Nuclear deal will leave Iran militarily weaker relative to its rivals in the region
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.
Iran has a long history of supporting terrorist proxies and promoting an aggressive foreign policy that has caused instability in the region. However, we should be careful not to overstate the impact or threat from their regional ambitions as they have had limited success in spreading their revolutionary ideology. Additionally, recent instability in Iran's traditional spheres of influence (ex. ISIS and Syria), is forcing them to refocus their efforts and reduce funding for other activities.
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.