In the wake of the terrorist sprees in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., world attention has fixated on the danger posed by the Islamic State to the West. While certainly merited, the acronym ISIS is not the only four-letter word to worry about. Iran is another.
Iran? Wasn’t that pushed to the back burner by the nuclear deal reached this summer? According to what the White House at the time called a “historic agreement,” Iran was to take a number of specific steps to ensure the world that it was suspending its nuclear program in return for a lifting of the international economic sanctions that had crippled the Iranian economy, including the unfreezing of over $100 billion in Iranian assets.
But the confluence of two events this month suggests a pattern of Iranian evasion from which much of the international community, so invested in the nuclear deal, prefers to avert its eyes.
First, the International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with ensuring that Iran comes clean about its past nuclear activities, announced that Iran had complied with its obligations, leading the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to gloat: “Iran’s nuclear case was closed in the IAEA forever.”
Yet, the report that IAEA director Yukiya Amano presented to the 35-nation IAEA board on Dec. 15 hardly justified this go-ahead. It found that the Iranians were less than forthcoming about the totality of the country’s earlier nuclear work, and that although its formal nuclear program ended in 2003, there was evidence, despite Iranian denials, of further activity through 2009.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran’s stonewalling didn’t matter, a conclusion to which the IAEA has now given its stamp of approval. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, calling this a “big victory,” predicted the international sanctions could be history within weeks, presumably before Iranian elections in February. Indeed, the IAEA’s sign-off was a prerequisite to lifting sanctions, and Amano announced that he expects the process to begin in January.
The second disturbing event was the announcement by a U.N. Security Council panel that Iran had tested a long-range (up to 800 miles) ballistic missile on Oct. 10. While such testing is not covered by the nuclear deal, it is banned under a 2010 Security Council resolution. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power “firmly condemned” the missile test and criticized the Security Council for dithering and allowing Iran to violate its “resolutions with impunity.” China and Russia, Iran’s chief allies on the Security Council, seemed nonplussed by the missile test, as well as about reports that another such test took place in November.
The White House press secretary, for his part, called the test “a serious matter that undermines regional stability.” But the Iranian defense minister was unapologetic, saying the purpose of the test was “to tell the world that the Islamic Republic of Iran acts based on its national interests.”
Thanks to the veto power wielded by Russia and China, there is little chance of action by the Security Council. In any case, the large stake that the West has in the implementation of the nuclear deal makes it unlikely that such tests will be allowed to derail implementation of sanctions relief and the further normalization of relations with Iran.
Some warned that Iran could not be trusted, that it would either cheat on the deal or wait until the restrictions timed out before resuming its nuclear program. But the prospect of doing business with Iran and the hope that the deal would nudge the regime in a more moderate direction won out. The desire to remove Iran’s pariah status and bring it back into the community of law-abiding nations proved irresistible.
Hope is not policy, and recent events raise serious questions about Iran’s intentions. Those who so enthusiastically endorsed the nuclear deal have been uncharacteristically silent about what has transpired since.
What will it take to get them to acknowledge they were wrong?
Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.