National Security

How a Nuclear Deal Would Make Iran ‘A Very Successful Regional Power’

Analysts say agreement would boost Iran’s economy, military, and destabilization of region

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran / AP

In a December interview with NPR, President Obama said a potential nuclear deal with Iran would represent a significant opportunity for the Islamic Republic.

By agreeing to limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, Obama said, Iran could become "a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody."

As negotiators with the United States, Iran, and other world powers struggle to complete a final nuclear pact in Vienna, analysts say Obama was likely correct about the ability of a potential agreement to strengthen Tehran’s regional position. But he might have misread just what Iran will do with its newly acquired strength.

If a nuclear deal is reached, Iran could have access to tens of billions of dollars after the lifting of sanctions—a concession that could benefit the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), boost Tehran’s floundering oil industry, and enable it to further destabilize the Middle East through its pursuit of regional hegemony.

"Iran will almost certainly become the preeminent power in the Gulf" after a deal, said Robert Joseph, former under secretary of state for arms control and international security in the George W. Bush administration, at a Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday.

He added that the Obama administration’s notion that a nuclear agreement could help moderate Iran’s regional behavior and support for terrorism is "sheer fantasy."

Under the proposed deal, Iran could obtain as much as $100 billion in oil revenues frozen overseas as the United States rescinds sanctions on companies that do business with Tehran. Iranian officials have also said they intend to reestablish their contacts with oil buyers and double their crude exports if restrictions are suspended—raising the country’s exports from 1.2 million barrels per day to 2.3 million barrels.

The resulting boost to Iran’s economy would benefit the IRGC, Reuters reported on Monday. The militant group, which is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and has trained and armed partner militias throughout the Middle East, owns front companies in several Iranian industries. If the sanctions are repealed, foreign companies could enter business agreements with these front firms while appearing to maintain their distance from the IRGC.

The IRGC has expanded its influence in Iraq and Syria in recent years, where it has backed sectarian Shiite militias in battles with Sunni militants.

"The Obama administration now has an agreement in principle with a regime that has few principles except expanding its power and exporting its revolution throughout the region," said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at Heritage.

Michael Doran, a former senior director in the National Security Council during the Bush administration, said that by conceding a right to enrich uranium for Iran and including a sunset clause of about a decade in a potential deal, the United States has signaled to regional allies that it has "gotten out of the Iran containment business."

Instead, the Obama administration has created the perception that it is simply "managing [Iran’s] rise," a prospect that has alarmed allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. officials have even suggested that they could partner with Iran to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this year that attacks by Iranian-backed militias against IS are a "positive thing," though he raised concerns about the sectarian groups’ influence on the long-term stability of Iraq.

Doran said the notion that Iran can be an ally against IS is "simply not true." A total defeat of IS would not be in Tehran’s interests because it has exploited the group’s rise to facilitate "Iranian hegemony over the region," including in Iraq and Syria, he said.

If a post-deal Iran—flush with cash and even more dominant in the region—decided to moderate its behavior and pursue more cooperation with the United States, it would represent a dramatic break with Tehran’s foreign policy since its violent revolution in 1979, he said.

"When in the course of human history has someone gotten $100 billion at the stroke of a pen and decided that everything it did in the last 30 years is wrong and changed course?" he said.