Back to the Drawing Board: Rethinking US Foreign Policy Towards Iran
By Dhruv Shah
The relationship between US and Iran experienced a new low under President Trump. Just nine months ago, the American assassination of General Soleimani brought the two countries to the brink of war, when the US decided to send a message to Iran that it would not be shy to put its foot down. This has largely reflected President Trump’s foreign policy towards Iran which is one of ‘maximum pressure’, designed to beat Iran into submission. However, this type of approach will likely only undermine any future prospects of reconciliation and re-establishment of relations between the two countries, as crippling sanctions have inflicted extraordinary damage to Iranian society and exacerbated economic recovery during the pandemic. Trapped in an endless cycle of conflict, it seems hard to picture the future as being anything but turbulent. If the US truly seeks to contain Iranian aggression regionally, then a shift in foreign policy towards diplomacy is a must.
Years of poor relations have resulted in a ‘legacy of deep distrust divides between Tehran and Washington.’Despite this, US policymakers are confident that the threat of greater sanctions will allow them to leverage a stronger deal with Iran, should diplomacy occur in the future. However, Iran has undergone two serious changes to their foreign policy which highly suggests that sanctions will be entirely ineffective. Firstly, Iran’s domestic administration is more coherent that ever. Previously, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps often undermined Iran’s policymakers through operations and assassinations – stemming from a lack of faith in diplomatic efforts which only undermined security. General Soleimani’s death, along with a sustained campaign of sanctions which have devastated domestic society, have allowed domestic groups in Iran to cohesively collaborate at an unprecedented rate. Already, senior figures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp are pushing Iranian diplomats to walk away from any negotiations if threats by US diplomats are made or if things do not go their way. Iran’s ‘all in’ approach will almost certainly be accompanied by swift foreign policy retaliation. They have shown they are capable of disrupting Saudi oil production and shooting ballistic missile attacks at US troops in Iraq.
Secondly, US foreign policy take into account Iran’s growing strategic relations with Russia and China. Both Moscow and Beijing are looking increasingly anti-American and gladly welcomed Iran to the club. A shared animosity towards the US means that Tehran is increasingly beginning to cooperate on matters of security and economic benefits. Considering that up till 2015, both China and Russia actively opposed Iran’s nuclear activities within the UN Security Council, this development is notable. Growing cooperation between the trio of countries has resulted in considerable Chinese investment into Iran, and the extraordinary step in 2019 to conduct joint naval drills. As one Chinese security expert states, these foreign policy moves are less about furthering a strategic relationship and more about signalling to the US that their influence is deteriorating. Iran’s gradual resurgence should not be underestimated by the US, as implementing any pressure on Iran will only become trickier.
Nonetheless, a new administration could provide a diplomatic breakthrough between the US and Iran on Iran’s nuclear programme and wider relations. Another four years of Republican-backed President Trump will likely be encourage more extensive economic sanctions, and is unlikely to give Iran a break. President Trump has stressed that if he wins, he will reach a deal which will limit Iran’s nuclear programme within 4 weeks. President Trump’s maximum pressure approach is contingent on Iran surrendering all its interests in the Middle East. As shown by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 conditions, sacrifices will need to be made before there is relief from sanctions. This is an unrealistic expectation and will not work. As critics of the original Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015 point out, the deal does not address Iran’s problematic foreign policy moves regionally in the Middle East. However, we must consider the present situation. US relations with Iran have taken two steps back and lead to a position where Iran has openly stated their intentions to continue to build a nuclear weapon. Maximum pressure is only driving Iran towards becoming an anti US nuclear power – the very thing the US wishes to prevent.
If the US hopes to reduce regional tensions and reconcile with Iran, it will require a renewed engagement in diplomatic efforts. Democratic candidate, Joe Biden offers a more promising approach. Biden has stressed his goal of renegotiating Iran back into the Iran Nuclear deal in return for cutting back on sanctions. This is likely to be the simplest way to partially reconcile with Iran and could put a limitation on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But bringing Iran back to the table will not be easy. Iran is asking for compensation from the US for what they claim to be a US violation of the international agreement endorsed by the UNSC. Dismissed by some as just bargaining from Iran’s end, the reality is that Iranian leadership is in a much stronger negotiating position than previously.
In fact, bringing Iran back to the table will require more than just the promise of relief from economic sanctions. Washington will need to account for the above changes in the foreign policy landscape and concede that Iran is not as vulnerable as they believe. They can start by extending a gesture of goodwill to Iran, which may provide Iran with the confidence to consider the discussions. This could vary anywhere from abolishing the Iranian travel ban to targeted humanitarian aid allowing Iran to address the coronavirus pandemic which has devastated its society. Moreover, engaging with Iran through a comprehensive multilateral framework such as the Iran nuclear deal, as opposed to unilaterally would signal to Iran that the US is not merely out to undermine the country and show their commitment to mending diplomatic ties. The framework should aim to solve fewer issues and remain as flexible as possible rather than being opposed to prioritising strict lengthy agendas which are likely to fail. The goals may be modest but the ‘key is for the US to invest serious diplomacy in such a dialogue,’ with the hopes of laying the groundwork for future cooperation.
Regardless of the outcome of the presidential elections, one thing is certain. The US administration will have their work cut out for them. A unified and more confident Iran is not only daunting but will make future negotiations a lot tougher, given their stronger negotiation position. However, instead of fearing diplomacy, it should be embraced. Only e renewed attempt at diplomacy provides a glimmer of hope to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal and creating a platform for future talks. If the new administration decides that maximum pressure is the way forward, then Iran is likely to embrace the anti-US club, presently containing Russia and China. In this, the US risks not only alienating itself from Iran, but also losing influence in the wider Middle East, at the expense of two of their biggest rivals.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.