A few weeks ago I challenged the notion that the alternative to the nuclear agreement with Iran is war. The deal, I argued, makes the Iranian regime and the Middle East more dangerous, not safer. In the aftermath of the debate, it is becoming clearer that implementing the nuclear accord will indeed increase the likelihood of violence, military action, and even all-out war, not decrease it.
Swedish politician Nima Gholam Ali Pour astutely observed: “If someone had asked you a year ago what would be the most efficient way to cause a major war in the Middle East, you might well have said: Giving the mullahs in Iran the opportunity to get advanced conventional weapons, ICBMs, nuclear weapons and tens of billion[s] of dollars to fund terrorist organizations and destabilize other countries in the region.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a formula more likely to exacerbate current conflicts and stir up new ones.
Iran regularly demonstrates hegemonic aggression throughout the Middle East. The mullahs brag about controlling four Arab capitals. They fund the murderous Assad regime in Syria (with Iranian troops even fighting alongside Assad’s forces), equip Hezbollah in Lebanon with long-range missiles, and train terrorist groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iran has vowed to increase support for its regional allies and proxies, including Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas, Shi’a militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and any group committed to “resistance” against Israel and the U.S. (Indeed, going beyond generic “Death to America” chants, Ayatollah Khamenei recently threatened to bomb American Navy targets.) Even after signing the agreement to limit its nuclear program, Iran promises to continue fighting U.S. policies, interests, and influence.
Posturing? Empty rhetoric, for domestic political consumption? Not if history is any indication. The Islamic Republic is the #1 state sponsor of terrorism worldwide. Its long arm of violence extends—directly and through proxies—as far as Bulgaria, Argentina, and Washington DC. Iran is responsible for more American deaths (in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, and more recently in Iraq) than any organization except for Al Qaeda.
Despite a United Nations-imposed arms embargo, scheduled to remain in effect for another five years, Iran is arming itself with conventional weapons. Iran’s deputy foreign minister insisted during the negotiations that the embargo be lifted, and later proclaimed that Iran will not abide by its restrictions. Similarly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “formally announced” that the Islamic Republic will not honor the international ban on obtaining ballistic missiles, a ban that remains in force for another eight years. An advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even stated unequivocally that “Iran never has negotiated and never will negotiate … about the nature and quality of missiles it should manufacture or possess.”
Is this really the kind of regime we want to support with a huge infusion of cash—from unfrozen assets, sanctions relief, and new business? Even ignoring its illicit nuclear activities and decades of flouting of international laws and UN resolutions, should we really encourage and reward the sort of behavior the Islamic Republic has exhibited? Do we truly believe that relaxing economic sanctions and arms restrictions will moderate Iranian policies, or that is it more likely to strengthen and embolden the mullahs’ domestically repression, regional aggression, and international terrorism? Will the agreement ultimately usher in an era of stability and peace, or facilitate belligerence and violence, and make war more likely?
In light of Iran’s confrontational rhetoric and aggressive behavior, it is no surprise that other regional players feel threatened, and react accordingly. Saudi Arabia has stated that it will “match Iran’s nuclear capability,” and is considering developing or acquiring nuclear weapons “to offset Iran.” Other Sunni states, including Egypt and Turkey, may decide to join the nuclear club to deter Iranian aggression.
Would an influx of powerful and dangerous weapons to the world’s most volatile region stabilize it—a Cold War-like balance of power, perhaps?—or further destabilize it? What are the chances that a mistake, a provocation, or an overreaction could trigger an escalation, or lead to an all-out war? Which additional players will line up or jump into the fray, perceiving a threat or an opportunity? What will happen when control of weapons and technological know-how switches from one state or non-state actor to another—as happened when ISIS captured American-made equipment in Iraq and Assad’s chemical weapons in Syria, or Western-trained Sunni rebels in Syria defected to Al Qaeda? These are not fanciful scenarios; they are eerily realistic and even probable in the Middle East cauldron.
A conventional arms race in the Middle East is already underway; a nuclear one is highly probable as the various players vie for power and rebalance their interests. We could see another conventional war between Hezbollah in Lebanon—“Iran’s most prized non-state proxy” —and Israel. (Others disagree that this is likely to happen, given Hezbollah’s entanglement in Syria.) Or possibly even—in a true doomsday scenario—Israeli nuclear preemption against Iran.
If we are looking for the policies and positions most likely to spark violence, exacerbate conflict, and make war more likely, we need to look no further than the current nuclear agreement.