economy, and even greater instability in the Middle East now, because more sanctions won’t produce the results that the critics want,” he said. “We have to be honest. Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any US administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option – another war in the Middle East. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war – maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
“We have to be honest. Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any US administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option – another war in the Middle East. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war – maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”Barack Obama
Talk of “war” was always unclear. Obama acknowledged that Iran was backing proxy terrorist groups. In essence, there was already a war in 2015. The pro-deal narrative was that any precision strikes against the nuclear program could lead to an escalation.
After the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran deal, questions lingered about whether the other signatories of the deal would “snap back” sanctions if Iran continued to develop nuclear weapons. The Biden administration even said military force was a “last resort” to preventing that.
It’s hard to remember now, but the pro-deal crowd created a massive echo chamber of ideas – to the extent that anyone who opposed the deal was seen as a warmonger. The experts, and those in the know, said the deal was the best way to handle the situation.
The justification for the deal was multilayered, including the argument that Iran’s “people are eager for a more educated, more secular society.” In this analysis, the US was signing a deal with a moderate regime and might gain a “stable” Middle East with 60 million new Iranian trading partners as a result.
What happened to those who fawned over the largely mythical “moderates”?
It turns out they did not exist in the regime. Within one year of the deal, Iran was vastly increasing its illegal arms trafficking to the Houthis in Yemen, militias in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas.
Iran put its war proxies on steroids – after the deal was signed. Rather than creating “stability,” this led to destabilization, strangling the government in Baghdad and bankrupting Lebanon so that its own “moderates” could never again elect their own president without Iran’s approval.
Iran then continued to launch attacks on US forces in Iraq, forcing them out of facilities. Today, it continues to target ships in the Gulf of Oman and to move weapons illegally across the region. Moreover, Iran now supplies Russia with drones to terrorize Ukraine and has also attacked Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All of these actions are illegal under international law.
What’s peculiar is that in order to get the deal, this aspect of the “war” was ignored. The focus instead was on whether the nuclear weapons pursuit would lead to another war.
The war narrative was problematic from the start
TODAY, WITH the world focused on Ukraine, it seems unlikely that any country would want a coalition against Iran, and it was unlikely in 2015 that the US was going to lead such a coalition anyway.
That means the “war” narrative was problematic from the start. Iran can’t afford a major war, and the US was likely never going to carry out airstrikes to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Talk of a “war” was exaggerated and, insofar as anyone was concerned, Iran was already at war in half a dozen places in the Middle East via its proxy groups.
In 2015, some experts argued that Iran had taken over the Middle East anyway, unopposed, so sanctions wouldn’t reduce its power, and “diplomacy” was the only way forward. This analysis was wrong as well. By 2020, the Abraham Accords were announced, and there is a lot of evidence today that Iran is not the undisputed leader of the region.
Iran has also faced mass protests at home since September, protests it has brutally suppressed by killing its citizens and with widespread arrests. Today, the regime, which arms Russia, is no longer seen as adding “stability” to the region, and no one is pretending the regime is moderate. Iran is working directly against the West today, along with China and Russia.
Perhaps what is most striking is that, in rereading the confident-sounding analysis of the Iran deal from 2015, it is astonishing how many people acknowledged that Iran was going to continue to enrich uranium anyway and that it was all about buying more time.
One article noted that Iran would be able to arm itself, starting in 2020, “with foreign-made systems, including modern air defense systems and fighter planes, [which] would certainly complicate that calculus.”
What is interesting here is that the experts suggested Iran would be able to arm itself with Russian and Chinese weapons. Those backing the deal knew they were giving Iran an opening to acquire masses of weapons.
It turns out that Iran, even with enriched uranium, is having trouble acquiring advanced weapon systems. The US walked away from the deal, but Iran hasn’t actually been able to get many arms from Russia and China.
This means that with or without the deal, Iran’s behavior is largely the same. Iran is supplying Russia with drones, and Iran’s president recently went to China. But the arms aren’t flowing into Tehran.
Today, with Iran enriching uranium and most of the world focused on other issues, such as the war in Ukraine, it’s clear that Iran is not going to “stabilize” the Middle East. The misguided analysis of some experts, particularly realists who believed it was in the US’s “interest” to work with Iran and sideline Israel’s concerns, has become clear.
Some have gone on to excuse Moscow’s behavior, which is on track for them, going back to 2009 and earlier, when they advocated a “reset” with Moscow and working with Russia and Iran. The Iran deal was partially borne out of a believe that the US and Russia would also be getting along.
Russia invaded Ukraine, and Moscow and Tehran could not be relied upon, it turned out. Iran is already at war with the region, so the narrative about how there might be “another war” has largely vanished.
The West is focused on Ukraine now, and Iran’s enrichment can no longer be held onto in some kind of blackmail diplomacy as it has in the past. Where Iran goes from here is unclear, but the drive for diplomacy has shifted narratives.