But speaking from his unrelated French visit, Kerry eagerly defended the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in keeping with the highly optimistic tone that the Obama administration has been striking ever since the negotiations wrapped up. The New York Times suggested on Thursday that that optimism remained strong at the one-year mark, but that the administration’s celebration was severely muted by the lack of progress in other areas of Iran policy.
The initial hope on the part of the White House was that the diplomatic opening between the two countries would promote a moderating trend within the Iranian regime. But this has not come to pass, and many commentators on the Iran nuclear deal have taken the Obama administration to task over this issue on the occasion of the anniversary.
For instance, Struan Stevenson, the president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association and an ardent supporter of the Iranian resistance, published an editorial in UPI decrying the notion that the nuclear deal was a diplomatic breakthrough and calling attention to various indicators of ongoing hardline behavior on the part of the Iranian regime.
Stevenson insisted that at this one-year mark we now know that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is “far from moderate” despite having been embraced by many Western policymakers and some Iranian citizens as a meaningful alternative to his hardline predecessor and the higher ranking officials who enforce the fundamentalist character of the clerical government.
Stevenson points out that Rouhani has been known to use religious rhetoric to justify the regime’s “barbarity” and has concordantly overseen a steep increase in executions, with approximately 2,500 Iranians having been hanged since Rouhani took office in 2013. Yet Stevenson’s article alleges that the Rouhani administration and the regime as a whole have been subject to relatively little criticism from Western executives as they focus narrowly upon the nuclear issue.
Some other media have begun to suggest that even this narrow focus will not allow policymakers to go on ignoring an apparent lack of moderation within the Iranian regime. Although Rouhani received some credit from Iran’s Western adversaries for seriously pursuing a nuclear agreement, critics of the regime insisted that that approach was necessitated by the economic pain the regime had suffered and the consequent importance of securing sanctions relief.
This interpretation has been underscored by a growing list of instances in which Rouhani has demonstrated an aversion to moderation not only in domestic affairs but also in dealing with the very entities with which he had concluded nuclear negotiations. Iranian propaganda against the West has apparently surged in the months since the nuclear agreement was implemented, signifying that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is taking steps to forestall what he sees as Western “infiltration.” And the Rouhani administration has contributed to this trend, for instance by ordering expanded ballistic missile development and accusing the US of obstructing Iran’s post-sanctions recovery.
Around the time of the deal’s anniversary, Rouhani evoked further hardline sentiments by warning that Iran would be able to return to previous levels of nuclear development in a very short period of time, as soon as it considered the US to have violated the deal. These remarks, which were quoted in a report by the Eurasia Review seem to be aimed at pressuring the US to help Iran to improve its economic outcomes, perhaps by lifting sanctions that remain in place because they are unrelated to the nuclear issue.
As well as calling into question Rouhani’s moderate credentials, such commentary may raise further doubts about Kerry’s defense of the nuclear agreement, which focuses on the idea that by constraining Iran’s nuclear program it has made the world a safer place. This sentiment has been directly contradicted by Western lawmakers and experts who think that the deal provides insufficient guarantees of Iranian compliance while leaving the door open for Iran to pursue the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems and other parallel components.
In other words, critics feel that by not taking action on Iran’s overall illicit behavior, the nuclear agreement actually legitimizes the clerical regime and makes the world less safe from its most unsavory ambitions. This type of argument was made, for instance, by Representative Mike Pompeo in an editorial at Fox News. He says that Iran’s worsening hardline behavior means that the JCPOA is not protecting American interests and that, “as a result, Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.”
Without explicitly endorsing this message of regime change, the USA Today commented upon the anniversary of the nuclear agreement by expressing the familiar conclusion that Iran’s overall behavior had grown more assertive. Although the article claims that Iran has been generally abiding by the nuclear agreement, it says that the economic effects of that agreement have been very modest in the case of the Iranian population as a whole, but have had a much stronger impact on the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the driving force behind a series of anti-Western provocations.
The IRGC has also helped to shape Iranian foreign policy so that it remains severely at odds with Western interests, as by privileging the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ahead of the international goal of defeating the militants affiliated with the Islamic State. And as the USA Today also points out, these self-serving regional priorities have allowed Iran to drive deeper wedges between itself and other Middle Eastern powers, chiefly Saudi Arabia.
Those divisions have become so deep and so contentious that a highly-placed member of the Saudi royal family, former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, saw fit to appear at the NCRI rally in France on Saturday and explicitly endorse the goal of regime change in Iran.
Many of the commentators on the one year anniversary of the JCPOA have stopped short of calling for such an outcome from alternative Western policies. But many have also pointed in that direction by emphasizing the idea that Iranian behavior has grown worse and that rapprochement has proved unworkable. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center declared that Iran’s increasing aggressiveness in the midst of expanding macroeconomic opportunities constitutes “an ominous trend line for anyone concerned about Iran’s growing role in the Middle East and its continued interest in one day attaining nuclear weapons.”
But whether motivated by the desire for regime change or simply by a more general and short-term goal of constraining Iran’s worst behavior, a number of US lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to push back against the nuclear agreement over the past year. And they continue to do so on the occasion of the anniversary.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported on Thursday that the House of Representatives had passed a bill aimed at preventing the White House from repeating a deal made in April, in which the Department of Energy arranged to buy 8.6 million dollars’ worth of heavy water from Iran, in order to help the Iranians to remain beneath the cap set by the JCPOA. Although a non-radioactive substance, heavy water is the byproduct of nuclear activities and can be used in the production of a nuclear weapon.
Some of the Obama administration’s detractors described the deal as an instance of directly financing Iran’s nuclear activities using American taxpayer money. As such, the bill to obstruct future such deals passed by a vote of 249-176. It remains to be considered by Senate, where Republican-Democrat margins are much narrower, and it also faces the threat of a presidential veto. But it is also precedes two other bills that the House will shortly be voting on which would undercut the nuclear agreement.
And the Washington Free Beacon reports that Congress is in the process of pursuing legislation related to a parallel issue of Iran policy, namely the payment of 1.7 billion dollars by the US as settlement of a longstanding debt, which some detractors believe was actually a form of ransom paid to help secure the release of four Americans who were held in Iranian jails just prior to implementation of the JCPOA. The legislation in question would force the Obama administration to reveal more information about the circumstances leading to that payment, and would also prevent any other such payments of taxpayer money to Iran or other state sponsors of terrorism.
None of these congressional efforts promises to directly cancel the JCPOA, but in light of recent Iranian threats they certainly increase the probability of the deal being cancelled on the Iranian side. Indeed, the New York Times observes that the agreement faces serious threats from both sides. Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor indicates that the threat from the Iranian side is made worse by the fact that Iran is now facing the “inevitable” disillusionment over its high expectations for financial recovery.
At the same time, the West is facing its own disillusionment in light of the expectations introduced by the White House regarding moderation in the Iranian regime. And it is clear that for many commentators on the anniversary of the nuclear agreement, this is sufficient reason to reevaluate the essence of the agreement and of Western policy toward Iran.