Iran – a Threat to Regional and Global Peace and Security
On July 1, 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had violated a key provision of the nuclear agreement it reached in July 2015 with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1) by exceeding the limit of enriched uranium it was permitted to possess under the deal. (In the deal, Iran had agreed to keep its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium at or below 300 kilograms, or around 660 pounds.) Furthermore, the Iranian foreign minister said his government now intended to begin enriching uranium to a higher level.
This Iranian violation came amid escalating tensions in the region between Iran and the United States. On June 20, Iran shot down an American surveillance drone. U.S. officials assert that the drone was in international airspace, while Iran claims that it was within Iranian territory. Hours later, President Trump approved retaliatory strikes against three sites in Iran before he called them off at the last minute. A month earlier, four oil tankers were attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway through which 30 percent of the global supply of crude oil transits. The U.S. administration said Iran was likely behind the attacks and sent an additional 1,500 troops and military hardware to the Middle East. In early June, two additional oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, near where the other four oil tankers were attacked. Once again, Washington blamed Iran for the sabotage, and sent an additional 1,000 troops to the region. Iran has denied any involvement in the two incidents.
The broader context of the escalation is President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018. Later that month, Secretary Pompeo laid out 12 demands for a new agreement with Iran, by which – among other conditions – Iran would provide a full accounting of its nuclear program and withdraw support for proxy groups in the region. For its part, Iran rejected the U.S. demands. In August 2018, the U.S. administration re-imposed the first round of sanctions, originally lifted as part of the nuclear deal. In November, the administration’s pressure on Iran intensified with another round of sanctions against its oil, shipping and banking sectors. In April 2019, the United States designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization and a month later it sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Also, in May 2019, the U.S. administration ended a waiver that had allowed countries to import Iranian oil, and Washington imposed additional sanctions on Iran that target its steel, aluminum, and copper industries. On June 24, following the decision to abort the June 20 strike in response to the drone shoot-down, President Trump announced the imposition of further sanctions on Iran, aimed at preventing top Iranian officials from using the international banking system.
The economic sanctions have had a severe impact on Iran’s economy. Since last year, Iran’s oil exports have reportedly fallen by more than half; the Iranian currency, the rial, has lost more than 60 percent of its value against the dollar; and inflation has reached 37 percent. The Iranian economy contracted by 4 percent in 2018 and is expected to contract by 6 percent this year. Faced with severe economic sanctions, the Iranian regime appears to have resorted to what has been its trademark strategy for many years: an asymmetrical warfare through proxies, which gives the regime the advantage of deniability.
When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 was reached in 2015, AJC opposed the deal for the following reasons: (a) it didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile development, which continues aggressively and menacingly; (b) the sunset provisions in the JCPOA provided a pathway to a nuclear bomb no later than 2030, if not sooner; (c) weaknesses in the inspection regime left Iranian military sites off-limits; and (d) the deal didn’t address Iran’s regional ambitions and support for violence and repression. Iran’s behavior since the conclusion of the deal has only reinforced our concerns.
Since America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, and the successive re-imposition of sanctions in the ensuing months, Iran’s regional aggression has only further intensified, its military provocations have multiplied and threatened the United States and its allies, and its adherence to the 2015 deal’s uranium enrichment limits has now ceased.
The other parties to the agreement with Iran – France, Germany and Britain, along with Russia and China – still support it. While we share the administration’s criticism of the Iran deal, we urge the U.S. and its European allies to find common ground on this issue. Deepening tensions between the U.S. and its allies on the most effective means to counter the Iranian threat could weaken regional and global security.
Iran’s decision to enrich uranium beyond the limits set by the JCPOA reveals the Iranian regime’s real intentions. If Iran truly wants to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, which is permitted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it can purchase low-enriched uranium from other reliable countries. Enriching uranium is not an inherent right of any state, and in the case of Iran it can only signal a desire to resume the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the trove of Iranian documents obtained in 2018 by Israeli intelligence clearly proves that Iran entered the nuclear deal with the P5+1 under false pretenses. While negotiating, Iran denied it had any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons – but the documents flatly belied this contention, showing Iran had long endeavored to develop such weapons.
To counter Iran’s regional ambitions and support for terrorism, and to extinguish the regime’s apparently undiminished yearning for military nuclear capability, it is necessary to bolster economic and political restraints on Iran, while maintaining military readiness, to induce a return to negotiations and the establishment of a more far-reaching, strictly enforceable agreement to eliminate this ongoing threat to U.S. and global security. Any consideration by the U.S. of rejoining the JCPOA must be conditioned on enforceable constraints on Iran’s missile development and deployment, its regional threat posture, the destruction of enrichment facilities that would enable nuclear breakout in under a year, a lifting of sunset provisions, and unlimited access to suspect nuclear facilities.
To counter the IRGC, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terror organizations controlled and/or supplied by Iran, governments must act to hamper the ability of Iran and its proxies to operate and recruit worldwide. Organizations and individuals funding these groups must be targeted, sanctioned, and punished. It is of the utmost importance to uphold and enforce the U.S. designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Similarly, the European Union and other nations and multinational institutions should designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. (The EU designated the military wing of Hezbollah a terror organization in 2013 but created the fiction of a “political wing” that was unaffected by the designation.) A clearer strategy must be developed to counter Iran’s subversive, and sustained, involvement in the Middle East, with a focus on Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
The continued presence of the IRGC and foreign militias affiliated with Iran in Syria is in violation of Syrian sovereignty. Iran’s efforts to establish military footholds in Syria, as launching pads to attack Israel, escalate the already volatile situation in Syria and along the Israeli-Syrian border. Israel is fully justified in acting to prevent Iran from establishing such bases.
Human rights abuses in Iran remain extensive and ongoing. Abuses include discrimination against women, minority groups, and members of the LGBTQ community, arrests and detention of human rights activists and journalists, and a record number of executions following unfair trials. Freedom of expression has been stymied as censorship and cyber suppression run rampant. In 2017, the State Department designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, as it has annually since 1999. The international community must condemn and act to address human rights violations in Iran, including as they pertain to the Baha’i community, and to hold accountable those responsible for such violations.
The international community must call out, condemn, and actively work to counter unacceptable Iranian policies: repeated calls for the annihilation of Israel; support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah; active assistance to the Assad regime in its murderous campaign against the Syrian people; expansionist interference in the internal affairs of other countries; and pervasive human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and cruel and inhumane punishment, unfair trials, executions, assassinations, and religious and other forms of persecution.