Iran Advances, Washington Frets

From the start, President Barack Obama and his top aides viewed a nuclear deal with Iran as a singular good – a goal to pursue on its own rather than linked to Iran’s terror sponsorship, its efforts to destabilize Sunni Arab states, its grotesque human rights record or its other problematic behavior in the region and beyond.

With the deal in hand, administration officials argued, they would confront Tehran over its other activities that threaten the United States and its European partners and that alarm our allies in the region. But, recent events suggest, last year’s global nuclear deal has proved far less liberating then paralyzing for the administration. Washington seems so concerned that Tehran will abandon the deal, as Iranian leaders often threaten, that it refuses to confront the regime over its increasingly reckless behavior.

How important was a nuclear deal, and the broader goal of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, to Obama? Important enough that, in a persistent effort not to ruffle the feathers of Iran’s hard-line regime, he refused to support the democracy-seeking Green Movement after Iran’s rigged presidential election in 2009, to confront Syria’s Bashar Assad (a key Iranian ally) as he slaughtered his own people starting in 2013, or to voice outrage over Iran’s human rights crackdown of recent years.

How important does the deal remain to Obama as he finishes his term and ponders his legacy? Important enough, we learned in recent days from the Institute for Science and International Security, that Washington gave Tehran secret exemptions from the deal’s limits on the uranium that it could possess that’s enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent purity, both of which could be quickly converted to weapons grade purity in the future. Without those exemptions, Tehran wouldn’t have received the generous relief from tough economic sanctions that it so desperately sought.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that to avoid ruffling feathers in either Tehran or Moscow, Washington refuses to sanction Russia over the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system it sold to Iran – even though Obama can do so under the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act and the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act.

That Iran has now deployed that air defense system at its once secret, well-fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, begs a large question: If, as Tehran insists, its nuclear program is peaceful, why does it need a sophisticated missile defense system to protect Fordow?

We also shouldn’t be surprised that Washington is standing aside as Tehran expands its efforts to replace Sunni Arab governments across the region with Iran-backed Shiite forces, posing a threat to Saudi Arabia and other longstanding U.S. allies.

Tehran revealed in late August that it had launched a “Shiite Liberation Amy,” led by the Quds Force commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, which is now fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – three fronts of keen interest to the regime. Tehran wants to maintain Assad in Syria, seize control of Iraq’s government through Shiite militias, and impose its authority in Yemen through Shiite Houthi rebels.

The new liberation army consists of not only Iranians but of interested Shiites who are recruited from local populations. That Soleimani directs this new force is no small matter, for the Quds force that he commands is a highly regarded elite force within the aggressive Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Finally, we shouldn’t be surprised that Washington has been slow to react to Iran’s increasingly brazen tactics in the Persian Gulf, where Iranian speedboats have confronted U.S. warships on a growing number of occasions.

In fact, over two days in late August, Iranian speedboats harassed U.S. vessels on four separate occasions – with four armed speedboats coming within 300 yards of the USS Nitze on August 23, three speedboats circling the USS Tempest and USS Squall on August 24, and Iranian boats returning that day to harass the USS Stout and then returning hours after that to harass the USS Tempest.

All told, such Iranian confrontations with the United States on the high seas nearly doubled in number in the first half of 2016, compared to a year earlier. That includes Iran’s seizure of 10 U.S. sailors who strayed into Iranian waters in January and its humiliating treatment of them before their release the next day.

Thus, one year into the nuclear deal, Tehran pursues its global agenda with rising fervor while Washington hesitates to react over fears that the regime will abandon what Obama considers a landmark achievement.

Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.


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