Foreign Policy Essay

Understanding the Iran Nuclear Deal through the Lens of the Iran-Iraq War

By Ariane Tabatabai, Annie Tracy Samuel
Sunday, July 16, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran remains one of its most important, and most contentious, foreign-policy legacies. Much of the controversy in the United States stems from the question of whether Iran might cheat, but Iran is worried that Washington might renege on its side of the bargain. Ariane Tabatabai of Georgetown and Annie Tracy Samuel of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga look to the Iran-Iraq War, a defining event for much of Iran's leadership, for lessons on how Iran might approach the nuclear deal and the Trump administration in the years to come.


In July 2015, the world powers led by the United States struck what many observers hailed as a historic agreement with Iran, some praising it, others describing it as a historic mistake. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) places limits on sensitive components of Iran’s nuclear program and creates an extensive monitoring regime, while affording the country much-needed sanctions relief. But two years after its signing, the JCPOA’s future is uncertain. Although many expected it would be Tehran that would cheat or renege on its obligations, it is Washington that’s jeopardizing the deal’s success by failing to declare its commitment to upholding the JCPOA. If the United States fails to uphold its end of the bargain and ensure that the JCPOA’s implementation continues smoothly, it will bolster existing views within the Iranian regime that stem from one of the defining events in Iranian history: the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. A review of the course of this war and Iran’s experience in it sheds light on the vital lessons the conflict holds for the implementation of the deal and the future of U.S.-Iran relations.

Good Deal, Bad Deal?

The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement designed to keep Iran away from a nuclear weapon by placing a number of limits on the two pathways to the bomb. First, the agreement constrains Iran’s enrichment program, which could provide the country with highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. It does so by placing limits on the number and types of centrifuges Iran can use to enrich uranium, as well as on the size of the stockpile of enriched uranium that Iran can possess at any given time. The agreement also holds that Iran can only enrich uranium up to a certain level that can be used in its reactors but not for a nuclear weapon. Second, the JCPOA creates a bulwark against the production of weapons-grade plutonium. It does so by formalizing Iran’s pledge not to establish a reprocessing program, a critical component for any country hoping to build a nuclear weapon fueled by plutonium. Iran was already in the process of building a heavy water reactor in 2015, but as a result of the deal the reactor has been redesigned to produce a substantially smaller amount of plutonium, and the country has pledged not to build any such reactors in the future. Third, the agreement restricts Iran’s ability to procure dual-use items, those with both civilian and military uses, by establishing what’s known as the “procurement channel,” which creates a layer of international scrutiny over Iranian procurement activities. Finally, the agreement places the country’s nuclear program under strict inspection protocols, providing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the ability to keep an eye on virtually every aspect of Iran’s nuclear activities. This is the most extensive and intrusive monitoring regime that any country has ever voluntarily agreed to accept.

The JCPOA is not without its flaws, however. For example, various provisions within the deal have expiry dates, as does the deal itself. Moreover, while the agreement is incredibly detailed and comprehensive in addressing the first stage of developing a nuclear weapon—acquiring enough highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium to build a nuclear weapon—it is silent on the last stage of the process: the acquisition of a delivery system. As a result, Iran can and has continued to work on its ballistic missile program without constraint; it has conducted several missile tests since signing the JCPOA, and launched its first offensive missile strikes in three decades last month, targeting the Islamic State in Syria following the group’s twin attacks on Tehran.

This uncertainty surrounding the deal has exacerbated the Iranian view that the United States can’t be trusted.

Overall, the JCPOA does a good job of limiting key sensitive components of the nuclear program. And although many of the deal’s provisions will expire, Iran will still be obliged to keep its nuclear program purely civilian as warranted by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). However, the expiration (or undermining) of the JCPOA would remove some of the limitations that serve as a bulwark against a potential Iranian violation of the NPT. Moreover, under the deal, Iran has agreed to ratify what is known as the Additional Protocol to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, allowing enhanced Agency monitoring to which Iran was not subject before the JCPOA.

Despite these significant achievements, during his presidential campaign Donald Trump pledged to dismantle the JCPOA, capitalizing on the criticism of the deal that has been expressed by Republicans and Democrats alike. He called the agreement “the stupidest” deal ever reached. In the months since Trump’s inauguration, his administration’s Iran policy and stance on the deal have consisted largely of mixed signals. For example, while the Department of State confirmed that Tehran was abiding by the agreement, President Trump stated that Iran wasn’t adhering to the “spirit of the deal.” His administration also noted that while it was granting Iran the sanctions relief that the United States had agreed to under the deal, it would be reviewing whether further sanctions relief was in U.S. interests. Reports coming out of the White House indicating that the administration is looking to re-impose the sanctions lifted by the JCPOA under different pretexts and the escalatory rhetoric emanating from both the White House and the State Department has thrown the future of the deal into question. This uncertainty surrounding the deal has exacerbated the Iranian view that the United States can’t be trusted. The Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spent the three years of the nuclear talks leading up to the JCPOA’s signing saying just that—and often used the experience of the Iran-Iraq War to back up his claims.

Lessons from the Sacred Defense

Although the war between Iran and Iraq built on a range of disputes, the 1979 Iranian Revolution formed the war’s most significant catalyst. Iran’s post-revolutionary government was based on the centrality of Islam in public life, and it vowed to fight for the revival of Shi’i Islam and for the freedom of the “oppressed” across the world. Its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, sought to achieve that goal by calling on Shi’is across the Middle East to rise up, a call that resonated with Iraq’s Shi’i population with which Khomeini had preexisting ties. To Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who presided over a Sunni-dominated, secular government ruling a Shi’i majority, Iran’s new Islamic Republic presented a threat to his power.

