Two years in, there is little evidence to support most concerns that surrounded the Iran Deal – except one.
When the Iranian Nuclear Deal was signed two years ago, critics of the Deal had several concerns about it. This was especially true in Washington and Israel, where opponents voiced concerns that the deal was a catastrophe. But two years in, it is time to judge whether the Iran Deal was a good idea and what its future implications are.
The ‘Sneak Out’
There were three specific clusters of concerns that critics of the Deal had voiced. The first and arguably most important concern at the time of the Deal’s signing was that Iran would build a secret parallel nuclear program dedicated to military purposes – commonly called a ‘Sneak Out’. Sceptics had argued that Iran could enrich uranium in an undeclared enrichment facility to make bomb material unknown to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is empowered to visit only Iran's declared nuclear sites.
But the IAEA, officials from the Trump Administration and the intelligence community confirm that there is no indication that Iran has commenced clandestine enrichment activities. One reason is that enriching uranium is a complex process, and given the intrusive inspection and verification regime imposed on Iran by the Deal, clandestine enrichment would be hard to achieve. Other facets of nuclear weapons development are easier to hide – including research on explosives, design of missile warheads, developing nuclear detonators, and conducting explosive experiments with compressing fissile material. But there is yet no indication that the Iranians have undertaken even these activities.
Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program
Another concern voiced by critics of the Deal was Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran has a long history of developing ballistic missiles. For the first time in early 1997, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG) – Iran’s missile industry venture – unveiled a prototype of the Shahab-3C, a medium-range ballistic missile capable of striking up to 2,000 kilometers. Since then, Iran has worked on developing thousands of short and medium-range missiles, including the Khorramshahr which could strike targets between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers away.
In the National Interest recently, I argued that Iran’s development of indigenous missile and anti-missile systems is a complex and sophisticated response to its unique security challenges and forms a key component of the country’s deterrence strategy. But there are two major concerns regarding Iran’s ballistic missiles program: although ballistic missiles can be equipped with conventional warheads (which derive energy from less destructive chemical reactions, as opposed to nuclear warheads), it is not cost-effective to fire conventional warheads with long-range missiles. To many analysts therefore, Iran’s development of long-range missiles suggests that Tehran has not forgone its ambition of acquiring nuclear weapons.
In March last year, Iran launched the medium-range Qhadr-H and Qhadr-F missiles in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Worse, the missiles were inscribed with the words “Israel must be wiped out” in Hebrew. To many analysts, the message sent by the launch was clear: Iran still intends to annihilate Israel.
Potential Nuclear Arms Race?
Other critics worry that the Iran Deal would trigger wider nuclear proliferation in the region, as countries rush to counter Iran’s nuclear arsenal with one of their own. The regional actors most likely to have incentive to develop nuclear weapons are Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Turkey is not likely to weaponize, given that it is under the nuclear umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Saudi Arabia was not happy with the Iran Deal but accepted it under pressure from Washington. However, the Saudis have been working on a hedging strategy, should Iran abrogate the Deal. In fact, Riyadh has already laid down the foundations for its own nuclear infrastructure by creating the King Abdallah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K·A·CARE). It is not entirely clear whether K·A·CARE would enrich its own uranium or buy it abroad. But K·A·CARE could provide the infrastructure for a clandestine weapons program, especially if Riyadh decides to enrich its own uranium.
Egypt’s response has been very different. Unlike its strained relations with Iran in other areas, Egypt has collaborated with Iran over the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ) project to force Israel to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, or at least disclose it, and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As a matter of fact, this was the main reason that Egypt joined the NPT. After the Iran Deal was signed, Egypt adopted a hedging strategy of its own, by working with Russia to build civilian nuclear power plants.
In November 2015, Cairo signed an agreement with Russia for a nuclear power plant with four reactors of 1,200 megawatts, which would make Egypt a regional leader in nuclear energy. Although President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi emphasized that the facility would be strictly civilian and peaceful, some observers noted that it could hide a clandestine program, if Egypt decides to weaponize – especially since Egypt did not sign the Additional Protocol of NPT which allows the IAEA to apply additional verification measures. However, as of this writing, there is no indication that Egypt is ready to develop a nuclear arsenal in response to the Iran Deal.
As a key player in the region, Israel’s response to the Deal is also worth considering. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the help of the Israel lobby in Washington, mounted an unprecedented but ultimately futile campaign to defeat the Deal in the U.S. Congress. Yet, there are numerous reports which indicate that the Israeli intelligence community, military and the crucial Israel Atomic Energy Commission – whose experts provide ongoing expertise in monitoring Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement – all believe that the nuclear agreement prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, and that Israel should not retaliate against the Deal.
Tehran’s Proxy Wars in the Middle East
The third and final cluster of concern surrounding the Iran Deal relates to the long-running campaign by Iran to exert influence over areas in the Middle East. Critics of the Deal have argued that Iran would use the influx of capital from sanctions relief to fund ‘revolutionary export’ – a program to destabilize neighboring countries through direct or proxy involvement in conflict, civil unrest and terrorist activities.
The group that is responsible for the revolutionary export program is the Revolutionary Guards, aided by its foreign operations branch, the Quds Force. The amount of capital that Iran invests in destabilizing the region is not clear, largely because Iran does not have a hierarchical political system, thereby making it extremely difficult to trace the influx of money.
Plenty has been spent on Syria to prop up President Bashar Al-Assad. Estimates for Iran’s annual aid to Syria range from $6 billion to $14-15 billion, and even $15-20 billion. Iran’s estimated annual aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Shia militias in Iraq, as well as to other terror groups like the Hamas and Hezbollah is approximately $1 billion a year. Large amounts go to combat troops, training of proxies, arming militias, and more importantly, to sponsor intelligence and special operations, including false flag operations.
To conclude, out of the three clusters of concerns, there is no support for the theory that the Iranians have been using the Deal to commence a ‘sneak out’ behind the back of the IAEA. There is also no indication that any of the countries in the region are moving towards developing their own nuclear arsenals in response to the Deal. One reason could be that Washington has been trying to alleviate the concerns of countries in the region by promising to provide them with an anti-ballistic defense system in the form of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). However, evidence still supports the concern that Iran could utilize money from sanctions relief to sponsor militias in regional conflicts and escalate proxy wars.
Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he researches Iran’s foreign policy. He is the author of Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback. His writings have appeared in the National Interest, Middle East Policy and Asian Affairs among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Farhadrezaeii.