U.S. can manage risk that Iran will direct sanctions relief to fund its aggressive foreign policy
Obama administration officials readily concede their concerns that the sanctions relief in the nuclear deal with Iran will free up $50-100 billion in funds that Iran could direct towards funding its aggressive foreign policy but argue that there are several mitigating factors that make this a manageable risk.
- First, the nuclear deal will only lift sanctions related to nuclear proliferation and will leave in place existing sanctions and instruments to both monitor and punish Iran for its support for terrorist activity. Additionally, the nuclear deal, by engaging Iran for the first time in 30+ years, opens up a dialogue where the U.S. can more readily challenge Iran's activities and cooperate to better stabilize the region.
- Second, the sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy to the point that negotiations have become a political necessity, leading many analysts to conclude that the bulk of any sanctions relief will be directed towards these domestic priorities.
- Finally, it should be acknowledged that Iran's aggressive foreign policy would occur with or without the nuclear deal as Iran has consistently funded these activities even while under sanctions but the greater risk is from allowing Iran to continue with its nuclear program, unfettered by any restrictions.
In some respects, however, Iran is more daunting on paper than on the battlefield. Arms expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that while Iran has invested heavily in artillery and ballistic missiles, "the Iranian systems lack the lethality and accuracy to pose more than a terror threat to area targets" other than nearby Kuwait. And it is more than rivaled by the GCC, which even before the recent buildup had equivalent man- and seapower, twice as many modern planes and combat helicopters, and five times as many major weapons. Not to mention the backing of the world's lone military superpower, which usually keeps a U.S. aircraft carrier group in the neighborhood.
The easing of sanctions under the nuclear deal will give Iran billions of new dollars in revenue, but that cash won't necessarily go to the military or to efforts to destabilize the region. "The lion's share of the funding that will be freed up with the sanctions relief will go to things economic," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said last month at the Aspen Security Forum. "Funding proxies, funding the IRGC, the Quds Force and all that, well, they've been funded anyway, even with the sanctions regime. So I'm sure they'll get some money, but I don't think it'll be a huge windfall for them."
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As other nations reengage in trade relations with Iran, the United States will lose control of much of Iran’s frozen assets. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted in congressional testimony on July 23, “We have to remember that those reserves are not sitting in the United States. They're sitting around the world, in countries like India and China.”11 Many of these funds are already allocated to oil projects and security deposits in Chinese banks.12 Iranian officials have said that they have tried to work with nations holding Iran’s frozen assets to have them released, but so far those efforts have been fruitless.13 That would likely change as India, China, and Japan reintegrate Iran into the economic system. In other words, if Congress votes down the nuclear agreement, Iran would still receive its economic windfall, and could use it to fund its unconstrained nuclear program.
Opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran see it as a license for Tehran to wreak havoc in the region. Freed from economic pressure and flush with financial resources, the thinking goes, Iran can be expected to unleash its emboldened minions upon Israel and Arab states and undermine U.S. interests. However, contrary to what the critics say, the nuclear deal is far more likely to curb Iran’s regional ambition. It is rather the instability that would follow the failure of the deal that should worry them.
Iran spent $15 billion on its military last year. By comparison, Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion, and the five other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) spent another $35 billion. The Arab countries most worried about Iranian mischief outspent Iran by a margin of 8 to 1. Iran does not have an air force, and its ground forces and navy lag technologically behind its rivals. The nuclear deal will only widen this gap. At a summit at Camp David in May, President Obama promised GCC countries more military hardware and assistance to improve their ability to police the region. Meanwhile, under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran would have to wait another five years for a U.N.-imposed arms embargo to be lifted.
The deal does relieve economic pressure on Iran, but not enough to change the balance of power in the region. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has estimated that after Iran has paid its creditors, the financial windfall resulting from the deal would be no more than $50 billion to $60 billion, a good portion of which will have to go to Iran’s domestic needs.
But there is cause for optimism. The post-deal windfall will initiate a profound change in the current short-term mindset. As growth and investment begin to accelerate, the opportunity cost of consumption will increase. Every dollar spent in the present will forgo future returns. Consequently, in an environment where wealth creation is possible, individuals and institutions will change their behavior and begin to invest a larger portion of their wealth in order to secure greater economic power relative to other economic actors—the kind of competitive investment that creates jobs and drives further growth. Crucially, it will soon be savvy investment and value creation, rather than conspicuous consumption, which will define power and prestige in Iran.
