On October 18 of last year, the US, the European Union, China, Russia, and Iran adopted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program would be peaceful for at least a decade and securing a signature foreign-policy achievement for the Obama administration.
Credible reports indicate that Iran was weeks away from developing a nuclear warhead before the JCPOA took hold, but while nuclear proliferation may have been averted, other kinds of suffering have become frighteningly commonplace.
According to Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert who is a vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the scope of the agreement focused too narrowly on nuclear developments and left glaring omissions that Iran has exploited.
“The JCPOA did not address any of Iran’s regional activities, aggressions, or efforts to destabilize the region,” Schanzer said in an interview with Business Insider. “It was a crucial omission from the deal.”
As Iran backs the brutal Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi military uprising in Yemen, “What we’re seeing now are the fruits of that omission,” Schanzer said.
These fruits include Iran testing ballistic missiles and funding and arming terrorist organizations like Hezbollah; the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps slaughtering thousands in Syria; and the destabilization of Yemen by the Shia-aligned Houthi rebels.
There were “huge flaws in the deal in terms of Iran’s regional behavior,” Schanzer said.
- Thomson Reuters
Hell on earth in Yemen
Yemen has now been entrenched in a brutal civil war for 19 months. The conflict has been exacerbated by two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, pouring money and arms into the conflict.
As each side jockeys for power and position in the region, the people of Yemen pay a heavy price.
“We have an ongoing war where the Saudis have been bombing Yemen with impunity – many have been saying war crimes are taking place there,” Schanzer said.
According to the UN, 21 million people in Yemen – a country of 28 million – need some sort of humanitarian aide, and about half of the country is malnourished or food insecure.
Shipping aid to Yemen has been problematic, as cranes at ports have been damaged from both fighting and intentional efforts to spite humanitarian efforts. Additionally, a recent missile attack on a United Arab Emirates navy transport vessel spells out potential trouble for shipping in the region, where the Saudi-led coalition has attempted to blockade the Houthi militia near the country’s western coast.
But this blockade hasn’t been effective. Schanzer believes Iran has found a land route through neighboring Oman to supply Yemen, circumventing the blockade.
In Syria, Iran is similarly supporting President Bashar Assad’s murderous regime with no regard for US-led efforts for peace or a cease-fire. Expanding its own influence in the region is Tehran’s only goal, which it has been able to pursue under the JCPOA.
Obama ‘held hostage’
“The calculus has been that the US won’t challenge Iran on any issue,” Schanzer said. “Ballistic missiles, slaughter in Syria, support for Houthis,” none of these destabilizing actions have seemed to have gotten a rise out of the administration of US President Barack Obama, which Schanzer said seemed happy to back away as Iranian influence in the region had grown to rival that of the longtime US ally Saudi Arabia.
In any case, even when Iranian vessels directly challenge US ships in the Persian Gulf, the US has not responded with anything harsher than strong words.
“The US has continually backed down,” Schanzer said. “The US is fearful of scuttling the nuclear deal. This is the bind that the Obama White House has found itself in, beholden to the Iranians out of fear.”
Pressure to keep the fragile JCPOA in place has “held hostage in many ways” the US while the war rages on in the Middle East, Schanzer said.
- Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Additionally, longtime US allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states feel slighted by the US’s recent pivot toward mending fences with Iran.
“The Saudis feel abandoned by US, so do Emiratis and other Gulf states,” Schanzer said. The recent legislation allowing US citizens to sue Saudi Arabia over the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, further serves to create a “very angry Gulf bloc,” Schanzer said.
At the same time, Schanzer said, Iran is able to look powerful by openly defying the US and “establishing a status quo where they can continue to engage in regional aggression and not pay the price.”
How the US can keep Iran in check
- Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP
Despite being handcuffed to the JCPOA, the US does have a few possible ways to keep Iran in check.
Schanzer said the US could impose new sanctions over Iran’s support for the Houthis or testing of ballistic missiles. It could also establish a stronger military presence in the region to deter Iran or make it face the US military directly.
“The question is: Will they take those measures – will they push back?” Schanzer said.
But with one month left until the US presidential election, and just about three months left in Obama’s presidency, we’re unlikely to see any assertions from the US.
“We will see in November,” Schanzer said. “Will the next president take seriously this idea that all other sanctions are on the table and that the US needs to enforce in the areas not expressed in the deal?”