Testimony of Walter Russell Mead: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Military Balance in the Middle East
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Here, the news is bad. Whatever the JCPOA does in terms of the nuclear program, when it comes to the conventional balance in the region the JCPOA appears to strengthen Iran. The end of sanctions does not just result in a “windfall” gain to Iran as frozen assets are released; it also adds substantial and growing amounts to Iran’s national income as normal trade relations resume, as Iranian oil production expands, and as access to markets for new technology and spare parts increases the productivity of Iranian society. In the short term this means that Iran will have more money with which to support regional allies like the Assad regime in Damascus; in the medium term as conventional weapons restrictions are lifted Iran will have the opportunity to strengthen both defensive and offensive arms capabilities; in the medium to long term Iran’s greater economic clout will substantially increase its political weight both in the region and in world affairs, giving it new allies and making a return to sanctions and isolation increasingly unlikely.
These worries loom larger because Iran, under sanctions and suffering serious economic privation, has nevertheless been able to operate effectively in regional politics, scoring gains against Sunni adversaries that have seriously alarmed some of its neighbors. If an isolated and economically challenged Iran could achieve such results, one must ask what it can achieve under the more favorable conditions that will follow the implementation of the JCPOA.
It is worth noting in this context that many of Iran’s neighbors do not share the Obama Administration’s view that the greatest danger from Iran flows from its nuclear program. Rather, the fear is that Iran’s large population, sectarian fervor and powerful security institutions make it potentially the most powerful state in the region and a threat to the security of its neighbors. For many Saudis in particular, whose close ties to Pakistan’s security establishment give them confidence that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be offset by the existence of the Pakistani arsenal, the nuclear program in Iran is much less threatening than Iran’s apparent ability and willingness to support militias, rebels and Iran‐aligned governments across the region.
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The inevitable increase in Iranian conventional resources and capabilities that follows the JCPOA can damage American interests in three ways. First, if Iran devotes even some of its gains from the agreements to its regional allies and hegemonic goals, it could create a major crisis in the region that would require massive American intervention to avoid the danger of having one country dominate the oil wealth of the entire Gulf. Some countries would be endangered directly by subversion or conflict; others, increasingly surrounded by Iranian clients and allies, would feel the need to align their foreign policy and their oil production and pricing strategies with Iran. The United States could be faced with a triumphalist Iranian regime that would be able to manipulate world oil prices and supplies. It would be extremely difficult for future presidents to create effective coalitions to limit or balance Iran under these circumstances.
Second, fear of Iran can drive American allies and other actors in the region to actions that destabilize the region or run counter to American interests. Concerns about potential proliferation among other regional countries who want to balance the Iranian nuclear program are one example of the potential ‘blowback’ from the JCPOA. But there are others. Saudi Arabia and other oil producing Gulf states could for example ‘circle the wagons’ among Sunni states, tightening their links with military and intelligence services in countries like Egypt and Pakistan in ways that undercut important American goals. Many Gulf countries will see the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear capacity and growth in the quality and quantity of its arsenal of delivery systems as an important deterrent and counter to Iran. This could only intensify the arms race in South Asia and increase the chances of conflict between India and Pakistan. It will also likely lead to more resources and power going to figures in the military and nuclear establishment who share radical ideologies uncomfortably close to those of Al Qaeda and other dangerous groups. Bringing Pakistan more fully into Middle East politics would be a natural and obvious move for oil rich Sunni states alarmed by a rising Iran.
More broadly, fear of a rising Iran increases the incentives for rich individuals and states to deepen their links with fanatical organizations and fighters. Fanatical anti‐ Shi’a fighters may, from an American standpoint, be terrorists who are as antiwestern as they are anti‐Iran. If Iran’s regional power is seen as rising, however, many in the Sunni world will be tempted to support these organizations as indispensible allies in the fight against Iran.
Finally, the perception, plausible to some however incorrect, that Iran now has tacit American support in its quest for regional hegemony will act as a powerful recruiting incentive for radical pro‐Sunni jihadi groups throughout the Sunni world. Sectarian conflicts feed on apocalyptic fears; the perception that Shi’a ‘heretics’ are threatening the Islamic heartland and holy cities in the Arabian Peninsula will make it significantly easier for radicals to recruit new fighters – and to raise the money to employ, train and arm them.
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A policy of accommodation will maximize ‘blowback’ from the JCPOA, throwing the region and America’s key alliances into deep disarray. The more credible the perception is that the United States is prepared to accept and perhaps facilitate a large regional role for Iran, the more the United States will be seen as having taken the anti‐Sunni side in a widening sectarian war. Gulf states who have long considered the United States a reliable protector will see American policy as a threat to their security and will explore new policy options with potentially very dangerous consequences for stability and American interests. The gap between radical and fanatical fighting groups and militias on the one hand and governing elites in the Sunni world will compress; alignments that are unthinkable today could become quite likely if key Sunni states come to believe that the United States has chosen Iran and the Shi’a in the sectarian war. Such a course of action is also more likely to empower hardliners in Iran, as they will be able to make a plausible case that Iran has a historic opportunity to vault into the ranks of leading global powers by consolidating its power in the critical Gulf area.
American allies in the Middle East are well aware of this dynamic. This is why they have been seeking more arms and stronger political commitments from the United States as they brace for the impact of a stronger and richer Iran in the wake of this agreement. Fueling a conventional arms race in the region and making additional commitments to protect threatened states are among the consequences of this agreement; the Congress should take care to inform itself about the nature of these new commitments and engagements that the JCPOA has made necessary.
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Many of those supporting the JCPOA argue that the alternative to the agreement is an American war with Iran. Ironically, in order to balance the regional consequences of the agreement, the United States may well need to assume an increased risk of war in Syria and other frontline states.
One of the reasons that the period leading up to the JCPOA has been so volatile in the Middle East is that many regional observers have concluded that American policy in the region is based on an American acceptance of Iranian hegemony on the ground. For the conspiracy minded, and their number is legion, this goes back to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and then to turn the country over to its Shi’a majority. From an American point of view, whatever one thought of the war itself, the establishment of majority rule represented the triumph of our beliefs in democracy; many in the Middle East viewed it as a deliberate choice by the United States to promote Iran and to check Sunni power. Suspicion intensified when the United States then, despite talk about ‘red lines’ and statements that Assad ‘must go’ remained inactive in Syria as casualties and the refugee toll mounted. Where the majority is Shi’a, many said, the United States supports majority rule. Where the majority is Sunni, the United States does nothing.
That perception has become destabilizing in a region where escalating sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a increasingly dominates the agenda; endorsing the JCPOA without also making major changes in American regional policy would confirm that perception and further drive the region in the direction of radical polarization, religious war, and transnational conflict.