Nuclear Deal's End to Iran Arms Embargo Worries Pentagon, Analysts


President Obama's nominee to become the Pentagon's No. 2 officer joined a chorus of defense hawks worried the landmark deal meant to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions will jumpstart the Iranian economy and generate more revenue for the regime's military forces.

Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, currently the head of U.S. Transportation Command, told Congress during his nomination hearing Tuesday that increased Iranian revenue could be used "to sponsor state terrorism should they choose to do so."

The agreement between the Iran and several Western countries, including the U.S., would allow the Islamic republic to pursue a limited atomic program for peaceful purposes over the next decade while also lifting sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy as well as a key arms embargo.

President Obama hailed the historic deal, announced on Tuesday after two years of negotiations, as a way to prevent Tehran from producing highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium -- materials needed to build a nuclear weapon. Others criticized the pact, saying it would result in more funding for the regime to develop nuclear centrifuges and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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    "Under this deal, Iran's vast nuclear infrastructure remains largely intact," Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., and a former Republican senator from South Carolina, said in a statement. "The 'freeze' on uranium enrichment is both temporary and partial. That's not a freeze; it's a slight chill at best."

    What's more, the agreement would immediately provide Iran with as much as $50 billion in sanctions relief and eventually some $150 billion more with the release of money frozen in overseas bank accounts, DeMint said. The latter figure is more than six times what Israel -- a country that Iranian leaders have vowed to destroy -- spends on defense each year, he said.

    "The deal also gives Tehran plenty of money to ramp up these -- and other -- destabilizing activities," DeMint said.

    U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will travel to Israel to reassure the key U.S. ally.

    "We remain prepared and postured to bolster the security of our friends and allies in the region, including Israel; to defense against aggression; ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf; and check Iranian malign influence," Carter said in a statement. "We will utilize the military option if necessary."

    Rise of Iranian Influence

    The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as the continued unrest in Syria has increased the level of influence of Iran in the region. Iraqi leaders have turned to Iran for support in pushing ISIS militants out of key cities in Iraq's Anbar Province after Iraqi army units crumbled in the Sunni-dominated province.

    Defense analysts fear that influence will grow rapidly as Iran's military leaders gain the necessary resources to build out its military.

    As part of the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. negotiators agreed to end the embargo on the import and export of conventional arms and ballistic missiles.

    Russia and China pushed hard for this embargo to end as the two countries stand to benefit from an increased arms trade with Iran. Other countries and non-state actors such as Syria, Hezbollah and North Korea could also stand to benefit as Iran seeks to boost its military while also selling arms produced in Iran. 

    One U.S. intelligent analyst, who asked not to be named, feared lifting the embargo will have wider influence on the U.S. and the Middle East than the changes to nuclear policy. He explained that he foresaw an arms race starting in the Middle East as the Gulf Arab states and Israel seek to protect themselves from a strengthening Iran. Egypt, for example, bought Dassault Rafale fighter jets from France in the midst of negotiations.

    Carter warned last week against the lifting of the embargo, specifically on ballistic missiles, when he spoke before Congress. He said the Pentagon wants to make sure Iran's intercontinental ballistic missile program does not advance.

    "The reason that we want to stop Iran from having an I.C.B.M. program is that the 'I' in I.C.B.M. stands for 'intercontinental,' which means having the capability of flying from Iran to the United States," Carter told Congress.

    'Built on Verification'

    The White House said the agreement will curb Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent, put two-thirds of its centrifuges under international supervision, modify its nuclear reactor in Arak so it can't produce weapons-grade plutonium and ship spent fuel from the reactor out of the country.

    "Iran currently has a stockpile that could produce up to 10 nuclear weapons," Obama said in a statement. "Now, its uranium stockpile will be reduced to a fraction of what would be required for a single weapon."

    He added, "This deal is not built on trust -- it's built on verification. Under this deal, we will, for the first time, be in a position to verify that Iran is meeting all of these commitments."

    -- Brendan McGarry can be reached at

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