A New Iran Deal Means Old Chaos

Rekindling the nuclear deal with Tehran will solve one regional problem—and cause others.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
An Iranian flag flies next to a ground-to-ground Sejjil missile at an undisclosed location in Iran.
An Iranian flag flies next to a ground-to-ground Sejjil missile at an undisclosed location in Iran.
An Iranian flag flies next to a ground-to-ground Sejjil missile at an undisclosed location in Iran on Nov. 12, 2008. AFP via Getty Images

In the last few weeks, many in Washington have concluded that the United States will soon return to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After a fall and early winter in which almost everyone was bearish about the negotiations, the sentiment has recently shifted, and now it seems it is only a matter of time before the United States and Iran come to terms.

For some, a renewed agreement will rightly redeem U.S. President Barack Obama’s most important foreign-policy achievement. For others, it will be repeating his biggest mistake. As one of my colleagues recently argued, Washington is about to have a repeat of the “divisive” debate that it had after the 2015 deal was signed. That is because everything is political. Regardless of the qualities of the JCPOA, good Republicans are against it, and despite its flaws, good Democrats support it. What’s missing in this red versus blue argument is the substance of the actual JCPOA and its potential ramifications for the Middle East.

Obama had the correct insight that restraining Iran’s nuclear program through a diplomatic agreement would mitigate an important source of regional instability. Although, left unstated, there was also hope that the agreement could be the basis for a fundamental change in U.S.-Iranian relations that had been hostile for the previous four decades. In such a world, Israel’s worst fear about Iranian nuclear proliferation would be mollified, and sanctions relief would pave the way for leaders in Tehran to devote resources to Iranian society and development. Through the reintegration of Iran into the global economy, the incentives for regional actors to engage in mischief would be greatly diminished as everyone would learn to “share” the region. This would, in turn, facilitate a pivot to Asia.

In the last few weeks, many in Washington have concluded that the United States will soon return to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After a fall and early winter in which almost everyone was bearish about the negotiations, the sentiment has recently shifted, and now it seems it is only a matter of time before the United States and Iran come to terms.

For some, a renewed agreement will rightly redeem U.S. President Barack Obama’s most important foreign-policy achievement. For others, it will be repeating his biggest mistake. As one of my colleagues recently argued, Washington is about to have a repeat of the “divisive” debate that it had after the 2015 deal was signed. That is because everything is political. Regardless of the qualities of the JCPOA, good Republicans are against it, and despite its flaws, good Democrats support it. What’s missing in this red versus blue argument is the substance of the actual JCPOA and its potential ramifications for the Middle East.

Obama had the correct insight that restraining Iran’s nuclear program through a diplomatic agreement would mitigate an important source of regional instability. Although, left unstated, there was also hope that the agreement could be the basis for a fundamental change in U.S.-Iranian relations that had been hostile for the previous four decades. In such a world, Israel’s worst fear about Iranian nuclear proliferation would be mollified, and sanctions relief would pave the way for leaders in Tehran to devote resources to Iranian society and development. Through the reintegration of Iran into the global economy, the incentives for regional actors to engage in mischief would be greatly diminished as everyone would learn to “share” the region. This would, in turn, facilitate a pivot to Asia.

The regional changes that many hoped the JCPOA would catalyze seemed promising, but the reality turned out to be—as everyone now knows—quite different. Israel was alarmed at the deal, which it believed put too much faith in Iranian compliance and the abilities of United Nations inspectors. To leaders in Jerusalem, the agreement gave Iran official license to proliferate. The fact that the agreement left Iranian nuclear facilities at military sites off limits to inspection only heightened these concerns.

The Arab states in the Persian Gulf were equally unhappy—but not as much over the legitimacy granted to Iran’s nuclear program as over sanctions relief. Leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries were convinced Iran’s new access to money would be used to fund proxies around the region, further destabilizing the Middle East. For their part, Iran’s leaders felt compelled to prove that despite consummating a deal with the United States (and other world powers), they were not knuckling under pressure from the “Great Satan.”

