Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after he had repeatedly labeled the agreement as a “bad deal.” Though the Iran nuclear deal may not have been perfect, it was well designed for its intended purpose. Moreover, placing additional sanctions and economic pressure are not sufficient to compel Iran to forgo its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Rather, if Israel, the U.S., and the broader international community want to comprehensively resolve the dispute over Iran’s illicit nuclear program, they must also consider the roots of Iran’s motivations to develop nuclear weapons.
The purpose of the JCPOA was only to temporarily take the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program out of the regional equation while turmoil was increasing in the Middle East, in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Thus, the nuclear deal was set up to ensure that Iran would not acquire a nuclear weapon for at least the next ten to fifteen years to eliminate the risk of creating an added level of conflict in the region.
Of course, from Israel’s point of view, that was not good enough. The conflicts elsewhere in the region were not as concerning for Israel, the deal did not address Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, and Israel was looking at the big picture. Israel knows that ten to fifteen years in international politics goes by in the blink of an eye and Iran would be able to continue enriching uranium, with potentially less pressure after the agreement expires. Indeed, Israel was, understandably, opposed to the JCPOA not necessarily because it thought Iran would cheat through the deal, but because Israel saw the nuclear accord as relatively short sighted and not sufficient to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the long run.
Nevertheless, because the JCPOA was not just an agreement between Iran and the United States, but with five other nations as well – Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain – all of whom have chosen to remain in deal, America’s unilateral withdraw from the nuclear accord may only dilute future international pressure on Iran. In addition, economic sanctions can only go so far as to delay Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon and push it to only agree to temporary accords such as the JCPOA. This is because, from Iran’s point of view, the possession of a nuclear weapon can serve as a security deterrent in the Persian Gulf and is a symbol of their nationalist pride.
The root of Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). After Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was able to invade and push back Iran in the south near the Persian Gulf, the newly established Islamic Republic saw the Gulf region as a serious source of vulnerability and this became its top national security concern. Iran began its nuclear ambitions shortly after the war because they saw possessing a nuclear weapon as a valuable security deterrent against Saddam Hussein via the Gulf. Today, in the post-Saddam era, Iran primarily desires a nuclear weapon as a deterrent against its rivals in Saudi Arabia who have superior military capabilities. Iran is also concerned with America’s large military presence in the Gulf, which has persisted since it ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in neighboring Iraq. From the Islamic Republic’s point of view, both are a threat and possessing a nuclear weapon would serve as an effective deterrent against adversaries in the Gulf.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are also driven by its nationalist sentiments. Iran has long held a narrative of suffering from Western imperialism. The Iranian leadership claims that the West has often used their country and treated them unfairly. Consequently, even the average Iranian citizen, who may not support the Islamic Republic’s theocratic policies, supports the nuclear program because they see it as a symbol of defiance and independence from Western intervention. With that being said, Western sanctions and isolation only reinforce Iranians’ desire to continue to enrich uranium out of nationalist pride. This does not at all justify Iran’s nuclear aspirations nor is it to suggest that sanctions and economic pressure are inherently impractical, as the sanctions have played a role in delaying Iran’s nuclear breakout time and pushing it to make concessions, but it does mean that a comprehensive solution over Iran’s nuclear program requires a more nuanced approach rather than just an economic bargain.
A first step towards reducing Iran’s desire for a nuclear weapon may be to mediate a regional security deal in the Persian Gulf. By providing Iran and the Arab Gulf states a negotiated security package, possession of a nuclear weapon may seem less necessary for deterrence. This is something the EU-3 attempted during the nuclear negotiations between 2003-2005, but they did not have the resources to provide the Iranians with a satisfactory security deal. As Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, writes in her report “Decade of Diplomacy,” “while the EU-3 had the economic clout to negotiate a deal, they lacked any influence in the security realm or potential impact on the strategic picture in the Gulf – two important issues for Iran.” America was unable to backup their European counterparts with the necessary and sufficient resources for a deal at the time because America was “licking its Iraq wounds” from the rising insurgencies after ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Israel, America, and the international community have long contested Iran’s nuclear program, but they will need a slight paradigm shift in their approach if they want to resolve the issue once and for all. The JCPOA was created as a temporary accord precisely because it was only made out of economic pressure and desperation. Therefore, whether it is during or after the nuclear agreement expires, America and the Europeans will need to regroup, not just to reimpose international sanctions on Iran, but also to provide the tools for a security arrangement in the Persian Gulf that Iran and the Arab Gulf states would mutually agree to. By recognizing the need for a regional security framework in the Persian Gulf, the international community may just be able to reach a real diplomatic breakthrough with Iran without jeopardizing the security of Israel and the broader region.