March 12, 2021

Iran: More Than a Nuclear Threat


  • President Biden has been seeking to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program, and he appears willing to trade away U.S. sanctions to get a deal.
  • In addition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the country is a state sponsor of terror, it presents a military threat, and its influence extends beyond its own borders.
  • Any deal for sanctions relief should produce a comprehensive and enduring agreement, should include more than just nuclear activities, and should be negotiated with the involvement of Congress and America’s allies.

The Iranians recently refused President Biden’s offer to restart negotiations over their nuclear program. This is not a surprise, given Iran’s history and the Biden administration’s apparent desperation to strike a deal. The Biden administration would be ill-advised to give up the leverage of sanctions, reinstated by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign without a deal that addresses Iran’s non-nuclear threats to the region, like its ballistic missile program, state sponsorship of terrorism, and other behaviors.

Iran’s Influence Goes Beyond Its Borders

Iran Nuclear Threat

ThreatS froM non-nuclear military activity

Ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones

Iran maintains a large and advanced arsenal of missiles and rockets, and it actively proliferates this technology to terrorist groups and other countries. These missiles are capable of reaching Europe and provide Iran with a credible conventional threat. Iran has used these forces to attack civilian infrastructure throughout the region. In 2018, Iran used ballistic missiles in an attack against the Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters in Iraq. In 2019, it launched a precision drone attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, causing massive damage to global oil output. In 2020, Iran attacked a U.S. base in Iraq with ballistic missiles.

Cyber threats

Iran is active in the cyber domain. It attempted to tamper with the 2020 elections and stoke political violence by targeting voters and government officials. Iran also uses its cyber capabilities to commit intellectual property theft. Iranian cyber attackers have also targeted water supplies and other civilian infrastructure in the United States, Israel, and the Gulf. 

Expansion in the region

The Iranians are expanding their networks throughout the Middle East to connect the country with its proxies and threaten Israel and Arab nations. Iran is using what analysts call a “land bridge” to supply terrorist groups and attack Israel from multiple spots in Lebanon and Syria.

Iran threatens global shipping by using small boats to harass, attack, and seize other vessels in critical chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz. On March 2, Israel blamed Iran for a bombing of an Israeli-owned ship in the area. In January, the Iranians seized a South Korean tanker and held it for ransom. In 2019, a naval mine damaged a tanker near the strait. The mine bore “a striking resemblance” to Iranian mines according to the U.S. Navy. Iran also relies on its proxies in Yemen to threaten the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, another strategic chokepoint for the global oil trade.

Threat from Terrorist, Proxy activities

In 1984, the State Department designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran supports terrorist groups and other destabilizing forces across the Middle East region, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Assad regime in Syria. In early 2021, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Iran the “New Afghanistan.” He discussed how, in the 2000s, Iran gave refuge to Al-Qaida leaders and allowed them to operate freely in Tehran to plan attacks against the U.S. and our allies. Iran hosted Al-Qaida’s second-highest leader in Tehran last year, and the leading candidate to replace Ayman al-Zawahiri as the group’s leader has operated from Iran for more than two decades.

Iranian backed terror groups also carry out political murders. Lokman Slim, an anti-Hezbollah activist, was found shot to death in southern Lebanon, likely by Hezbollah. Iran has reportedly planned attacks in Ethiopia and a bombing in France in 2018, and it carried out killings of Iranians in Holland in 2017 and 2015.

Iranian proxies and their malicious behavior

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, designated by the United States as a terror group, trains and equips proxy groups outside of the country. Experts estimate that Iran could have as many as 185,000 proxy forces under IRGC-QF partnerships. These partners operate across the region in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bahrain. Iran exports its military technology to these groups and provides them with training and millions of dollars in funding. Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria are working together to amass an arsenal of precision guided munitions to threaten Israel. The United Nations has said there is evidence the Iranians have given weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The Houthis continue to attack Saudi Arabian infrastructure with advanced weaponry. Houthis also attacked U.S. Navy vessels during the Obama administration and have kidnapped and tortured several Americans since 2015. One victim was strangled to death after traveling to Yemen to work for the UN.

The country’s proxies in Iraq continue to attack the western-backed Iraqi government and Kurdish forces. Groups linked to Iran launched rockets against U.S. interests in Iraq in February, wounding five Americans. President Biden ordered airstrikes against facilities used by militias in Syria as a response. On March 3, rockets struck a base housing U.S. troops in Iraq. 

Iran-backed groups also are believed to play an active role in the global narcotics trade. Italy intercepted a shipment of $1 billion of amphetamines late last year, and prosecutors have alleged that Hezbollah and Syria were responsible.

toward a better iran deal

During the Obama administration, Wendy Sherman – currently President Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of state – led the U.S. negotiating team to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany in 2015. The JCPOA, however, only put short-term limits on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, all of which “sunset” within 10 to 15 years. After that Iran would have the ability to enrich enough uranium for nuclear weapons. Although Iran received approximately $100 billion in sanctions relief, the JCPOA did not address Iran’s support for terrorism or its ballistic missile program. Critics have noted that the Iranian government exploited the Obama administration’s desperation for a deal.

Due to the weakness of the JCPOA, leading Democrats, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, joined Republicans in opposing it. At the time, Republicans warned that if a Republican were elected president, the U.S. would withdraw from the deal because it did not have bipartisan support, and this is exactly what happened under President Trump in May 2018.

If President Biden intends to attempt new negotiations with Iran, he should learn from these mistakes and not lift sanctions on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism until Iran stops threatening the U.S. and its interests in the region.

Any deal should use existing sanctions brought back by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign as leverage with the Iranians. It should address the concerns of America’s allies and must be verifiable by the international community. It also must be comprehensive, addressing the entire spectrum of Iranian threats, and it should not just temporarily address the nuclear threat, like the 2015 deal did. Republicans have clearly stated these points in a letter led by the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch, in an op-ed penned by ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, and in a resolution led by Senator Tom Cotton.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Congress can review any future agreement before the president can waive sanctions, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to comply with this law during his confirmation hearing. As additional protection, Senator Bill Hagerty has introduced a bill that would ensure that any deal with Iran would not bypass Congress and would be subject to review, using a similar mechanism to review sanctions detailed under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. Democrats used this mechanism to force a vote reviewing a Trump administration actions on sanctions in 2019.

In addition to these legislative measures, Senate Republicans can use the oversight process to maintain pressure on officials like Blinken as negotiations progress. They can also use the confirmation process to question former Obama administration officials about the 2015 agreement and how they might approach any new negotiations, as in the case of Sherman and Colin Kahl, who President Biden nominated to be under secretary of defense for policy. 

Issue Tag: National Security