Obama’s Iran Deal Didn’t Halt Aggression—It Ignited an Arms Race

Regime uses sanctions relief to beef up weaponry, leading their neighbors to do the same

An Iranian flag flutters next to a missile. VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images

On July 25, the latest battle in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution’s long war on America occurred in the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

When a speedboat manned by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel approached American vessels operating in open water, the U.S. Navy patrol craft USS Thunderbolt issued a series of warnings, all translating as “stay away, keep safe distance.” The Revolutionary Guards kept coming, as they often do, probing until the USN reacts.

A fanatic’s boat weaving among American warships could disrupt the U.S. formation and cause a collision. Tehran propagandists would tout that as a victory at sea. Worse, an Iranian boat might be a water-borne bomb capable of sinking a big ship. The deadly October 2000 terror attack on the USS Cole is very much on the minds of Navy sailors when Iran’s small boats appear. A suicidal zealot in an explosive-packed Boghammer could zig-zag through a USN defensive screen, particularly if the zealot’s boat is one of several in a “swarm.”

So Thunderbolt went to General Quarters—immediate combat readiness on the warship, its crew members at battle stations with ammo on hand.

Still ignoring the peaceful warnings, the Revolutionary Guards patrol boat closed in on the Thunderbolt and got within one nautical mile of the AEGIS cruiser USS Vella Gulf—yes, a USN capital warship carrying anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) capable of intercepting North Korean and Iranian intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).

Thunderbolt fired multiple warning shots in front of the Iranian craft. According to a U.S. Fifth Fleet press statement, at that point “…the Iranian vessel halted its unsafe approach…”

Iranian boats conduct these probes on a recurring basis. In January 2017, the guided missile destroyer USS Mahan fired warning shots when a swarm of IRGC “attack boats” approached at high-speed. That incident occurred in the Persian Gulf’s southern exit, the Strait of Hormuz. Some 20 percent of the world’s daily supply of oil passes through Hormuz on super tankers.

Tehran regards speedboat bluff as a form of asymmetric military and political warfare waged against The Great Satan America and its allies. If a Great Satan warship suffers damage, so much the better. Should Revolutionary Guardsmen kidnap an American or British sailor, what a propaganda coup.

The hostages will attract global headlines—they always do. Freeing the hostages may garner Iran a political concession or two. All the better if Western hostages cower in the face of Iranian Islamic revolutionary courage. Model the bravado of the 1979 Tehran embassy take-over, when Khomeini’s War Against The American Great Satan began!

The ayatollahs will continue to pursue their brand of gunboat diplomacy against The Great and Lesser Satans until they obtain The Great Equalizers: nuclear weapons and ICBMs that can target the world’s multitude of Satans in Washington, Tel Aviv, Paris, London, Ankara, Riyadh and, yes, Moscow. The polytheists in New Delhi better watch out as well.

Iran’s Satan list is incomplete. For over three decades, the dictatorial regime spawned by the Ayatollah Khomeini—though no global power in the traditional sense of economic, political or military might—has been globe-girdling in terms of inciting and exacerbating controversy, revolution and armed conflict. This flows from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s claim Iran would lead a global Islamist revolution.

The violent troublemaking continues. By one count, in 1996 the regime was involved in at least 17 international conflicts, most of them in the Middle East or Central Asia, but its malign tentacles touched even South America. Today Tehran’s tentacles engage well over two dozen conflicts, and likely more since several conflicts in Africa and Asia are wars within wars within wars. It’s no matter, creating violent trouble is Tehran’s business. That’s the regime’s past and present.

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None of this is a surprise for those who see the world through honest and open eyes. In a speech in April 2016, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (at the time he was merely a retired general) said the U.S. should recognize Iran not as a nation-state but “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem…”

He added, “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East. For all of ISIS and AQI’s –AQ –al-Qaida’s mention everywhere right now, they’re (Iran) an immediate threat. They’re serious.”

Indeed, the ayatollahs are serious and enduring. They seriously want to pursue global revolution, they seriously want a nuclear bomb to promote and protect that revolution, and they seriously want the money and time to build their nuclear arsenal.

Yet former President Barack Obama claimed the ayatollah regime could be trusted to observe the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that would assure not quite peace for our time but maybe possibly let’s hope delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program for 10 years—and maybe in the interim create a middle class and maybe moderate Tehran’s behavior and maybe possibly until November 2016 distract American media from Obama’s grand foreign policy failures in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Korea and the South China Sea.

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At a speech in Youngstown, Ohio delivered the same day Thunderbolt fired warning shots at the Revolutionary Guard, President Donald Trump fired a verbal warning shot at Tehran and the JCPOA: “If that deal doesn’t conform to what it’s supposed to conform to, it’s going to be big, big problems for them. That I can tell you. Believe me,” Trump said. “You would have thought they would have said, ‘Thank you United States. We really love you very much.’ Instead, they’ve become emboldened. That won’t take place much longer.”

