Pettifogging the Iran Nuclear Deal

A post at The American Interest, vaguely attributed to “Walter Russell Mead and staff” criticizes the Iran nuclear deal as “worse than we knew.” That judgement is based on a Politico article discussing the seven individuals that the Obama administration agreed to release from U.S. custody, and another fourteen fugitives for whom they agreed to drop charges, as part of a “one-time gesture” to sweeten the deal for the Iranians.

Politico reports on some of the charges these individuals were accused of: three of them “allegedly sought to lease Boeing aircraft for an Iranian airline that authorities say had supported Hezbollah”; another tried to “buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles and illegally import them into Iran”; another “was charged with smuggling U.S. military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran,” and so on.

The American Interest claims these are “far more serious threats to national security than was previously disclosed.”  But what the Politico article reveals is more detail about the allegations made of men already revealed to be smugglers. To describe them as “serious threats to national security” is an exaggeration. It’s not clear, for example, what exactly is threatening about an Iranian airline with some vague association with Hezbollah leasing a Boeing aircraft, or whether Iran importing more assault rifles meaningfully aids its military capability. Moreover, the fourteen people that saw their indictments dropped weren’t in U.S. custody and thus weren’t about to have their smuggling efforts stopped, though indictment limited their ability to travel. Letting them slide did not obviously increase their threat.

More importantly, neither Politico nor The American Interest directly confronts the Obama administration’s evident judgement that the nuclear freeze it got from Iran was worth letting some shady people off the hook. Does the risk from the releases hold a candle to the problem of nuclear proliferation? How about the danger posed by U.S. hawks ever-eager to use Iran’s nuclear program as a justification for launching another war in the Middle East? Surely, those menacing scenarios are worse than any the released smugglers posed.

The post continues:

[T]he Iran nuclear deal was a gift to Iranian hardliners who, in return for delaying their nuclear ambitions, were rewarded with carte blanche for all of their other activities by an Obama administration that was willing to turn a blind eye in order to preserve the deal.

As Secretary of State Tillerson has noted, while Iran has remained compliant on the nuclear portion, their other activities constitute “alarming ongoing provocations.” The Trump administration, by understanding the threat posed to U.S. interests by Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including these global smuggling operations that support Iran’s deadly agenda, seems likely to change the calculus on U.S. policy towards Iran.

As to the deal being a gift to Iranian hardliners, the Iranian hardliners themselves seem to disagree. In fact, it was hardliners in Iran that objected most to the nuclear deal, arguing that it conceded too much. And it’s hardliners that today seem to benefit politically from Trump’s threats to undo the deal. With regard to “Iran’s deadly agenda,” the truth is that the Iranian regime has always been reprehensible, but too many in the U.S. foreign policy community habitually inflate the threat Iran actually poses in the region, where its posture is largely defensive and its military capabilities are modest compared to most of its neighbors.

Tillerson’s comments, and The American Interest’s take on them, are a typical example of opponents of the Iran deal grounding their opposition on the non-nuclear aspects of Iran’s behavior. But the deal was narrowly conceived to address Iran’s nuclear program. It was a strict non-proliferation agreement. Addressing all problematic aspects of Iran’s behavior would have meant no deal was possible. The right measure of the deal is not whether it made Iran saintly, but whether it improves U.S. security.