At the same time, with violent disputes over the post-revolutionary order persisting into a second year, Iran appeared to be in a vulnerable position. Saddam decided to take the opportunity to launch what he intended to be a quick military campaign to defeat the revolution, safeguard his rule, and, while he was at it, seize the oil-rich territory in southwestern Iran and assert his leadership of the Arab world. After a year of steadily worsening relations, Iraqi forces invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, marking the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War.

What Saddam thought would be a swift and easy strike to check the nascent regime quickly transformed into a brutal and drawn-out conflict that instead revitalized the revolution. After a series of victories that allowed Iraqi forces to advance into Iran through early 1981, Iranian forces halted the march and retook most of their territory over the course of the next year. Iran then took the fight into Iraq in the summer of 1982, but was unable to gain or hold much ground. The conflict continued largely as a bloody stalemate until August 20, 1988, when a U.N.–backed ceasefire came into force. The end of the war restored the status quo ante, with both regimes still in power and without territorial adjustments. Getting back to where they started cost the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides. Many Iranians continue to suffer from the effects of the chemical weapons Saddam deployed during the war, while the landmines abandoned along the border regularly still add to the casualty count when they detonate.

The war was one of the most momentous events in Iran’s contemporary history and has shaped Iran’s views of itself and the outside world. Most of the country’s key decision makers and commanders took part in the war, and they now make policy with the war’s lessons in mind. Iran’s experience in the war triggered the start or resumption of many of the country’s critical defense programs—including those related to ballistic missiles, drones, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—which pose a challenge to the United States and its allies today. Tehran saw itself as isolated and unable to rely on others to meet its defense needs during the war, and the downing of an Iranian civilian airliner by a U.S. Navy cruiser, killing all 290 people on board, in the war’s final months seemed to indicate that the United States would go to any length to hurt Iran. This perceived isolation strengthened the Iranian leadership’s view that the country needed to stand on its own and become self-reliant in matters of defense.

In particular, the war was a key driver behind both Iran’s policy of nuclear hedging and its decision to return to the negotiating table in 2012 after a seven-year lull. In the first case, during the war the country resumed its dormant nuclear program, first started under the Shah, to deter future threats of aggression and the use of WMD against its population. In the second case, with the looming threat of another war, this time with much more powerful and nuclear weapon-equipped adversaries, such as the United States and Israel, Iran’s wartime experience instructed it to avoid such a conflict by resolving the nuclear issue, reclaim its standing in the international community, and terminate the international sanctions weakening its economy. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani put it, the JCPOA “removed the shadow of war and sanctions” that endangered Iran.

Significantly, the JCPOA’s implementation process so far seems to confirm the lessons of the Iran-Iraq War: that Iran can’t trust the United States and the international community, that it must remain on the defensive, and that it must rely only on itself.

Today, however, Iranians are uncertain about whether the JCPOA is performing those functions. The Trump administration has emphasized that it is uninterested in continuing the path taken by President Barack Obama and his administration. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it just one month before the JCPOA’s second anniversary, “Our policy towards Iran is to push back on the hegemony, contain their ability to develop nuclear weapons and work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would be to peaceful transition of that government. Those elements are there as we know.” As Iranians see it, such statements signal Washington’s commitment to regime change in Iran, undermining one of the most important achievements of the JCPOA—the removal of the threat of military intervention by the United States and its allies. As President Rouhani again emphasized, “The most important effect of the JCPOA is that the threat of war was lifted.”

For now, Iran is continuing to implement the nuclear deal, but it is watching developments in Washington closely. Significantly, the JCPOA’s implementation process so far seems to confirm the lessons of the Iran-Iraq War: that Iran can’t trust the United States and the international community, that it must remain on the defensive, and that it must rely only on itself.

As a result, Iran is likely to boost its defenses further and to continue flexing its muscles in order to deter a potential attack by the United States or its allies. Iran did this in June, launching seven Zulfiqar surface-to-surface missiles toward a Syrian town controlled by the Islamic State. Although these missile strikes were meant to hit the Islamic State headquarters where the June 2017 twin attacks on Tehran were planned, they also sent a strong signal to Washington that Tehran can and will defend itself against any attack on its homeland. Iran is also increasingly refocusing on self-reliance, as it sees sanctions relief and the resulting economic recovery to be slower and much more fragile than many had hoped. Indeed, the lack of a clear message from Washington on its commitment to the JCPOA has deterred already risk-averse businesses from entering the Iranian market, thus confirming Supreme Leader Khamenei’s view that a “resistance economy” and more self-reliance, rather than opening up the country, are the keys to economic prosperity.

Two years after it was signed, the JCPOA has driven home some of the Iran-Iraq War’s most important lessons for Iranians. The deal was supposed to open up the country to businesses and investors and remove the threat of a war with a foreign power. Instead, it has made Iran’s leaders believe that self-reliance is the way forward and that the threat of war won’t be removed regardless of the course of action they choose. The Trump administration’s failure to formulate a clear policy on the JCPOA and secure its future six months into the new president’s tenure is reinforcing those views, and thereby undermining the administration’s ability to influence Iranian behavior in a manner more conducive to U.S. national security interests.

This piece draws from the authors’ article “What the Iran-Iraq War Tells Us about the Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” which will appear in the summer 2017 issue of International Security.