And so rather than contributing to the stability of the region, the JCPOA created the opposite dynamics. Iran’s proxies stepped up their operations, and the Israelis fought the Iranians wherever they could find them—whether in Syria, Europe, Iran itself, or, later, Iraq. At the same time, the Saudis and Emiratis began taking regional matters into their own hands, regardless of U.S. wishes or interests.

After two years of threats, U.S. President Donald Trump breached the JCPOA in May 2018, no doubt because he believed it was good for him politically, but he was also not without insight in doing so. The Trump administration often gave the impression that what it wanted vis-à-vis Iran was regime change. But given what we know about him, it’s likely that the president really wanted a better deal. Thus, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy was born. In the abstract, this policy was not as brainless as so many of its opponents portrayed it to be. The Obama administration’s strategy to bring Iran to the negotiating table was to apply increasing amounts of pressure to bear on Tehran. Trump tried to do the same in his search for an agreement that would improve on the original JCPOA.

There was a difference between Team Trump’s assumptions about what Iran’s leaders would do and what they ended up doing. Tehran took the U.S. breach as a sign that the United States could not be trusted and that Trump’s intent was actually regime change. The result was a redoubling of Iran’s nuclear development and continued support, encouragement, and direction of its proxies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The United States responded by applying more pressure, which only compelled Iran to continue its nuclear work and mischief around the region.

The obvious answer to all of this for many in Washington is to return to the JCPOA. They have a point. For whatever the shortcomings of the agreement Obama negotiated, maximum pressure failed to arrest Iran’s nuclear program and brought it ever closer to being able to build a weapon—something even some Israeli security experts and officials now acknowledge. Still, the regional dynamics haven’t changed all that much, which makes reentering the JCPOA as potentially destabilizing as either the original agreement or Trump’s decision to get out of it.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia remain opposed to the JCPOA, and just like seven years ago, it is the sanctions relief that worries them most. It is true that both governments have sought de-escalation with Iran through direct talks, but it does not seem to have had much effect. Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen have been firing missiles at Saudi and Emirati cities. The idea of an agreement in which Iran is suddenly flush with billions of dollars does not sit well in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh. Saudi and Emirati leaders are skeptical that the money will be used for anything other than intimidating them in the service of Iran’s interests on the Arabian Peninsula. Thus far, the Emiratis have acted with restraint in response to Houthi-Iranian provocations in January and February––in large part because U.S. Patriot missile batteries have limited the damage. But will they hold back in the event of a renewed JCPOA and potentially emboldened Iran? It is a tough call for Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, given how exposed both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are to Iranian and Houthi fire, though it is also hard to live with an unfettered leadership in Tehran.

The real issue is, of course, Israel. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has not been as in-your-face about his opposition to the Biden administration’s approach to Iran as his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was toward Obama’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal. That is where the differences between the two Israeli prime ministers end, however. In recent months, Bennett has made it clear that Israel would not be a party to a nuclear agreement with Iran and would act “with no constraints” to ensure the country’s security. In addition to Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, there will likely be more episodes like the one from last October, when gas pumps went offline throughout Iran. The Israelis haven’t admitted to this particular act of sabotage, but it seems likely that they were somehow involved. The Israeli security environment has gotten progressively better in recent years, but for Israel’s leaders, Iran remains an existential threat. As a result, they are not likely to take their chances on a new JCPOA, which they do not believe is well crafted and believe it will be consummated with people who are not to be trusted.

One of the great promises of a nuclear deal is the regional stability it promises. Yet what analysts in 2015 failed to appreciate and now risk failing to consider is how a deal can produce instability. Folks who have breathed a sigh of relief at what they perceive to be regional de-escalation of recent months could very well soon find themselves searching for answers to renewed regional instability. Given Iran’s long-term drive to develop nuclear technology, one has to wonder whether getting back into the JCPOA is worth it.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.