U.S.-Iran Relations After the Nuclear Deal

Left to right: U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi in Switzerland in March 2015. Photo credit: Wikimedia / U.S. Department of State Last year’s inking of the resolution ending the nuclear standoff between the P5+1 and Iran provides hope for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It also offers a unique opportunity to gauge the consequences of multilateral diplomacy by testing Iran’s willingness to fulfill its international obligations, as well as the great powers’ ability to respond positively by adopting a new constructive working relationship with Tehran.

The challenges facing the sustainability of the deal notwithstanding, the Iranian nuclear program signals the first significant opportunity for the nation to directly negotiate with the West – particularly with the United States. Yet, a number of key questions remain: why and how has the nuclear deal fallen short of a grand bargain? And what will it take to thaw the U.S.-Iran relationship, which has been long strained by deeply rooted mistrust, hostility, and conflicting policies?

Both the United States’ and Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policies continuously confound any prospect of improved relations. The Obama administration’s attempts to engage Iran have encountered significant resistance from a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the Saudi lobby. The prevailing expectations of many pundits, policymakers, and a large sector of the public have glossed over the complicated and contentious political and domestic contexts within which each country operates.

There is a real risk of deteriorating U.S.-Iran relations should a Republican administration occupy the White House in 2017 or should Iran’s hardliners gain the upper hand following the country’s 2017 presidential election. The fact remains that even if Iran fulfills its end of the bargain, the nuclear deal may prove to be an agreement that benefits private corporations and business rather than one that acts as the harbinger of a strategic shift in U.S. policy toward Iran. Perhaps cognizant of this fact, the Islamic Republic has not abandoned its “Eastern Strategy” and instead maintained extensive bilateral ties with Beijing and Moscow. Iran is likely to continue to cultivate these ties as an insurance policy against the possible continuation or escalation of Washington’s strategy of containment and confrontation.

Iran’s February 2016 parliamentary elections, during which moderates and pro-Rouhani factions scored major victories, markedly strengthened the power of Iran’s President. Given the fact that the Iranian president is the chief of the National Security Council and a key decision maker in matters relating to foreign policy, this victory for Rouhani and his supporters signified the momentum and political consensus necessary to prioritize shifts in foreign policy. The 2016 U.S. presidential election, by contrast, has put a damper on the already uncertain prospects of the U.S.-Iran relations, particularly as both the Republican and Democratic nominees have failed to map out a clear strategy to preserve the diplomatic progress made under the nuclear agreement. Neither tearing up the agreement nor avoiding engagement with Iran is a viable option for United States policymakers, and to sustain the momentum of the historic deal, new diplomatic efforts must be taken to break through the current impasse.

Now, as the United States becomes less dependent on the region’s oil and natural gas supplies, oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia are increasingly losing their geostrategic significance. American policymakers may find that maintaining balanced ties with all countries in the region particularly suitable to the United States’ changing interests. In the politically polarized Middle East, such balancing acts can pay great dividends. China is seeing enormous returns on its strategy in the region, which focuses on preserving balanced relations with key countries in the region – including with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – even as those countries continue to see strained relations amongst themselves. China’s expanding trade network and political influence in the region over the past three decades attests to the viability of this strategy.

The fact that middle-power states, tend to negate each other’s hegemonic ambitions as long as competition invites no outside intervention adds further credence to a policy of balancing, rather than one of containment.[1] In some cases, the United States may justifiably seek reconciliation, better ties, and security pacts with regional powers that have compatible agendas, which is quite reminiscent of the “Nixon Doctrine.” The United States’ massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2015, while simultaneously cementing the nuclear deal with Iran, may indicate a shift in Washington’s thinking toward this very balancing strategy.

Arming Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the more powerful Gulf Cooperation Council alleviates worries about Iran as a rising power in a post-nuclear deal era. However, striking an economic deal and cooperation on specific political issues of mutual interests with Tehran can drive Iran to be increasingly cooperative on key on regional issues, such as the fight against ISIS and the Taliban and in shaping the futures of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Given the uncertainties surrounding the future of U.S.-Iran rapprochement beyond the Obama administration, however, the Islamic Republic has not only reaffirmed its "Eastern Strategy," but also deepened its bilateral ties with Beijing and Moscow. In doing so, Iran is enacting a hedging policy to protect against any possible escalation of Washington’s policy of containment or confrontation in the future. By expanding and solidifying ties with great powers such as Russia and China, and by seeking better relations with EU, Iran not only hopes to end its isolation, but also to normalize its relations with the Western world through the back door. Becoming a responsible stakeholder in the eyes of the international community counters the “pariah status” that has haunted Iran for the past three decades.

Upending traditional U.S. politics of confrontation and coercive sanctions may offer more benefits than risks for both nations. Given how significant a role Iran plays in the region, a general consensus holds that a limited form of U.S.-Iran rapprochement makes good geopolitical sense and is preferable to the current policy of cold peace and containment. Over the last four decades, Washington's ideological and political differences with its global opponents and rivals, such as with the former Soviet Union and China, never prevented business dealings or cooperation on issues of mutual interests. This pragmatic string in past U.S. policies should guide its current relations with Iran. American foreign policy toward Iran in this post-nuclear deal era should be predicated on the considerations of a new political realism that combines aspects of off-shore balancing and pragmatic reconciliation, while also realizing that some major policy differences—most notably regarding Syria—between the two countries may remain unsettled as of yet.

Using the nuclear deal to establish a rapprochement with Iran could potentially generate great dividends in the economic realm—most notably within the oil, petrochemical, and gas industries, aviation, banking and finance, and other mutually beneficial commercial ties. In the political realm, any U.S.-Iran cooperation aimed at addressing the crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen could prove vital to finding and implementing lasting solutions. The United States would be remiss not to engage Iran diplomatically and lift all remaining sanctions, particularly as these sanction have thus proven to be counterproductive to the normalization of bilateral relations. Lifting remaining sanctions would also bolster the position of moderates in Iran’s political establishment and offer additional opportunities for extensive cooperation between the two nations.

Regardless of which new administration that takes power in Washington next January, the next U.S. president must remember that Washington and Tehran have common enemies and shared interests – politically and economically. Both nations’ efforts in combating ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan would be significantly elevated and offer the region itself a greater chance at some semblance of order and stability.

Absent this realization, a unique opportunity to seek Iran’s cooperation under Rouhani’s government, which has displayed a willingness to work with the West on issues of bilateral interests, and to meet region’s serious challenges, will be missed. It is high time to end the cycle of political blunders and missed opportunities that characterized U.S.-Iran relations in the last thirty-seven years and seize the opportunities present in a post-nuclear deal era to cement U.S.-Iran cooperation more in a way much more befitting of a rapidly changing world.

[1] Donald M. Snow, The Middle East, Oil, and the US National Security Policy: Intractable Conflicts, Impossible Solutions, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 164-165.