According to the Obama administration, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal struck with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear capabilities, is a landmark and triumphant diplomatic opening with the isolated Tehran regime.
However, there have been multiple underlying issues boiling over into what can only be viewed as an attempt to escalate tensions between the two nations. These allegations hold the potential to undercut the “historic” nuclear deal, either by a breach of contract on the one side or by force on the other.
One such recent challenge toward the U.S.-Iranian relationship transpired at the end of December 2015 when five Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels approached the USS Harry Truman—an American aircraft carrier currently tasked with conducting naval operations in the Gulf Region—before launching multiple unguided rockets in close proximity to the U.S. naval vessel. And while this was not the first provocation, it was the most significant due to its proximity to U.S. forces. For example, the Iranian regime conducted a ballistic missile launch inside its borders in October 2015. This launch drew condemnation from U.S. Congressional lawmakers as well as the United Nations, which claimed the October launch violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.
A lack of clarity, credibility, and follow-through on behalf of President Obama in regards to a deterrence strategy has left Iran apparently guessing at which acts will trigger retaliation by Washington and has left no incentive for the regime to strictly comply with the provisions outlined in the deal. The October launch not only stirred up tensions among Western powers: a lack of serious consequences also prompted a second launch in November 2015. It should be noted that the November missile launch was conducted utilizing a Ghadr-110 medium-range ballistic missile. This weapon system has a range of 1,200 miles and is capable of striking U.S. military assets in the region as well as the nation of Israel. With Iran in possession of such a weapon and with the launches showcasing its capability in using it, the Islamic Republic arguably has no intention of normalizing relations with the United States or backing down from its potentially damaging and destabilizing Middle East policy.
So far President Obama’s lack of resolve in challenging Iranian provocations has generated two probable courses of action: first, Iranian use of “salami tactics”—that is, small violations of the JCPOA deemed not significant or dangerous enough to trigger a major response—bring the regime closer to nuclear weapons capabilities without getting close to any red-line responses from the West; second, the Iranian regime may continue to clandestinely pursue nuclear capabilities, which poses a challenge for detecting these secret violations, even under the JCPOA. This latter course of action is perceived as more likely due to Iran’s extensive history of secret nuclear development as well as weak provisions in the nuclear agreement inspection protocols, making the detection of bomb-related capabilities difficult. Furthermore, the former and more aggressive course of action poses a significant challenge in the near-term as Iran approaches two critical elections in February 2016; the first election for its general assembly and the second for the council which chooses the next Supreme Leader. These domestic power struggles mean that more ambiguous and antagonistic incidents might possibly occur as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei strikes a balance between hard-line rhetoric and following the guidelines of the JCPOA.
In addition, since the nuclear deal was struck and the civil war within Syria expanded into a global issue, Tehran has bolstered relations with Russia. This Russo-Persian relationship may also be a contributing factor for poor attitudes within Iran toward the JCPOA, taking cues from the Russian playbook of hard-nosed diplomacy and prideful political discourse. While relations between Moscow and Tehran historically have not always been smooth, this newly revitalized partnership may be opportunistically geopolitical.
For example, bilateral dialogue between Moscow and Tehran is most often economic and political. This is based upon tension from Western sanctions, energy needs, the Iranian nuclear program, security across Central Asia, and the impact of Western/U.S. involvement in Syria, Iraq, and the greater Middle East. Both nations have denounced regional terrorism, identifying the threat that it poses for their own national security, while at the same time criticizing U.S. sanctions and condemning Western demands for a regime change in Syria. Moreover, both players observe President Bashar al Assad’s stay in power as more preferable to their regional interests and provides the opportunity to exert and expand their influence in this strategically critical country. Their status as two of the world’s largest energy suppliers, combined with their proximity to the Caspian Sea, has led these economic deals to become energy-centric collaborations: new initiatives have been created with Russia providing to Iran a 5 billion USD line of credit, with renewed cooperation over joint transportation and energy projects. Russia also agreed to begin construction of two nuclear reactors within Iran down the road. All of these are preemptive to the planned US sanctions relief as part of the JCPOA.
It is unclear at the moment whether the Russo-Persian relationship will develop into a more geopolitically sound partnership enhancing the JCPOA or dissolve into geostrategic maneuvering that ultimately undermines the new agreement. Regardless, the increased aggressiveness on behalf of Iran and the nation’s stagnating relationship with the United States—even with the JCPOA intact—will continue to create a complicated detente, as no one seems certain that what is presently perceived within Tehran as serialized bluffing on behalf of President Obama will continue indefinitely. The goal of U.S. policy at this point should be to remove all doubts from all actors involved: namely, that the United States will uphold its commitments outlined in the nuclear agreement, even if that means showing a use of force once thought impossible. The JCPOA will amount to nothing if the only ‘tool’ being used by the United States to support it is bluff diplomacy.