The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is in danger of being scrapped. Widely known as the “Iran Deal” the agreement was designed to block Iran’s path toward a nuclear bomb by limited their ability to produce the necessary fissile material.
By all accounts, including by the Trump administrations own admission, the deal been complied with. However, Iran hawks and the President have been seeking to scrap the deal citing Iran’s belligerence, growing regional power and sponsorship of terrorism. Recently, Trump announced that he plans to decertify the deal, sending it back to the U.S Congress to work out.
If President Trump and the Republican Congress abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) the consequences could be grave. Damage to American credibility would be extensive and the prospect of a nuclear Iran and regional war would loom over the Middle East, bring even more chaos to the region.
Leaving the deal will strike a fatal blow to American credibility in the region. Despite Trump’s bluster to the contrary, You cannot simply renegotiate treaties when it suits you. Why on earth would Iran even consider negotiating with us again when previous agreements are not honored? We would not consider such a course politically acceptable. Why would they? And what benefit is there to further negotiations when your partner cannot be trusted to uphold the deal for more than a year?
With our allies and partners the loss of credibility will destroy our ability to rebuild the sanctions regime. Which, because of Iran’s regional stature would have to be imposed multilaterally. It will be impossible without the cooperation of the P5+1 who are not going do a 180 degree spin because the U.S is suddenly opposed to the deal it made.
As Anshnel Pfeffer noted, the exit of the U.S may not immediately kill the deal, but it will leave the the rest of world’s powers holding the bag and even cripple it severely. It may even require the other partners to make further concessions to keep Iran from leaving.
Inside Iran, the U.S exit from nuclear deal is likely to devastate moderate forces within the regime, leading to more bellicose behavior and increasing the influence of hardliners who would use the deal’s failure to gain stature. There will then be no political capital left for diplomacy on either the American or Iranian side.
Even if the JCPOA somehow survives what we will be left with is an Iran which is both richer than it was before the deal and less restrained militarily; the worst of both worlds.
The Regional Dynamic
This unrestrained Iran will be a crisis for the region. Iran is already a regional power in a very violent section of the globe in what some have described as a “cold war” with the American backed Sunni Gulf monarchies. It is also openly hostile to the existence of Israel and makes no effort to hide that fact.
Iran cannot be isolated like North Korea or Cuba, it has allies and partners all over the Middle East and a tacit partnership with the Russian Federation in the context of the Syrian civil war. Several countries like Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are partially controlled by its proxies in the form of the Houthis, Hezbollah, Assad, and various Shia militias, some of which currently surround American troops operating in Iraq, leading some to describe our deployment there as a hostage situation.
If the deal fails, these forces give the Iranian regime significant power against U.S allies in the region and the ability to maintain a sphere of influence that will allow it to weather international isolation and retaliate against its regional adversaries. Already, Iran has set up land and air bridges that link it with its proxies and clients across the region. We will not be able to strangle Iran like we did Iraq after the First Gulf War.
The Israeli-Saudi Dynamic
Fighting Iran’s growing regional influence are the Israelis and Sunni Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. Each State is currently engaged in a military conflict with at least one proxy. Israel has been bombing Iranian arms shipments and Hezbollah forces in Syria, while the Saudi Kingdom is fighting the Houthis in Yemen. If Iran restarts its nuclear program these two states will be key stakeholders.
Both of these nation are willing to go to war to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Israel in particular has a record of “non-proliferation” efforts in bombing nuclear and chemical facilities in Iraq and Syria. They have made the red line very clear; If Iran tries to build a nuclear weapon Israel will attack them in a similar fashion.
This is distinctive feature of the region. Unlike in Asia or Europe, in the Middle East long term deterrence and crisis management are not viable options. There is a point where force will be used against Iranian nuclear facilities no matter how much artillery and missiles Iran can place on the Saudi and Israeli borders.
A Fight for Existence
The reasons that deterrence will not work are complicated, but to start, neither Israel or Saudi Arabia are formally under the American nuclear umbrella and extending deterrence to cover Israel and America’s Gulf partners would be complex and difficult. This is not only because it would fundamentally change the relationship between America and it’s allies, but because there are also other factors that complicate the situation beyond the normal western paradigm.
