This is the second in a multi part series examining the futures of the Middle East after the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. To read previous articles, go to:
U.S.-Iranian relations, while not having reached a level of complete neutrality, have generally been on the mend in the second half of President Obama’s administration. Incredibly powerful sanctions, imposed by the Bush administration and strengthened by the Obama administration, had made it clear to Iranian leaders that a nuclear program would cost Iran more than it would benefit it. So, beginning in late 2011, discussions around the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program got underway. President Obama’s administration and then-Senator John Kerry began to clear a path for easing a global policy of containment on Iran by creating "back-channels" and secret talks between U.S. and Iranian officials. This was an attempt to reach a tacit agreement on Iranian nuclear policy. Reaching an agreement on the issue quickly became the main U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and these talks only became public in 2013 as the details of the deal were being worked out. Other conflicting policy issues, like with the U.S. “Red Line” on Syrian's use of chemical weapons, took a backseat to this attempted opening – for better or worse. (Solomon 2016) A deal was finally reached in 2015 and became known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). Significant condemnation and approbation quickly arose from nations and parties with competing interests. While the rest of the P5+1 ratified the terms of the agreement relatively easily, it took an Executive Order for the United States to pass it.
The game is about to change
While many Democrats and Republicans alike were wary of the Iran deal, very few people in the world foresaw the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. President-Elect Trump, like many of these lawmakers, has specifically stated his intention to abrogate the current agreement between the United States, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany, greater EU, and Iran. While the President-elect might declare that he will only be renegotiating the terms of the agreement (as opposed to scrapping it outright), any attempt to adjust such a fragile agreement would very likely shatter it. The JCPA barely passed as it was, and there is little love for it in either the U.S. or Iran. Hardliners in both countries still see the deal as an abdication of their respective countries’ commitments to the world: the U.S. to Israel and Iran to the Revolution. Abrogation will also mean that the U.S. has to further contend with the fact that it will be seen as less credible around the negotiating table. If it is willing to toss out an agreement which took five years to complete after only a year of implementation just because of an administration change, there is no reason any government – especially one paranoid of U.S. intentions – would believe that the U.S. has anything resembling good faith while negotiating. This strikes at the heart of diplomacy, where credulity is paramount and stability in position even more so.
The President-Elect’s considerations and choices for important administrative positions betray any illusion that he seeks to honestly remake this deal. John Bolton, General James Mattis, Michael Flynn... Each of these men have expressed deep skepticism and hostility for Iran and, in the case of John Bolton, have actually advocated for forcible regime change. These high level administration positions will determine both the structure and tone of U.S. policy going forward by bringing, or not bringing, issues to the president's attention.
Even if president-elect Trump flips on the Iranian relations issue in the coming months, he has already begun a process larger than himself. The president elect is stocking himself with Iran hawks. He has emboldened the Republican base, few of whom have any care to embark on what they perceive as appeasement with Iran. His quixotic early diplomacy has put countries around the world on edge. Without being in office for a even single day, he has already shaped the atmosphere that he will be working in – one that is distinctively anti-Iranian and anti-diplomacy.
Expect nothing different from Iran
Donald Trump’s election was paradoxically a welcome event for some in Iran, specifically the “terrorist” branded Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC contains the leaders who detest the U.S., seeing rapprochement between the two countries as an infringement on the 1979 Revolution.
These people, seen as “hard liners” by much of the world, believe themselves to be vindicated by President-Elect Trump and his rhetoric. Men such Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi have warned their country that the United States cannot be trusted to fulfill any commitments that it makes, because all it wants from the region is oil, Israel, and regime change. The President-Elect makes them seem prophetic, having anticipated that the United States would “tear up” the JCPA and seek regime change – stoking fears and memories of the CIA-led overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953.
As much as the election is a political victory for the hardliners, it is also a defeat for moderates and progressives. Both banked on the JCPA and will now incur the wrath of both the electorate and Supreme Leader of Iran, similar to President Khatami in the wake of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech. The Rafsanjanis, Khatamis, Zarifs, and Rouhanis of Iran, who were previously moderates favoring pragmatism over parochialism, will have no choice but to take dogmatic anti-American positions.
Strengthening of the anti-American position in Iran comes at a very bad time, as Ali Khamenei turns 76 next year and is in failing health. If he dies, the Iranian Assembly of Experts will be obliged to choose a new Supreme Leader who will be able to color Iranian policy and control the Revolutionary Guards as long as he lives. The strong anti-American position that the President-Elect’s policy will engender guarantees that the next Supreme Leader will be dogmatically anti-American, as opposed to pragmatic. This dogmatic opposition to anything American in Iran will show itself as more vetting for moderate and progressive candidates for office, who need to be cleared by the Supreme Leader before they can run. Further, the notoriously anti-American IRGC will receive renewed policy influence, which had taken a backseat to President Rouhani in Iranian-American relations throughout the negotiation of the JCPA.
