If Trump overrules nuclear deal, Iran may turn to ISIS
With Rouhani's government the best hope for stability, the incoming US administration should think twice about tearing up the JCPOA agreement
President-elect Donald Trump seems likely to introduce a sea change in American foreign policy. Short on specifics, he is, for one, widely expected to discontinue the Iran policy of the Obama administration.
Trump has made known his dislike for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and some of his picks share this view. Mike Pompeo, the presumptive CIA Director, tweeted, for instance, that he looks forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal.” Michael Flynn, the soon-to-be National Security Advisor, has opposed the agreement in the past, too.
Congress, which has already passed a ten-year extension to the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), has vowed to introduce more sanction-related bills targeting the missile industry, among others. The president-elect is expected to sign this legislation into law and has made it known his administration will discourage international banks from underwriting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which Iran desperately needs to revitalize an economy devastated by years of mismanagement and sanctions.
Unsurprisingly, these developments have intensified the power struggle in Tehran. The country’s political system is based on a series of complex arrangements among elites whose power bases are anchored either in state or parastatal domains. As a rule, the president and the state bureaucracy compete with the parastatal Revolutionary Guards, its “civilian” branch (the Basij) and the large revolutionary foundations. With a presidential election scheduled for May 2017, the battle is becoming increasingly intense.
The government of President Hassan Rouhani has insisted that the decision to sign the deal for sanction relief in exchange for rolling back Iran’s nuclear program was a sound one. But his administration is hard pressed to explain the new American sanctions, and government officials attest that the pressure on international banks has made it hard to attract FDI. Desperate to retain the presidency, Rouhani, and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have urged Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, to convene a commission meeting on JCPOA implementation. The Iranians contend that the extension of the ISA is a violation of the nuclear deal.
Ayatollah Khamenei barred Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from running again, but a hard-line “Principlist” coalition under any of the rumored contenders, including Saeed Jalili, could have far reaching consequences. The Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Defense’s Field of Expansion of Deployment of Advanced Technology (FEDAT), the two forces in charge of the nuclear program, may well be minded to block the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from inspecting certain sites. Both Mohsin Fakhrizadeh — a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary Guards and the director of FEDAT — and Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, who is the chief of Ahmadinejad’s Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, seem likely to countenance the so-called “sneak out” strategy.
Certainly, opponents of the JCPOA plan to turn the deal into a major election issue. A Principlist coalition comprising followers of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with key elements in the Guards and the Basji, assert that Rouhani was tricked into the deal by a “treacherous America.” Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, a hardline member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, distributed notes from a meeting between Zarif and members of the committee. According to Ghoddousi, the Foreign Minster admitted that he was naive to trust the US Secretary of State, who had assured him that Congress would let the ISA expire and that the United States would not impede international financing. Zarif and government spokesmen vehemently denied that such a conversation took place, but the incident is a preview of the election battle lines. Should the Trump administration and Congress hollow out the sanction relief promised by the JCPOA, Rouhani may lose the presidential ballot.
More than that, Iran may institute a clandestine enrichment of uranium without renouncing membership of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Also as part of the “sneak out”, the Guards may find themselves inclined to revive the so-called Possible Military Dimension efforts — IAEA terminology for weaponization tests. Fakhrizadeh and the Revolutionary Guards may even take this course without the tacit support of Khamenei.
If Trump is serious about eradicating ISIS, Washington needs to be assured of at least a modicum of good will from Tehran
This would not be the first time that elements of the Revolutionary Guards went behind the back of the government. For example, when Ayatollah Khomeini decreed, in 1981, that the Koran was not compatible with weapons of mass destruction, the Guards — and key leaders of his regime, such as Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — revived the Shahs’ nuclear program. Tellingly, by the time that Khomeini, under intense pressure from Revolutionary Guard commanders, lifted his fatwa against the bomb in 1985, the infrastructure for the nuclear project had already been laid.
Although ISIS has suffered a string of defeats lately, it is still a force to be reckoned with. If the incoming US administration is serious about eradicating ISIS, a promise which Trump has repeatedly made, Washington needs to be assured of at least a modicum of good will from Tehran. The JCPOA paved the way for tacit cooperation between Tehran and Washington in countering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While the Iranians have mostly supported Iraqi militia forces, the US air campaign and training has focused on backing the regular Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against the terror group.
A vengeful, hardline government in Tehran could use ISIS in a tactical way against American interests. Again, it would not be the first time that the Revolutionary Guards had forged a tactical alliance with a sworn enemy. The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the Guards sheltered senior members of Al Qaeda, including one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, and his family, after they fled American forces in Afghanistan. Despite repeated requests from Washington the regime refused to extradite the members of the group. Worse, American intelligence believes that some Iranian-based al Qaeda terrorists acted as regime proxies in attacks against Americans. It would be hardly inconceivable for the Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Guards, to employ ISIS in a similar capacity.
Critics in Washington have complained that Iran has become more aggressive after the JCPOA. They have also pointed out that the Revolutionary Guards have used some of “JCPOA dividend” for financing terrorism. There is undoubtedly some truth to this claim, as John Kerry admitted some time ago. That parastatals like the Guards would replenish their coffers in the post-sanctions era is, of course, part and parcel of Iran’s “negotiated political order”. But, after joining the Terrorist Financing Convention (TFC), Rouhani made the Guards’ financial dealings more difficult. Consequently, large banks such as Bank Sepah and Bank Melli, once the hub of the Guards’ financial empire, have now liquidated those accounts. The Quds Force is also capable of further destabilizing some of the hot spots in the region, including Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territory. For example, Brigadier General Mohamed Ali Al Falaki, a retired Guards commander, recently announced the creation of the Shi’ite Liberation Army, which will “liberate Israel” in 23 years.
Behind the scenes, the Rouhani government has also acted to curb potentially destabilizing actions attributed to the Guards or the Basji, now headed by Gholamhossein Gharib Parvar, an extremist who used highly brutal methods to put down the Green Movement protest in 2009. In one pivotal case, after a Basji- inspired mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the execution of the prominent Shi’ite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, the administration rushed to calm tensions with Riyadh. Although diplomatic relations between the two countries remain suspended, Quds Force provocations have been apparently curbed.
Given the grim implications of any of the above scenarios, the Trump administration should accept the nuclear agreement but there are ways to tighten it — such as additional inspections, or tightening of sunset clauses. Trump should also engage with Iran to curb its ballistic missile program to preserve stability in the region.
Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a senior research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara, where his research focuses on Iran’s foreign policy. He is the author of Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). His writings have appeared in The National Interest, Middle East Policy, the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and Asian Affairs among others. He tweets as @Farhadrezaeii