Critics also claim that the threat of force could have deterred Iran from expanding its program—another case of wishful thinking. Under Bush, who had a demonstrated willingness to use force in the Middle East, the United States refrained from any military strikes against Iran, even as it developed its nuclear program and killed U.S. soldiers in Iraq. As Obama’s critics accurately point out, it is not enough to threaten to use force: you actually have to follow through if your red lines are crossed.
If the nuclear deal went away, would the Trump administration, or any administration for that matter, bomb Iran if it expanded its uranium stockpile once again to, say, 1,000 pounds? What about 2,000? And what about ballistic missile tests? It is legitimate to argue the risk of an Iranian bomb is so high that the United States should use force to prevent it, and accept the consequences. But it is not persuasive to simply assert that Iran would have walked away from its entire nuclear program in the face of a more credible threat.
None of this means that the Iran negotiations were perfect. Of course it’s possible that the Obama administration and its partners could have gotten more in certain areas from Iran; just as easily, holding out could have scuttled a deal. What seems unlikely, though, is that Iran would have accepted any of the critics’ proposed “improvements.” The deal that many of them say they wanted—where Iran not only abandoned its entire nuclear program, but also agreed to stop interfering in the Middle East—was never in the cards.
It is true that Iran’s behavior in the region has not improved. It continues to prop up the murderous Assad regime in Syria and to fuel sectarianism by supporting proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain. But it is also true that this behavior, which has gone on for years, including when Iran was under the toughest sanctions, cannot be attributed to the nuclear deal. Making Iran’s regional interference part of the agreement would have been a recipe for failure, resulting in both an increased nuclear threat and persistent Iranian meddling in the region. The reality is that, for Iran, supporting its regional proxies is relatively cheap, and absent a broader policy change (which should remain a U.S. goal), is likely to continue regardless of the regime’s economic health, which remains mediocre.
While a boost in revenues from unfrozen assets and increased oil sales obviously provides some scope for additional spending on military activities or terrorism, the regime also has a strong interest in allocating the bulk of any new revenues to its growing population, whose potential discontent is ultimately a greater threat to the regime than any Sunni neighbor. While the regime will seek to distribute some financial gains from the nuclear deal to its security forces, the “preponderance of the money [from sanctions relief] has gone to economic development and infrastructure,” according to General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.