October 19, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Moves Past the Nuclear Deal

•The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 entered into force on Sunday (‘Adoption Day’), virtually ensuring that Iran will receive sweeping relief from crippling international sanctions

• With sanctions relief imminent, Iran is stepping up its regional activities, including sending additional ground troops to prop up its core regional ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

• Iran’s added support for Assad coincides with Russia’s direct intervention in Syria, suggesting that Iran is aligning with Russia—not the United States—despite the JCPOA

• Iran’s support for Assad, and its October test of a new ballistic missile and conviction of U.S.-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian, indicates that the JCPOA will not produce closer U.S.-Iran cooperation against the Islamic State or Iranian regional moderation.


Sunday, October 18, marked JCPOA 'Adoption Day'—90 days after the passage of UN Resolution 2231 that endorsed the nuclear deal—when the agreement formally entered into force. The deal was not blocked by opponents in the U.S. Congress or by hardliners in Iran’s Majles (parliament) or its powerful Council of Guardians, which reviews Iranian legislation. On Adoption Day, the Obama Administration issued the required notification that it will waive U.S. sanctions laws and provide the stipulated sanctions relief, although the waivers will only take effect on 'Implementation Day.' That is the day, expected in early 2016, when Iran is certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to have completed key nuclear requirements such as taking many of its centrifuges out of operation. At that time, restrictions on Iran’s exportation of crude oil will cease and Iran will regain access to the international financial system.

A key question about the JCPOA—aside from whether it would stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—has always been whether and how the deal would affect Iran’s regional activities and international alignments. Answers to that pivotal question might be starting to take shape. All indications are that Iran views the adoption of the JCPOA as removing any hurdles to intensifying its efforts to secure its core regional interests. Under the JCPOA, sanctions relief is linked only to Iran’s compliance with its nuclear commitments, and not to any of its regional or domestic actions.

Far from using the JCPOA as a vehicle to end 35 years of estrangement with the United States, Iran’s leaders now see Russia as a more compatible superpower to align with. Russia shares with Iran the belief that the Assad regime should be preserved, even at considerable cost. Assad is not only a Shi'a ally of Iran, but his regime is the conduit through which Iran arms its key protégé and proxy, Hizballah. Iran apparently values Assad and Hizballah’s survival more than it fears the so-called Islamic State, explaining why Iran has gravitated toward Russia, to which defeating the Islamic State also appears secondary. The alignment of Russian and Iranian interests in Assad’s regime is so strong that Iran dispatched the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, to Moscow immediately after the JCPOA was agreed in July to discuss coordinated assistance to Assad. The apparent product of that visit was Russia’s intervention in Syria and Iran’s sending of additional IRGC-QF officers to Syria to participate in new Russia-backed Assad ground offensives against rebel factions.

The expectation that the JCPOA would produce formal U.S.-Iran coordination against Islamic State forces in Iraq has similarly proved misplaced. Instead of moving closer to the U.S. mission in Iraq, in September Iran joined an intelligence fusion cell that Russia established in Iraq. The center groups not only Russia and Iran but the Syrian and Iraqi governments as well. The three Middle Eastern countries joined the cell in part because Russia likely does not have the same objections to working with Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias that the United States has registered—objections that have thus far kept the United States and Iran from working together directly in Iraq against the Islamic State. All four countries in the fusion cell—contrary to U.S. strategy—envision that relying on Shi’a militias, rather than attempting to win back the loyalty of Iraq’s Sunnis, will produce success.

There are other indications, aside from Syria and Iraq, that the JCPOA will not cause Iran to tilt closer to the United States. In mid-October, Iran tested a domestically-produced medium-range ballistic missile, the Imad. U.S. officials called the test a violation of UN Resolutions banning Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. The test, coming so close to Adoption Day, at the very least seemed to contradict the spirit of the JCPOA and the UN Resolution (2231) that endorsed it. Furthermore, Iranian judiciary officials announced on October 11 that U.S.-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian had been 'convicted' of national security crimes, possibly including espionage, dashing U.S. hopes that the JCPOA would produce his release after 15 months in prison. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has floated the idea of exchanging Rezaian for Iranians held by the United States for violating U.S. export laws, but no such swap appears imminent.

If all these trends hold, it could be concluded that Iranian leaders are conforming to the insistence of Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i’s pronouncements that the JCPOA will not lead to a shift in Iran’s regional behavior or an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. To Iran, the JCPOA appears to satisfy an expedient requirement for sanctions to be lifted, and not the launch of a new trajectory that ends more than 35 years of U.S.-Iran hostility. The two countries still see the region fundamentally differently, with only selected exceptions.


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