The knock-on effects for Iran’s political economy could also be profound. The greater the degree to which the full range of Iranian citizens, who currently inhabit separate political and economic classes, invest in a marketplace like the TSE, the less reliant on patronage networks they become. Instead, everyone from schoolteachers to Revolutionary Guard commanders will become shareholders of a more political neutral type of capital. The segregation within Iran’s political economy, determined by the sources from which people earn their livelihoods and derive their wealth, will diminish as a prima facie, structural reason for political antagonism between citizens.
Iran’s domestic windfall should be welcomed as the first step in a post-sanctions era of new priorities and new possibilities. No doubt, foreign trade and investment will make its contribution. But Western political and economic analysts should understand that the creation of a more prosperous and productive Iran will be led from within through incremental but profound changes in the relationship between macroeconomic conditions, microeconomic behaviors, and the political economy as a whole.
Given the low opportunity cost of spending, individuals and institutions adopt short-term thinking. When members of the Iranian elite have $200,000 dollars, they might as well buy a Porsche. These elites have no reason to behave like the so-called “job creators” that a market economy relies on, investing in their own businesses or those of others. In this way, consumption suppresses savings, which in turn reduces the available capital for investment.
There is a corollary to this behavior among key institutional actors as well. Consider the Revolutionary Guard’s spending on its proxy militias, the same spending that policy analysts are concerned will increase following a nuclear deal windfall. The commercial monopolies operated by the military-security faction in Iran have no incentive to reinvest any profits from rents and revenues—there is no effective competition in the market. Without the need to grow its economic capital, the Guard and its affiliates focus on two activities. First, they spend within their own patronage networks in an aim to turn economic gains into political capital. The funding of foreign fighters is just a politically potent version of this consumption. Second, they entrench rent seeking through the control of grey market speculation that feed the unfettered need for Iranians to consume everything from cigarettes and luxury cars to real estate.
At a behavioral level, whether we look at the scion buying a Porsche or the general funding a militia, the inability to build true wealth leads to a fixation with appearing more powerful through prestige and patronage, the dominant currency of political capital in Iran. Yet, regardless of the purchased prestige, neither an armed fighter nor an imported Porsche makes society at large better off. This is perhaps the greatest weakness in Iran’s political economy, the way that the economic creates structural incentives for the country’s politics.
In fact, whether there’s a nuclear deal or not, I predict we will see a more aggressive approach by Iran in a host of arenas around the region, where the upheaval has given them greater opportunities than before.
If there is a nuclear deal, the hardline elements within the Iranian regime, those most opposed to a deal, are also those with the greatest interest and investment in regional troublemaking. They are likely to use their ability to make noise regionally to try and compensate for the power disadvantages they see inherent in a deal — and they are likely to have a green light from the Supreme Leader to do so, because he will want to compensate them for their unhappiness with a deal.
If there’s no deal on the nuclear issue, however, then the Iranian leadership will want to scale up its regional assertions of power for a different reason: in order to solidify or even strengthen its current regional power position in advance of whatever tougher American / Israeli / Sunni Arab efforts it anticipates to contain it.
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The most effective U.S. response to the risks posed by the released assets is not to scuttle the deal or to try to re-negotiate a phased or substantially delayed release which, given the priority the Iranians attached to early recovery of the funds, would have little chance of success. Instead, Washington should work with its partners to counter Iranian provocations. That means stepping up interdictions of illicit arms shipments, strengthening counter-terrorism efforts (including impeding and sanctioning terrorism financing), building up the capacities of America’s friends, and in general demonstrating U.S. resolve to play a strong leadership role in the region, including opposing Tehran’s aggressive regional designs.
Critics of the nuclear deal are correct that nothing in the JCPOA prevents Iran from continuing to engage in destabilizing regional behavior. By the same token, nothing prevents the United States and its partners from countering that behavior, including by imposing sanctions not removed by the JCPOA and by employing a wide range of available policy tools to counter terrorism and illicit arms trafficking. Moreover, while the released assets will put additional resources at Tehran’s disposal, those funds are much more than offset by the substantially greater resources that the United States and its Gulf Arab partners can bring to bear to address the regional challenges posed by Iran.
At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Secretary Lew stated that the United States “will aggressively target any attempts by Iran to use funds gained from sanctions relief to support militant proxies.” U.S. partners in the region will be watching closely to see if Washington follows through on that pledge,
Certainly, Iran will invest some portion of immediate sanctions relief and the long-term health of its economy in its support for groups opposing U.S. and partner interests. But this problem has become wildly exaggerated because of the confluence of a large number - the $100 billion in restricted oil funds Iran would be able to tap - and semi-hysterical concerns that a nuclear deal will leave Tehran as the top Middle East power.
