January 16, 2016, was a milestone in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was the day that the nuclear deal with the United States was implemented and most sanctions on Iran were lifted. Iran immediately received access to more than $100 billion in frozen oil funds, and that’s only the beginning of the bonanza. Iran is once again shipping oil to Europe, and European companies are once again flocking to Iran to conclude deals. German auto manufacturer Daimler has already announced a joint venture with two Iranian firms to produce Mercedes-Benz trucks and Airbus is about to sell 114 civilian aircraft to Iran Air.
U.S. firms are not quite as eager to rush in because some U.S. sanctions (tied to Iran’s support of terrorism and its ballistic missile development) remain in effect. But one wonders how long that will last?
Already one reads headlines such as (over a Reuters article) “Reformist gains in Iran election clear way for business boom.” Mind you, those supposed “reformists” who gained ground in Iran’s Feb. 26 election generally favor the nuclear program and the destruction of Israel—they are only “moderate” on some domestic issues and only in comparison to the most extreme Shiite extremists. The real moderates were disqualified from running. And those who are winning seats are being elected to Iran’s powerless, rubber-stamp parliament. The real decisions are made by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in collaboration with the generals of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But the illusion of elections is achieving what Tehran wants—which is to break its international isolation and to give Europeans and American an excuse to do business there.
This is occurring, of course, while Iran continues to test long-range ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions and to support militant Shiite groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, among other places. Particularly odious is Iran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime which has been responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria’s civil war, a conflict estimated to have already cost 470,000 lives and turned millions of other people into refugees. While President Obama assured us that Iran’s windfall profits from the nuclear deal would be spent at home, it is certain that the IRGC, which is charged with exporting the Iranian revolution abroad, is spending this money to finance war crimes in Syria and beyond.
The next president could change this parlous state of affairs. The U.S. is not bound by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known. It is an executive agreement, not a treaty. Obama signed this piece of paper with the support of perhaps one-third of Congress and one-third of the country at large. The next president could announce that he (or she!) is reimposing sanctions on Iran until such time as the mullahs agree to terminate, rather than simply to temporarily suspend, their nuclear-weapons program.
Such sanctions would, of course, need the support of our European and Asian allies to be effective, and there will be a strong lobby in both Europe and Asia to maintain lucrative business ties. But it should be possible for a determined president to recreate the anti-Iran coalition that Obama sundered. The U.S. could even, once again, threaten “secondary sanctions” on any foreign firms that do business with Iran. Forced to choose between the Iranian and American markets, international conglomerates will once again decide that it is not in their interest do business with the world’s most active state supporters of terrorism.
Unfortunately neither of the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, has given the slightest indication of any willingness to tear up the deal. Sanders even promises to go further by opening diplomatic relations with Iran. On the Republican side, both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have vowed to end the Iran deal but Donald Trump hasn’t. The GOP frontrunner criticizes the accord in one breath and, in the next, promises to stick with it, because he doesn’t like to tear up “contracts.” As if a deal with a country sworn to America’s and Israel’s destruction is the same thing as a deal to build a golf course. If Cruz or Rubio were to win the presidency, the odds of once again isolating and containing Iran would be good. But if any of the other major candidates prevail, it appears likely that Iran’s campaign to rehabilitate its image, even as it continues an unprecedented power grab in the Middle East, will continue to succeed.