The discussion on Iran within US policy is very often limited to the nuclear issue. Events regarding the Obama era Iran nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are the ones that make the headlines. The truth is however, there are other very important factors that the US needs to consider when determining its stance on the Islamic Republic. These issues are now beginning to come to a head.
The way in which Iran most directly opposes US interests is through its support of militant proxies in the Middle East – most notably the Shia terror group Hezbollah. Iran has for years funneled millions to these organizations. This directly affects conflicts the US has a stake in throughout the region, perhaps most visibly the civil war in Syria.
The other issue (the one receiving increasingly more attention as of late) is Iran’s atrocious human rights record. The government of Iran engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions. These are typically based totally on religious and political affiliation. The numbers of these incidents from the past year alone are staggering. In 2017 so far, Iran has reportedly executed some 3,500 people.
The crackdown on political dissidents is also ongoing. According to a Europe based human rights watch group, earlier this week, a Kurdish woman was sentenced to 50 lashes in Erbil for participating in a political rally. She was officially charged with “attempts against national security, participation in illegal gatherings and disturbing public order.” According to the same sources, other participants at the gathering were also arrested and tortured.
What is interesting to note is that according to the US State Department, violations of human rights in Iran have only increased since the signing of JCPOA, indicated by US State Department reports on Iran for 2016.
Similarly, Iran’s support of terror groups has also risen significantly since the nuclear deal. Reports indicate that funding for Hezbollah, for instance, has increased by a factor of four over the past two years.
There are two factors likely driving this trend.
The first is money. For agreeing to play ball with the West on the JCPOA, Iran received in return a reprieve from the devastating sanctions and lockdown on international assets. Now, Iran has more funds with which to push forward various terror projects such as supporting, arming, and training Hezbollah.
Perhaps more important however is the fact that Iran now feels emboldened to move forward with policies that the West, and the US in particular, may have frowned upon.
This makes sense. Iran wanted the JCPOA to be sealed. The deal was highly beneficial to the country, both financially, and diplomatically as it got many countries off Iran’s back regarding the nuclear issue. Before the deal was finalized, Iran had an incentive to refrain from certain activities that may have furthered tensions with its adversaries. Now that JCPOA is “on the books” so to speak, Iran naturally feels that it has more flexibility. What would have deterred Western nations from entering the deal in the first place, will not be significant enough to make them pull out. This very important calculation on Iran’s part was proved to be dead-on-accurate after several European leaders stated as much explicitly. French president Emmanuel Macron for instance, while acknowledging Iran’s increased negative influence in the region, stated that these issues were not enough to scrap the deal completely.
It remains to be seen what will come of all this at the policy level.
Two months ago, Donald Trump refused to affirm Iran’s compliance with the deal, a key factor in keeping the JCPOA afloat. Trump called the deal “one of the worst deals” ever in the history of US diplomacy and extremely “one-sided.” This decision essentially punted the responsibility to Congress to determine what additional action should be taken. Would the JCPOA need to be significantly altered? Perhaps the deal would be scrapped completely?
During this interim period, many lawmakers were busy strategizing on new legislation to specifically name Iran’s actions that lie outside of the nuclear deal.
Recently, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a major supporter of Iran-targeting legislation, told media sources that he was hopeful that his proposed revisions on Iran policy would come to a vote, as the deadline for Congressional action looms near.
Since that statement by Corker, the December 12th deadline has come and gone. This will certainly increase pressure on both Congress and the administration to quickly come to an actionable plan on Iran.