As Iranians went to the polls last month, many observers pegged the election as an important litmus test indicating whether Iran’s political ideology was beginning to shift. Despite a restrictive and regressive election system in which religious and military leaders are able to vet and disqualify potential parliamentary candidates, moderates and reformists won a surprising number of seats against Iranian conservatives. While the Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guard officers still hold a considerable amount of power in Iran’s government, some pundits frame the moderates’ victory at the polls as a signal of the country’s political headwinds veering toward more democratic and pro-Western policies.
Two days after the election, Iran’s military test-fired multiple ballistic missiles capable of hitting numerous targets throughout the Middle East. The missile launches were likely conducted not only to display the country’s military prowess (with a range of an over 1,000 miles, the missiles can likely hit Israeli cities), but also to provoke an angry condemnation from the United States and send the international community a message: Iran is still a country to be feared.
While the core goal of the Iranian nuclear deal was to prevent the country from gaining a nuclear weapon, inherent to the agreement is the belief that the détente between the United States and Iran will encourage Tehran to change its autocratic ways and violent foreign policy agenda. As he has acknowledged, much of President’s Obama legacy will be defined by Iran’s future actions.
So which Iran will prevail? The one that embraces political moderates and democratic reform, or the one that desires a nuclear ballistic missile and the extermination of Israel? Unfortunately, the answer is likely a combination of the two.
To predict Iran’s next moves, we must first look to the ramifications of the nuclear deal. Specifically, understanding how the intricate details of the deal could influence Iranian foreign policy is crucial in determining how Tehran will act in the future. As the White House and other proponents of the deal have argued, built in snapback mechanisms ensure that the U.N has the ability to automatically restore economic sanctions – albeit through a creative Security Council procedure – if the U.S. believes Iran to be in violation of the agreement. While this automatic mechanism prevents Russia and China (countries that regularly veto American Security Council resolutions) from blocking the reinstatement of sanctions, many argue Tehran still has the upper hand in the agreement.
Since Iran would be exempt from following the nuclear agreement in a snapback scenario, the White House will likely refuse to risk the complete disintegration of the deal over an infraction. Furthermore, it is naïve to assume that the same level of European and Asian cooperation in the reinstatement of Iran’s financial sanctions can be achieved. Some believe that America’s financial clout in the international banking system will prevent excessive foreign business development in Iran, but the multibillion dollar appeal of investing in the Iran’s growing economy is simply too strong. With cheap Iranian oil beginning to flow towards Eurasian markets and EU banking regulators considering removing restrictions on Iranian banks, Iran will likely only become more intertwined in international financial systems. The bottom line is clear: for every additional dollar poured into Iran’s economy, the probability of a united international coalition fully reinstating effective sanctions decreases.
There is no doubt Tehran already understands how to best exploit the situation. In addition to weighing the potential leeway Iran now has, we must also find further meaning in recent Iranian action. As a rising power in the Middle East, Iran calculates the potential political implications of each and every action. While some argue that it is too early to expect radical policy reversals in Tehran, it is fair to expect that the nuclear agreement would have encouraged a change in rhetoric or action if Iran felt committed to further improving its relationship with the United States. In this regard, much of Iran’s behavior indicates that no such interest exists.
First, it is clear that Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist and militia groups has only grown. In addition to sending munitions and military advisors to Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran’s traditional proxies, rising tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have lead Iran to fund Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shi’ite groups in Iraq, and the National Defense Force in Syria (a pro-Assad militant group). As the Obama administration seeks to reduce the hegemonic presence of the U.S. in the Middle East, Iran has only broadened its complex web of financial and military support to take advantage of the region’s newfound political void and push its historic Gulf enemy, Saudi Arabia, back on the defensive.
Second, the seizure of ten U.S. Navy crewmen this past January further reflects Iran’s aggressive posturing. While Tehran claims the boats violated Iranian waters, the capture of American servicemen and subsequent politicization of the incident by the Iranian military suggests the Revolutionary Guard sought to reinforce its insistence that the signing of the nuclear agreement would not lead to further cooperation between Tehran and Washington. Iran’s actions in the Persian Gulf also hold a certain symbolic significance as the country has often forcefully maneuvered its navy to assert dominance along the strategically important Strait of Hormuz.
If the United States cannot expect a shift in Tehran’s political objectives, American foreign policy in the Middle East must adapt to likelihood of continued tension and aggression in the short-term. While the State Department was quick to denounce the ballistic missile launches, Secretary Kerry and the White House must follow their words with action by imposing stricter sanctions that target the heart of Iran’s ballistic missile program. Fortifying our image as a country that supports its words with action is crucial in curbing Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East. Additionally, the White House should reverse its diplomatic withdrawal from Middle East geopolitics until the region stabilizes. While the President and others may understandably hold a pessimistic outlook on the future of the Middle East, ceasing to work symbiotically with our Arab allies or reducing American influence in the area will only exacerbate the situation.
It is impossible to predict whether Iran will ever restart its nuclear program and develop a nuclear weapon. What is certain, however, is that U.S. failures in the Iranian nuclear agreement and Iran’s underlying geopolitical ambitions will continue leading the country down its current, destructive political path.