If historians in 2020 were asked to single out the most critical events in the Middle East during the first two decades of the 21st century, they would almost certainly list the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the political tumult of the “Arab Spring,” the rise of the terrorist “Islamic State,” and Syria’s brutal civil war. These actions and events led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions of people, produced terrorist groups with global reach, and challenged the durability of the state system that the West had imposed on much of the region following the First World War.
From today’s vantage point, however, it is not at all clear whether the struggle to contain Iran’s nuclear program that culminated last year in the approval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would make the cut. Even four years from now may be too soon to evaluate whether the JCPOA successfully thwarted or merely delayed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and whether it strengthened or weakened Tehran’s quest for full theocratic control at home and expanded influence abroad.
Jay Solomon’s The Iran Wars, however, makes the case that the JCPOA already “ranks among the riskiest diplomatic bets made by an American president in modern U.S. history” (page 8), could fuel a nuclear arms race within a decade, may be undermining the chances for a democratic evolution in Iran, and has encouraged Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to expand Iran’s anti-U.S. and anti-Israel regional subversion. His book is the first attempt to capture in complexity and detail the events leading up to the JCPOA. Solomon concentrates on what he knows best: the diplomatic and economic squeeze on Iran led by the United States. He reported this saga as it happened and has spoken frequently with most of the key Western players. However, his ability to analyze the Iranian side of the equation is much more limited, not due to any fault of his own but to the difficulties inherent in gaining access to a closed political system dominated by one man, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Solomon renders a considerable service by presenting in clear, non-technical English, the evidence that from at least 1989 Iran was developing nuclear weapons. One of his best chapters lays out how Iran created the deceptively anodyne sounding “Physics Research Center,” in actuality a secret facility devoted to weapons research and divorced from the overt, peaceful activities of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. The Center established ties with former Soviet nuclear weapons experts and with the notorious nuclear proliferation network headed by the late Pakistani physicist A. Q. Khan. He supplies a detailed, convincing, and well-sourced description of Tehran’s quest to obtain nuclear capabilities whose only justification—given their huge expense, likelihood of isolating Tehran internationally, and Iran’s abundant stores of fossil fuels—could be to build a bomb. Solomon deftly deconstructs the conclusion of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran stopped weapons research in 2003 by showing how information that emerged after the NIE was written “whittled away” at the notion that Tehran had turned over a new, peaceful, leaf in the nuclear arena (page 132).
Another of Solomon’s significant contributions is to place Iran’s quest for a weapon in the broader context of Tehran’s anti-Western and anti-Israel foreign aggression. The lethality and audacity of Iran’s subversive activity throughout the Middle East is truly breathtaking; Solomon reminds us that Iranian-trained Shia militias may have killed up to a quarter of all the U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq and that the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in southern Iraq after 2005 amounted to “a clandestine Iranian invasion” of that country (page 64). His analysis of the “axis of resistance” formed by Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah is similarly acute. This alliance inspired Jordan’s King Abdullah to warn of the menace of a “Shia crescent” stretching from Iran, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to the Mediterranean. Today, strengthened by the Russian military, it has the upper hand in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Solomon fluently chronicles the economic front in the Iran wars: how an informal alliance of U.S. Treasury Department officials, think-tankers, and lobbyists worked with Congress to sanction Iran’s Central Bank, deprive Tehran of access to the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) financial clearing house thereby excluding Tehran from international dollar transactions, and eventually mount a crushing international near-embargo of Iranian oil. The result was a perfect storm—Tehran’s oil exports fell by two-thirds, the rial collapsed, and Iran’s economy contracted by nearly 7 percent in 2012—that finally convinced Ayatollah Khamenei that a negotiated solution was preferable to economic ruination. Solomon relies heavily on a few well-placed but partial sources to describe this story’s Washington dynamics, but he correctly hones in on the fundamental point: the Obama Administration was reluctant to pressure Iran economically and resisted—until overrun by near-unanimous congressional pressure—such key achievements as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) and terminating Tehran’s access to SWIFT.
The Iran Wars finishes with a fascinating account of “the road to Vienna” (page 234)—the complex 2013-2015 negotiating process that culminated in the JCPOA. Solomon details how an initially secret U.S.-Iran bilateral negotiating track made all key decisions, leaving the rest of the P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council permanent members plus Germany) to agree to its faits accomplis. This particularly irritated Paris, which weighed in unsuccessfully at several points to propose more rigorous restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Solomon believes that Washington initially envisaged a much tougher agreement than the one signed in Vienna; Solomon shows exactly how the administration altered initial demands during the course of the negotiations. At first Washington said it wanted Tehran to comply with the six Iran nuclear U.N. Security Council resolutions and fulfill its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This would in theory have required Tehran to stop enriching uranium, dismantle the Arak heavy water plutonium reactor, close the Fordow enrichment facility (virtually invulnerable as it is built beneath a mountain), desist from ballistic missile research and production, and accept a ban on the sale of conventional weapons to Iran. We now know, however, that the Obama Administration sent high-ranking State Department officials to Oman in the summer of 2013—before the negotiations began—to inform Iranian officials that we would not insist on an end to uranium enrichment in the negotiations.
As a result, the international negotiators arrived at an agreement that put temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
In return for shipping out most of its low-enriched uranium—thus lengthening to about a year Tehran’s hypothetical “break-out” time required to build a bomb—Iran received many tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and was permitted to keep open all of its nuclear facilities (including Fordow), retain over 6,000 operating centrifuges while dismantling (but not destroying) the remainder, and to modify but not disassemble the Arak reactor. After 10 to 15 years, however, these restrictions lapse, and Iran is free to develop an internationally approved industrial-scale nuclear infrastructure. President Obama himself has admitted that, at that point, “[Iran’s] breakout times [to a weapon] would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
Solomon has no inside information that explains why the administration crossed so many of its own red lines in negotiating the JCPOA, but suggests two possibilities. The first is that the administration wanted a foreign policy achievement so badly that it was willing to meet the Iranians much closer than half-way. He observes that refusal of U.S. negotiators to play diplomatic hardball fed the perception “among some diplomats [at the talks] that he [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry] wanted the agreement more than the Iranians did” (page 271). The second possibility—not incompatible with the first—is that the administration believed that offering Iran concessions would make Tehran amenable to an overall rapprochement with the West. Secretary Kerry told the author that “my hope is that Iran will change some of its behavior further so that they can take advantage of what they opened the opportunity for” and went on to explicitly link the Iran deal to progress in Syria (page 281).
We now know, of course, that this last hope was futile. Since signing the JCPOA, Iran has actually increased its regional maleficence by testing ballistic missiles in defiance of the U.N., shipping arms to the Shia rebels in Yemen, interdicting and menacing U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf, and—most harmfully—by funneling IRGC troops and Shia militia into Syria where they are now working with the Assad regime and Russia to turn the rebel stronghold of East Aleppo into rubble.
Although America moved far beyond its red lines, the JCPOA appears to have bought the world a respite by lengthening Iran’s break-out time to a bomb. It is still not clear, however, whether the future historians alluded to at the beginning of this review will assess this as just a temporary setback in Iran’s long march to the bomb or as a decisive turning point that saw Iran turn away from its goal of becoming a nuclear weapons power. Unless or until solid evidence emerges for the latter hypothesis, we must concur with Solomon’s concluding observation that the JCPOA “rather than calming the world’s most combustible region, risks further enflaming it. The Iran wars could just be entering a new chapter” (page 299).
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