For the President-Elect, the task of re-implementing full containment of Iran is impossible. Not that the United States itself couldn’t unilaterally attempt to cut off the country, or that the Gulf States would not re-impose their own cordon on Iran, but the rest of the world will not. China, Russia, and the EU all have stakes in keeping Iran open, and won’t bring sanctions back to bear against a state that they had already begun to reach agreements with. Even Iran is unlikely to break the JCPA and pursue nuclear weapons.
While there have been many recent calls from Iranian lawmakers to resume its nuclear program due to the U.S. legislators vote to re-introduce sanctions, all of these states realize that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent was self-destructive, and pursuing the goal again would be foolish. Instead, Iran is looking for other ways to further its influence in the region. Recently Iran has looked at building naval bases in Syria and Yemen, which would greatly expand its influence in a region where no Arab country has naval bases in another. Policies already underway will be accelerated, like political influence over both Iraq and Syria.
What will unilateral U.S. sanctions do to Iran anyway? Yes, the United States has unquestionably the most powerful economic system on Earth, capable of feats that terrify and awe in equal measures. But when faced against a country on the other side of the world with whom it doesn’t trade or have financial interactions with anyways? It is hard to say. No doubt Iranians are already pulling out any assets they may have invested in the U.S., and the Iranian government is looking to avoid the freezing and appropriation of assets that happened in recent years. (Solomon 2016) Further, unless other countries join with the U.S., sanctions resources are going to be vastly hobbled. The world is too globalized for unilateral containment to work. The most likely scenario to come out of these “sanctions” would be Cuban-esk relations, with the U.S. avoiding any official contact with the state and outlawing any private interaction. This was effective against Cuba, which was just ninety miles away from the U.S., but Iran is thousands of miles away, and the effectiveness of these sanctions is doubtful.
All a Part of Something Bigger
The hostility that is set to resume between the U.S. and Iran will impact more than just the two states, but it is foolish to think that it is only American diplomacy that can sort this entire conflict out. Saudi Arabia recently demanded that Egypt dismiss its foreign minister for statements made in conjunction with the Iranian foreign minister. The Gulf States are fighting for influence among themselves. Turkey is trying to become a key player in regional affairs by military intervention. Egypt appears to be on the brink of economic collapse. The Israeli/Palestinian divide remains unaddressed.
Strangely, the worsening Iranian-U.S. relationship will only cause heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis were by no means happy with the American-led effort to get the JCPA enacted, and distanced themselves from U.S. policy because of it, the effects that abandoning the plan will have are even more detrimental to the Kingdom’s security. As stated previously, Iran has floated the idea of building naval bases in both Syria and Yemen, absolute rebukes to Saudi Arabian influence. They will likely be allowed to proceed with such a plan because it is not a nuclear option. Saudi Arabia is likely to feel encircled, as instead of having a perceived threat to its east, it now has to deal with perceived threats to its north, northeast, east, and south. As already demonstrated in both Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi security policy has taken into account the hesitation of the United States to become involved in the Saudi national interest. So it is actively pursuing direct military measures to achieve its interests, a terrifying prospect when you connect the dots and find that each threat was perceived to be Iranian at its core. This in addition to Saudi Arabia actively funding militant non-governmental organizations fighting Iranian-backed groups. While Yemen is demonstrating to Saudi officials the perils of armed intervention, it is impossible to say how much they will glean from this lesson. So it is very difficult to tell whether Saudi Arabia will be more or less likely to pursue armed intervention close to or within Iranian borders moving forward. If they choose to do so, it is not unreasonable to assume that their proxy wars will take on the dimension of a real war between the two sides. Iran, for its part, has no reason to pursue any direct conflict with Saudi Arabia.
All the while, Russia seeks more and more influence in the region, ignoring the Sword of Damocles which once held the U.S. in place now swinging over its own head. How Russia decides to pursue its influence in the region will further change the region’s dynamics. Unfortunately for observers, Russia's interests in the region, and thus its modus operandi, are only known by the Russians themselves. Relations between the U.S. and Iran will undoubtedly be affected by this move, but in ways that only the Foreign Ministry of Russia can predict.
Nothing is set in stone, but relations between the U.S. and Iran have already begun taking on a life of their own. It may now be impossible to avoid certain outcomes, and it is clear that the U.S. has lost the diplomatic initiative. With the loss of this initiative, the United States no longer controls its own future beyond unilaterally cutting off contact with Iran. Accordingly, it is all too possible that the future of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy under the Trump administration will be exactly what it was ten years ago, non-existent.
Solomon, Jay. 2016. The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East. Random House.