The reality is that Iran has supported radical elements since the fall of the Shah, even during difficult economic periods. As Suzanne Maloney of Brookings has noted, much of this support started during the middle of the Iran-Iraq war, hardly an ideal economic time. Iran continued to support these groups during the lean years of sanctions, investing heavily in Syria even as revenues were hit by sanctions-induced oil export declines and the oil price crash. The issue of Iranian support for terrorism is not whether they have the financial resources to do it but rather whether they have the political will, opportunity, and foreign policy incentive (or need, as in the case of Syria) to do so. A nuclear deal will not change this.
As demonstrations of Iranian intentions, those events were invaluable to the United States, which began a renewed and ultimately successful push to get the European Union to finally ban Hezbollah’s military wing. No genuinely spectacular plots emerged; the combination of intelligence successes against Iranian terrorists and the initiation of serious negotiations seems to have convinced Tehran to desist — another demonstration that the United States can handle Iranian malfeasance in this area.
Whether the plots are inept or not, there is no excusing the Islamic Republic’s guilt. But in gauging the potential threat of a revived campaign of Iranian terror, it’s worth remembering that state-sponsored terrorism of the kind Iran has practiced is not the catastrophic terrorism of al Qaeda and its jihadi followers. Instead of seeking to kill on the grand scale, Iran’s terrorist attacks have always been smaller and carefully calibrated so that its enemies would not use these attacks as justification for military reprisal or retributive war. It has typically sought deniability, which is at least in part also a function of scale. There is a reason administrations of both parties did not consider terrorism a top-tier issue until 9/11, when actors like al Qaeda, which had no state sponsors to restrain them, shifted the paradigm of modern terrorism.
The argument against substantial sanctions relief usually shifts to a simple point: if Tehran can do this much damage with no money, imagine what $100 billion would do. But, this assumes Iran has no better use for $100 billion (a little less than a third of its present GDP) than proxy wars. This defies common sense. Iran’s economic troubles are well established, as are the government’s concerns that they could lead to unrest if unresolved. It also defies history: Iran had this $100 billion in its own hands a little more than two years ago and was not plowing it all into Assad, the Houthis or troublemaking along the Gulf. And prior to January 2012, when Iran’s oil exports were unrestricted it was earning nearly $88 billion per year in oil sales off of $100 per barrel oil. No one alleges that all of that money was going to terrorists. Iran was spending it on all manner of domestic priorities in addition to its foreign policy, as any government would.
Instead, it is far more likely that only a portion of this amount (and subsequent revenues) would go to such purposes. No one can accurately predict how much will go and estimates of current spending in Syria vary between $6-15 billion per year. Assuming such estimates are accurate, if Iran doubles its support to between $12-30 billion it would still be a small fraction of US or GCC defense spending. This amount of Iranian spending can be countered when put in realistic terms.
In the congressional battle being waged over the Iran nuclear deal, critics point to a likely windfall of cash and weapons that could flow from Tehran to terror groups, including the Islamist militant movement Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel.
Yet assertions that Hamas will benefit from the Iran deal are far from certain. Hamas is officially on the outs with Iran — and has been for several years.
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The author argues that Iran is unlikely to dramatically increase its support for terrorism as it fears attribution and retaliation from Western governments, leaving a more manageable threat for U.S. and its Gulf allies.
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Vali Nasr argues that the nuclear deal will not change Iran's relative military weakness in the region and is more likely to make it weaker as the U.S. contributes to its rivals militaries.
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A secret U.S. intelligence assessment predicts that Iran’s government will pump most of an expected $100-billion windfall from the lifting of international sanctions into the country's flagging economy and won't significantly boost funding for militant groups it supports in the Middle East.
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The author argues that fears that Iran will direct sanctions relief towards terrorism and regional adventurism are "wildly overblown" as Iran's domestic economic needs will require the Rouhani administration to "tend to the problems at home and make the investments necessary to sustain their future."
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The author argues that the endemic corruption and waste in Iran means that the expected sanctions windfall will not be directed towards expanding Iran's funding of militants but flow towards the elites, meaning "more mansions and Ferraris on Tehran’s streets."
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Richard Nephew challenges the argument that Iran will "plow its hard-won sanctions relief into regional adventurism", arguing that Iran has far more significant domestic problems to address at the moment and that any diversion could be easily countered by U.S. and its allies in the region.
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Iranians will demand their government spend a windfall from the lifting of economic sanctions on improving the quality of life at home, limiting the degree to which a future nuclear deal could fund Tehran's allies on Middle East battlefields.
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