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A year later: Why the Iran nuclear deal has failed

A Qadr H long-range ballistic surface-to-surface missile is

A Qadr H long-range ballistic surface-to-surface missile is fired by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard in Iran on March 9, 2016. Credit: AP

This week marks the anniversary of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. That deal was never about stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It was about resetting the United States’ relations with Iran and the wider Middle East. By that standard, the deal has been a failure.

The Obama administration came into office in 2009 convinced that George W. Bush — and U.S. foreign policy since 1945 — had made too many enemies. The administration didn’t blame our enemies for this: it blamed the United States. Thus, as fast as it could, it reached out to Russia and Iran to reset our relations.

The Iran deal was the culmination of this vision. The deal wasn’t intended to end Iran’s nuclear program. It was designed to take the nuclear issue off the table by pretending to control it, because as long as the United States was focused on the nuclear program, there couldn’t be a reset.

As Obama put it, if only Iran would accept a deal, Iran could “break through that isolation . . . [and] be a very successful regional power.” The point of the deal was to leave a powerful Iran, with Saudi Arabia, to run the Middle East — and allow the United States to exit stage right.

Criticizing the Iran deal itself is, in a way, playing Obama’s game. The more critics attack its details, the more they ignore the big picture, which is that the deal was never intended to impose ironclad controls on Iran. It serves Obama’s broader purposes not by being tough, but by existing.

So the way to look at the deal isn’t merely to argue the details. It’s to look at Iran’s pattern of behavior. If Iran continues to be a bad actor, the deal may be making Iran an even greater power, but it’s certainly not making it into a responsible one. And if it’s not responsible, it deserves to be isolated.

Over the past 12 months, Iran has been anything but responsible. The German equivalent of the FBI has found that Iran has engaged in a “quantitatively high level” of efforts to obtain nuclear and missile technology. German states have made even more damning findings about Iran’s shopping list.

Since July 2015, Iran has tested a nuclear-capable ballistic missiles seven times. The only reason to have a ballistic missile is to deliver a nuclear bomb: no other weapon justifies the cost of developing a missile.

As Americans know, Iran has a history of holding hostages. Since early 2016, the Iran regime has arrested at least four Iranians with dual citizenship, and held them either without charge, or on spurious claims of espionage. Iran’s human rights record has worsened since the deal.

And then there is Iran’s relationship with the Bashar Assad regime of Syria. The United States is tacitly collaborating with Iran, and its Shia militia, to fight ISIS, which helps Assad survive. But it was Assad who, through his brutal suppression of the 2011 revolt against him, led Sunnis to turn to ISIS. By siding with Iran, we are, in practice, siding against the overwhelming majority of the Muslim Middle East.

Here’s the bottom line. The Obama deal was frontloaded, specifically to make it hard for any future U.S. administration to change. The administration has led the charge to bring Iran back into the world’s financial system, which will make it tougher to reimpose sanctions if Iran breaks the deal.

The only conclusion you can draw from that is that the administration was more afraid its critics would tear up the deal than it was of future Iranian violations. It avowedly sees the deal as the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare: a legacy achievement.

And that’s why the deal is a failure. It was based on a fantasy about the Iranian regime. Now the deal is like a statue in the desert: a legacy that testifies only to the illusions of those who built it.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.