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Why the nuclear deal has empowered Iran, for now

The Iran nuclear deal was hailed by some as a way to ease tensions with the West. So far, the reverse has happened, offering hints about Iran's motivations.

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    Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Aerospace Force salute at an underground missile base with launcher units in an undisclosed location in this undated handout photo courtesy of Fars News.
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When the Iran nuclear deal was reached in July, President Obama and other administration officials listed among the agreement’s attributes the potential for a less confrontational relationship with Tehran – indeed, for a new era of cooperation between Iran and the West.

Things haven’t turned out that way so far.

This week, the United States, joined by France and other European powers, took Iran to the United Nations Security Council over Iran’s test launch this month of an intercontinental missile – one deemed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead – in violation of a Security Council resolution.

And in recent weeks Iran has ramped up its involvement in the Syrian conflict, building up both its ground forces and its proxy army Hezbollah to take back territory from United States- and Western-backed rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That’s hardly the stuff of a transformed relationship.

What Iran’s provocative actions do suggest is a conscious effort to demonstrate both to conservatives at home and allies internationally that the nuclear deal does not portend a compliant Iran, regional security analysts say.

“What you have to expect is a stiffening of the Iranian position, a hardening really,” says one European diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive issues candidly. “The regime in Tehran will be obliged to show to the world and to its radicals that it has not caved to the Americans.” 

What's behind Iran's 'hardening' stance?

A further sign of Iran’s “hardening” stance towards the US and the West came Wednesday in a letter from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The supreme leader twinned an endorsement of the nuclear deal with renewed warnings that the US is not to be trusted.

In the letter, Ayatollah Khamenei advised Mr. Rouhani that the intent of the US in reaching the deal was to “fulfill its hostile purposes towards the Islamic Republic.”

Such warnings may be aimed in part at Iran’s moderates – including Rouhani, who has suggested the nuclear deal opens the door to a new relationship with the US. But they may also be designed to please hard-liners who view any dealings with the “Great Satan” as a betrayal of the Iranian revolution, some regional experts say.

“All of this is related to throwing a sop to the hard-liners,” says Michael Eisenstadt, an Iran expert and director of military and security studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Recent actions and tough words are “a signal to the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the like that nothing has changed. It says, ‘We’re going to continue to pursue our interests.’ ”

The recent missile test in particular was designed to let those who are unhappy with the nuclear deal “blow off some steam,” he adds, “while allowing Iran to show some might.”

Iran is clearly feeling a burden has been lifted with the signing of the nuclear deal, Mr. Eisenstadt says. “There’s definitely a greater sense of self-confidence, and maybe they feel they have a freer hand to act with sanctions coming off,” he says. 

He points to reports that Iran has approved a 33 percent jump in defense spending for the coming year.

What Iran is doing in Syria

But Eisenstadt is less convinced that this explains Iran’s ratcheting up in Syria. Rather, he suspects it was the mounting evidence of Mr. Assad’s dire straits, and the growing risk of seeing his forces lose the war.

“I suspect their doubling down in Syria is less a reflection of their own increased confidence than it is a realization that their ally was under serious threat,” he says. 

Clearly, Iran is more deeply involved in Syria than it was a few months ago, making itself a key factor in the conflict’s resolution. “The Iranian forces [and their proxies] have been reinforced substantially,” notes the European diplomat. “They are the shock troops, the front line in most of the offensives.”

One factor that could end up a constraint on Iran’s expanding influence in the region is the renewed and strengthening Russian imprint. Eisenstadt says the Iranians played no small role in convincing Russia to jump into Syria on Assad’s behalf, but he also believes the day will come when the interests of the two diverge.

“Right now they are working together well, the Russians don’t want to be involved on the ground, and the Iranians and the militias are doing that for them,” he says.

Western diplomats who are in touch with the Russians on Syria say the Russians insist they are calling the shots over the Iranians in the Syrian intervention. But even if that’s true now, some are not sure how long that will last.

“Right now, the Iranians are relieved the Russians are there, and I don’t see any friction, but that’s bound to change,” Eisenstadt says. “There’s a fair amount of mistrust between the two. It’s not a natural alliance if you consider the considerable historical baggage.”

The path ahead

More broadly, it remains unclear whether Iran’s post-deal “stiffening” is simply a short-term play to pacify hard-liners or if it is here to stay.

For those who argue that Iran will not change so long as it is ruled by religious hard-liners, Iran’s post-deal activism will only strengthen as an emboldened regime garners billions of dollars in sanctions relief. For “new start” advocates like Mr. Obama, change in the regime’s global approach is possible, but it will measured in more than a few months.

Two tests of which camp may be right are on the horizon. During the next few months, Iran must take specific steps to reduce the scope of its nuclear program to get sanctions relief. And next February, Rouhani will be looking for reformists to make considerable gains in parliamentary elections in part as a result of the promise of a “new start” with America inherent in the nuclear deal.

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