Trump knows the Iran deal is no deal for America and its allies. In September 2015, speaking at a Tea Party rally, candidate Trump declared, “Never ever ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran.”

Trump was right in 2015, Mattis was right in 2016, and Trump was right on July 25.

Tim Stafford at The National Interest summarized several JCPOA flaws that no competent American negotiator would have permitted:

“The agreement resulted in Iran receiving significant sanctions relief in exchange for accepting a range of restrictions on its nuclear program. Were these restrictions permanent, Iranian willingness to adhere to them might be sufficient. However, many of the key restrictions expire in a number of years—six in the case of ballistic-missile development, eight in the case of Iran’s overall enrichment capability and 13 in the case of a prohibition on enriching uranium to weapons-grade level. Accordingly, the benchmark for success must be set higher. The JCPOA can only be said to be working if progress is being made on the broader goal of discouraging Tehran from returning to enrichment when the restrictions on its program cease to be mandatory.”

In other words, Obama’s very bad deal allows Iran to retain uranium enrichment capabilities that can start enriching on the unfurling of an ayatollah’s robe.

Stafford notes that Iran is improving its defenses protecting its nuclear sites. Improving air defenses has been a long term Iranian goal and sanctions relief has certainly accelerated that program. Tehran made a significant upgrade in 2016 when it deployed Russian S-300 surface to air missiles around its Fordow underground nuclear fuel enrichment facility.

Obviously, the JCPOA did not slow Iran’s military build-up. In September 2016, Fred Fleitz with Fox News noted that and specifically referenced Fordow:

“So, if the Obama administration’s claims are true—that the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran halted the threat from Iran’s nuclear program—why is Iran increasing its defenses of this sensitive nuclear site? There are two reasons. First, the nuclear agreement is a fraud. Second, Tehran is preparing to gut it… If Iran has truly agreed not to enrich uranium at Fordow for 15 years, there obviously was no reason to deploy advanced anti-aircraft missiles at this site now unless it was planning on violating the JCPOA in the near future.”

Fleitz also decried the JCPOA’s weak verification provisions. I have as well.

Iran can temporarily deny inspectors access to key military facilities. Denial begins a two-week negotiating period, i.e. time to remove illegal equipment. The negotiating period could be extended. Temporary denial can continue for months.

Scan the agreement and from its alphabet soup of bureacratese and appeasement emerges a sense that the concoction is more symbolic sentiment than policy, crafted by a president steeped in symbolic sentimentalism who willingly ignores over three decades of concrete and verifiable Iranian misdeeds.

Obama said his JCPOA would halt an arms race in the Middle East. The opposite has occurred. The JCPOA has ignited a larger arms race, with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies enlarging their arsenals. They fear an Iranian bomb. They also see Iran using its sanctions relief to buy new weapons. Effectively, the JCPOA is undermining U.S. allied nations in the Middle East while giving the ayatollahs implicit consent to do what they were doing anyway: acquire nuclear weapons.

So what should the Trump administration do? In 90 days, when JCPOA compliance must once again go through the certification ritual, Washington should tell Tehran that the very bad deal is simply too flawed to work. Look at those missiles around Fordow. Bad. Look at the dangerous game of speedboat bluff. Terrible. Not good.

Reagan’s arms negotiations with Moscow were never totally detached from Russia’s behavior in other areas. Deeds mattered. The JCPOA’s biggest fundamental flaw is that it ignores the big picture. It tries to separate Iran’s violent policies and behavior from its nuclear weapons program, even though that program is central to the Iran’s revolutionary goals.

If Tehran’s ayatollah dictators want the JCPOA to continue, then their regime must demonstrably change its behavior. Here are four demands the Trump Administration should make in exchange for continuing the JCPOA and improving its verifiability. Tehran must immediately end its proxy war in Yemen. In a New York minute it must stop destabilizing Bahrain. It must terminate its program to develop intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles—and we get to inspect to missile development facilities. Finally, Iranian forces must stop interfering with U.S. Navy operations. Yes, ayatollahs, no more speedboat bluff. Halt your unsafe approach.

Will the robes and Revolutionary Guards agree to this new deal? I’ll respond with another rhetorical question: Would a competent American negotiator genuinely concerned with obtaining peace and improving security have agreed to Obama’s JCPOA?

The answer to both questions is “No.”

America, however, will once again be on record opposing the ayatollahs’ quest for nuclear weapons, and for Revolutionary Guards, speedboat bluff would become a riskier endeavor.

Austin Bay is a contributing editor at StrategyPage.com and adjunct professor at the University of Texas in Austin. His most recent book is a biography of Kemal Ataturk (Macmillan 2011). Bay is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel.