Donít Give Iran Another Pass

By James Conway and Charles Wald

U.S. News & World Report

March 25, 2016


The Iran nuclear deal, negotiated last year, is trumpeted by its defenders as the only alternative to war. However, Tehran has chosen a different way to commemorate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. When the time came in October to begin rolling back its enrichment capability, Iran tested nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in violation of a legally-binding U.N. ban. Then, right before the deal was officially implemented in January, its Revolutionary Guard Corps seized ten U.S. Navy sailors, paraded their images in public and staged mocking reenactments nationwide.

The Iran Strategy Council of senior U.S. military leaders, which we co-chair, was commissioned by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs to provide analysis of the deal's strategic implications and recommend actions to mitigate them. As we predicted in our initial assessment in September, the strategic balance in the Middle East has already begun tilting dangerously toward Iran, its allies and its proxies, making conflict more likely. Now, the pace and degree to which shift is occurring exceeds even our prior analysis, and threatens to overwhelm the ability of the United States to correct course.

This is because the JCPOA actually encourages Iran's destabilizing ambitions. It allows Iran to bolster its military capabilities through the lifting of sanctions and renewed access to international arms markets and advanced technologies. Already thousands of Iranian soldiers backed by Russian airpower and Hezbollah have turned the tide of war in Syria, outpacing even the Islamic State group in the number of Syrian civilians killed or forced to flee.

By tolerating these and other provocations, the U.S. may have abrogated its own obligations under the JCPOA. Unless this trajectory changes, Tehran's increased belligerence of the past few months will accelerate over the course of the agreement. It is therefore imperative to develop a comprehensive strategy to counter the fallout from the agreement, and past U.S. inaction.

First, we must rebuild fraying ties and improve coordination with our regional allies, many of whom are already voicing serious concerns for their own security and the future of U.S. leadership in the wake of the deal. To maintain our commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge, a new memorandum of understanding is needed to raise defense assistance significantly from the current ten-year $30 billion agreement. 

Simultaneously, we must improve regional defense coordination with our Arab allies. This requires a coherent shared strategy and the expeditious transfer of appropriate U.S. weapons and technology, including theater missile defense, maritime defense, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. In tandem, we need to reengage wavering partners that have been pulled into Iran's orbit, foremost Iraq.

Second, we must ensure credible military options to deter and deny Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons capability. the strategic balance in the Middle East has already begun tilting dangerously toward Iran, its allies and its proxies, making conflict more likely. Congress should pass a resolution declaring U.S. policy to prevent Iran from achieving this goal, and authorize use of military force against its nuclear infrastructure under certain clearly-defined breaches of the JCPOA.

Third, we must recognize Iran as the prime mover of conflict, rather than an honest broker, throughout the region. Most importantly, the U.S. and its partners cannot hope to stabilize Syria if it gives credence to Iran's proposals for ending the conflict by re-entrenching Bashar Assad's regime in power.
Fourth, we need to preserve the U.S. military edge through recapitalization, investment and modernization of our forces. Otherwise, given sequestration and other spending cuts, the U.S. military will be trying to counter Iran's growing expenditures and modernizing forces with fewer soldiers, antiquated platforms and decreasing readiness.

Fifth, U.S. credibility must be restored. This is the bedrock of deterrence and can be strengthened through unequivocal assurances of protection for our allies, clearly-articulated penalties for Iranian belligerence and sophisticated diplomacy to leverage other countries' shared concerns over the potential for regional instability generated by expanding Iranian power in the Middle East.

Though not without cost, these efforts are minimal compared to the severe and accumulating consequences of continuing passivity in the face of Iran's hostility. These efforts are also urgent. Just as Tehran has already begun exploiting the nuclear agreement's flaws, so the U.S. and its allies must move equally swiftly to redress them.

We must act now to mitigate the negative strategic consequences of the JCPOA.