Are Western states serious about a hasty return to a salvaged version of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran? They should take a hard look at the sum total of Tehran’s nefarious activities and think again.
There is a school of thought within Western policy-making which supports rushing back into a deal that narrowly focuses on the nuclear file before President Hassan Rouhani leaves office in June. Rouhani himself has been calling for a return to the “situation which prevailed” before US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018.
These parties acknowledge Iran’s non-nuclear trouble-making, but complacently argue that this could all be dealt with in talks after the signing of such a deal — while giving no suggestion as to how Iran could be pressured to change its behavior after principal sanctions have been lifted. Let us not forget that between 2011 and 2015, former US President Barack Obama felt compelled to calculatedly ignore terrorist and criminal activities in order to avoid antagonizing Tehran at the negotiating table.
With the world in recent days having largely ignored Iran’s Yemen proxies firing missiles at Jeddah, let us examine examples of Iran’s activities over the past four years as a reminder of why such systematic warmongering cannot be sidelined as the price of a quick return to the nuclear deal by the US.
In 2019, oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia were attacked by multiple rockets and drones, many launched from inside Iran. This followed a series of attacks against Gulf shipping, along with almost constant rocket strikes against civilian targets throughout the Arabian Peninsula, many fired from inside Yemen.
Before the January 2020 US strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, there had been an escalating pattern of paramilitary attacks against Western assets in Iraq, culminating in a full-scale invasion of the US Embassy compound in Baghdad.
Around the same time, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) sought to cover up the shooting down of a Ukrainian civilian aircraft, killing 176.
In late 2019 it was reported that large quantities of Iranian medium-range rockets were being shipped to paramilitary sites across Iraq and Syria, along with the establishment of factories for manufacturing missiles and ammunition. The massive Beirut port explosion has drawn attention to Hezbollah’s stockpiling of explosive materials such as ammonium nitrate in crowded districts of Lebanon.
Iranian proxies are increasingly the dominant parties in political processes in Lebanon and Iraq; where paramilitary muscle has been translated into political power. Paramilitary elements numbering over 150,000 have acquired quasi-permanent status through over $2 billion of annual Iraqi state funding. During 2017 these paramilitaries acquired de facto control of much of central Iraq after they pushed Kurdish forces out. Iran now dominates a contiguous territorial corridor from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.
Iran has sought to subvert the global banking system in its sanctions-avoidance activities, notably laundering billions of dollars through financial institutions in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and a number of other nations. It is one of the top three states responsible for worldwide cyberattacks, often used indiscriminately against crucial civilian infrastructure. Online Iranian entities have sought to subvert democratic processes around the world with systematic disinformation, voter suppression and intimidation.
Hezbollah and the IRGC have been involved in narcotics, arms smuggling and criminal networks stretching through to Latin America, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. The Quds Force has been active throughout Africa, East Asia and the Americas, cultivating terrorist networks to strike Iran’s enemies, including planned retaliation for Soleimani’s death. In Europe, Iranian diplomats have been involved in a succession of planned attacks against opposition elements, including a trial currently taking place in Belgium.
Experienced paramilitary elements like Hezbollah and Kataib Hezbollah train and arm proxy franchises in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and the wider GCC, resulting in transnational forces that can be deployed across borders. The recent assassination of an Al-Qaeda leadership figure in Tehran is a reminder of Iran’s long record of harboring and supporting terrorist groups.
Hundreds of Iranian protesters were deliberately gunned down in bouts of violently suppressed unrest. Iranian proxies also killed hundreds of Iraqi protesters, mostly in Baghdad and the Shiite south. Hezbollah uses violence against Lebanese protesters.
With the necessity of a successor to Ali Khamenei on the horizon, Iran is transitioning from clerical rule toward monopolization of power by the IRGC.
Khamenei is perceived to favor a IRGC hard-liner candidate such as Hossein Dehghan for the presidency next year. This is expected to herald Iran moving in an even more confrontational, militarized direction.
It is refreshing to see US President-elect Joe Biden populating his foreign policy team with figures of the caliber of Antony Blinken, whose decades of experience should mitigate against facile approaches to Iran. This incoming administration faces an unenviable panorama of challenges, but it must recognize that the terrorist regime in Tehran represents one of the foremost strategic threats to global security and act accordingly.
This all assumes that the military strike mooted by Trump/Netanyahu does not blow all plans out of the water. The assassination of leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh may not be the final such surprise over the coming weeks, particularly with Dehghan pledging that Iran will “strike as thunder at the killers.”
Iran’s regional expansionism entered a new and more belligerent phase after the 2015 deal, fueled by multibillion-dollar windfalls from abolished sanctions and unfrozen funds being funneled back into terrorism and militancy. Biden and his European allies must not repeat this historic mistake.
A new deal with Iran must not be rushed into from a position of weakness. Iran has been able to bear crushing new US sanctions only because it assumed that Trump’s successor would immediately sweep all this away.
If Tehran realizes it potentially faces four to eight more years of further increased pressure — this time with multilateral support from other world states — then the ayatollahs will quickly be begging for concessions. While Iran and its allies are at their weakest and most impoverished, this is the moment to force them into a comprehensive deal, including a practical renouncement of terrorism and overseas subversion.
A nuclear Iran indeed represents an overriding threat to global security, and this would make Tehran’s regional warmongering even more difficult to confront.
However, the only deal worth signing is one that also definitively and comprehensively addresses Iran’s overseas terrorism and militancy.