For example, the existential nature of the threat is much more pressing for the Israelis, where a raison d’être for the state itself is to provide a safe haven for Jews. An Iranian bomb threatens this on physical and cultural level. It then becomes a question of existence, not deterrence.
The history of the Jewish people is an important cultural aspect of the decision-making process. The specter of a second holocaust has loomed over Jewish and Israeli culture for decades, but the fear goes farther back. Just look at a calendar, Yom Hashoah, Tisha Ba’av, Purim and Hanukkah. Each is a memory of a war, catastrophe or near escape from one. It is no surprise that Netanyahu would rather fight a regional war than add “Yom ha’atom” to the list.
This cultural influence is not to be underestimated. It influences Israel’s view of its sovereignty and it’s defense policy. Mix this Jabotinsky and Begin’s right-wing political ideas and it’s easy to see why Israel insists on being self-sufficient in defense rather than rely on allies. It is also why it built its own nuclear weapons and allows only one nation to have a permanent base on its territory. The idea that they would trust any other nation to protect them from an Iranian bomb is not grounded in reality.
The religious Islamist nature of the Iranian regime (well, nationalism expressed through religious fundamentalism) compounds the Israeli perception of the existential threat. The rationality of Iranian leadership is in doubt. Even if Israel announces that it has a nuclear bomb, the question of how you deter someone who is willing to strap a bomb a child and send him kill people becomes pertinent; especially since the current Israeli leadership is more hard-line.
Israel has a few options to deal with a nuclear Iran. First, could use its nuclear arsenal to engage in brinkmanship. The threat of a preemptive nuclear strike should Iran obtain a bomb would be a powerful incentive for the United States to act before the Israelis, who also hold the power to throw the region into deeper chaos. Although it is unlikely to get to that point. More likely, the Israelis will take matters into their own hands and strike first.
While The IDF is designed to stay in or near to Israeli territory and defend it does maintain long-range strike capabilities. The systems that can reach Iran include ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles and munitions dropped and fired from IAF jets.
These munitions are limited at 5000 lbs for the F-15I “Ra’am” and 2000 lbs for the F-35I “Adir.” Israel cannot guarantee the destruction of the Iran’s deeply buried enrichment facilities like the one at Fordow and lacks the capacity to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Some have suggested Commando raids or complex strikes involving dropping multiple 5000 lb GBU-28 bunker busters on top of each other in an effort to burrow through into to the facility. Either way, any strike will be therefore be limited.
There is also other methods like bombings, cyber warfare an assassinations that are likely to be employed. Remember that guy who tried to build a super gun for Saddam? How about Black September?
Although Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal it does have options for conventional brinkmanship. It can threaten Iranian shipping lanes through the Persian gulf, and threaten its cities with conventional missiles and bombs. In essence, it can threaten to begin a very destructive war, bringing a both to the edge of a cliff and using that threat to force the U.S to intervene militarily or risk the entire Middle East exploding. That said, Israel is likely to strike long before such an event comes to pass.
In the event of an Israeli strike Iran would retaliate through one of its proxies, probably Hezbollah, sparking a conflict on Israel’s northern border. From every source I’ve seen, the war will be brutal. Israel is planning on blasted Lebanon’s infrastructure to bits while the IDF strikes deep into Hezbollah’s stronghold in a front-loaded, blitzkrieg style combined arms assault to overrun Hezbollah rocket batteries before they can begin effectively target northern Israel.
What happens after that I don’t know, but the land bridge Iran has created through the Middle East will increase the prospect of a general war. Israel my not just be bombing Lebanon, but supply lines and militias in Syria as well. Such a conflict has to potential to grow as more actors become involved.
Such an outcome also depends on the success of the initial strike. If Israel fails it puts the region in an even more dangerous position. Israel could resort to extreme measures, like nuclear brinkmanship, or even assassination attempts against high-ranking figures inside the Iranian government. In other words, a chaotic region could be further destabilized and bloody.