Heritage Panel: Iran Nuclear Deal Would Legitimize Illicit Operations, Impose Few Penalties

Robert Joseph / AP

Experts said the nuclear deal with Iran will rearrange the dispersion of power in the Middle East, putting America in the backseat in regional and international influence and triggering a new dynamic in the world’s most volatile region, wherein there is an environment of distrust alongside a nuclear arms race.

"The deal would, in fact, legitimize their illicit operations, while imposing very few penalties on Iran; that sets up a very dangerous situation for proliferators in the future," James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said Tuesday at the think tank’s panel discussion on Strategic Proliferation and Regional Implications.

Ambassador Robert Joseph said the Iranians will likely become the hegemonic power in the region in the aftermath of this deal, and their intentions with that power have been made clear from the onset. The administration’s assumption that the Iranians’ language is not indicative of their intention lacks logic and sense and shows the administration to be buckling under pressure.

"Iran will almost certainly become the preeminent power in the gulf. The administration’s suggestion that a nuclear weapon will lead to a more moderate Iran is sheer fantasy, all you have to do is listen to what the Iranians are saying," he said.

"The only real barrier to an agreement is the willingness of Iran to take ‘yes’ for an answer. Yes, the Iranians will agree to certain conditions, such as not building buildings that they have never intended to build. Instead of no enrichment, Iran will be limited to operating 5,000 or 6,000 centrifuges under the agreement, but they will also be allowed to maintain in storage thousands of other machines that could be brought on relatively quickly, and R&D and building more advanced centrifuges will go on."

Joseph also said America’s plan to "snap back" sanctions should Iran violate the terms of the agreement will not be as easy as the administration has let on. He said Russia props up Iran as a regional power and sends it military technology, and that Moscow will not reimpose sanctions if it is not in its interest to do so.

"Abandoning the demand for unfettered, anywhere, anytime inspections, once considered essential for effective verification, we will now have managed access, and a dispute solution mechanism, that will allow Iran to delay inspections, and permit Russia and China to obstruct action in the Security Council," he said. "The phasing of sanctions relief and the so-called ‘snap back provisions’ that the administration wants emphasized as a guard against Iranian cheating, have been shown to be more words than substance. The president himself has talked about a huge signing bonus, some say up to $150 billion, and Moscow has been very direct—there will be no automatic reimposition of sanctions."

The aftermath of the agreement would be grim for the region, as Israel is likely to react preemptively in anticipation of Iranian threat. The Jewish state is within range of Iranian missiles, and Tehran has expressed its will to attack them. This is not a matter of power balance for Israel insofar as it is a matter of survival.

"Israel, which is in range of Iran’s ballistic missiles, has warned that it reserves the right to launch a preventative strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, if the deal fails to give adequate safeguards against Iran attaining a nuclear weapon. Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned that, rather than barring a path to a nuclear weapon, the deal is really paving that path, and for Israel this is an existential issue, not a question of building some kind of political legacy," Phillips said.

He went on to say that other countries in the Middle East would develop or buy direct nuclear weapons in an attempt to balance power and counter Iranian threat. Given that Iran has proven itself to be aggressive in foreign policy and hostile to its surrounding nations, its adversaries will look to prepare themselves for the day Iran harnesses nuclear capability.

"Prudent governments that fear Iran are bound to take out insurance policies in the form of their own nuclear programs to spur a cascade of proliferation," Phillips said. "And that would lead to a multipolar Middle East with each country on a hair trigger because they will be lacking secure second strike capabilities, so they will be in a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. So if you think the Middle East is volatile now, just wait."

Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the shift in the United States' approach to Iran sends a broader message of America disengaging influence in the region.

"We now engage with Iran as one doesn’t usually engage with one’s enemies," Doran said. "What the president is doing—quite clearly, actually—is announcing that the United States is out of the containment business as traditionally understood."

American ambiguity is the worst strategic move at this point, he said, as it will put off our allies while emboldening our enemies. That said, it ejects the United States from its prior position of power and influence in the Middle East and usurps control over the country's interests.

"When there are conflicts surrounding your allies, you should take a very clear side. When you sit on the fence, you are distrusted by your friends, and your enemies have contempt for you—and that’s where we are. We are big enough and powerful enough that our friends will not display their distrust and even our enemies will sometimes hide the contempt that they have for us, but when it comes down to determining their actions, their actions are filled with contempt, and our allies' actions are filled with distrust, which means that we have lost our ability to influence and to shape what goes on in the region, a region that remains vital to the United States," Doran said.