The 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States recognizes the potential use of nuclear weapons and materials that pose a grave threat to national security by irresponsible states or terrorists. In the last decade and a half, two persistent nuclear proliferators have challenged existing international nonproliferation norms creating a potentially devastating security threat to the United States and many of its allies. This article will only focus on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear threat. First, I will briefly review the attempts made by the United States and its allies to decrease the risk of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran. Then, I will examine the dynamics that improved the likelihood of the Obama administration concluding a successful deal with Iran and the consequences it will have on US-Iran relations.
The Path to the Nuclear Deal with Iran
During his initial presidential campaign in 2007-08, Barack Obama repeatedly declared his intention to improve US-Iran relations, and he followed through after taking office. However, President Obama took a different approach than his predecessors. Previous US-Iran engagements maintained the US-stated intention of changing the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran, seeking global improvement on a host of issues, and kept the threat of military force ever-present. After the experiences in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, Obama moved policies away from forcing unsavory regimes through military power to fall in line with Washington’s policies or interest. As such, Obama sought to assure not only the Iranian people but also its leadership that Washington’s intention was not to alter the nature of the Islamic Republic, but to engage the leadership in Tehran through dialogue and multilateralism. He narrowed the topic to encouraging a behavioral change on the specific issue of nuclear fuel enrichment. The US president’s policy approach to Iran’s nuclear question is the best-applied example of what is now known as the Obama Doctrine.
No matter who was at the helm in Washington and despite Obama’s demarches of goodwill, Iran’s political climate was not receptive to any serious dialogue with the United States throughout the beginning of the Obama administration. At the time, the Iranian regime faced one of the toughest challenges to its legitimacy and its most serious existential threat; Perhaps, as existential as the early days of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. While attempts for dialogue were made, the highly irregular 2009 presidential elections in Iran, the ensuing mass protests, and the reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad slowed down and later reversed some of the initial constructive steps taken to resolve concerns on Iran’s nuclear program. The exceedingly confrontational international approach adopted by Tehran during the second term of Ahmadinejad, along with increasing human rights abuses inside Iran, allowed the United States to gather a hitherto unseen multilateral coalition to bring political and economic pressure on Iran. As a result, all major powers in the United Nations Security Council agreed to impose the toughest, most intrusive economic and political sanctions on Iran while it struggled with harsh economic conditions and social unrest. This resulted in increased popular disenchantment with the regime. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad’s relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei entered into an openly confrontational stage, endangering the very core of the Islamic Republic system established in 1979.
As tensions increased in the latter years of Ahmadinejad’s second term, sentiments began to shift with regard to the West. It became more evident that there were more immediate threats to the system than the potential American-orchestrated regime change through soft power or military force. While Khamenei and his supporters continued to regard the United States as an existential threat to the regime, they calculated that change was necessary to survive. In Iran’s presidential elections of June 2013, the supreme leader, learned from his ill-fated open support of Ahmadinejad. He did not endorse candidates whose ideas closely aligned with his own and did not undermine the election of longtime regime insider Hasan Ruhani. President Ruhani’s political platform severed ties with the past and sought to engage the West with moderation to break the coordinated international sanctions, improve the country’s economy, and, ultimately, improve the survival of the regime. With Khamenei’s cautious blessing, Ruhani fully engaged with US on the nuclear topic by September 2013, initiated by his symbolic telephone conversation with Obama.
US-Iran Relations After the Nuclear Deal
For the United States, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, has showcased the effectiveness of the core of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy, mainly through multilateralism and diplomacy, demonstrates that sticky international problems can be resolved without military intervention. In this case, the Iranian ability to enrich nuclear fuel for military purposes has been diminished, and the United States averted another military entanglement in the Middle East. The JCPOA has limited Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent or to produce weapons-grade plutonium for the next 15 years. Furthermore, Iran’s breakout timeline has been extended from roughly 3 months to at least a year, if Tehran should decide to renege on its obligations under the JCPOA. Thus, the United States, through an international partnership, has most likely averted the possibility of a military engagement with Iran over that country’s possession of enough nuclear fuel for one or more weapons. This proved to be a victorious moment for the Obama administration.
Moreover, it is a bit problematic that the deal has not completely eradicated the capable threat but has only slowed it down. The JCPOA does not cover Iran’s quest to enhance its technological expertise to produce more accurate and longer-range delivery systems for potential nuclear weapons in the future or to design warheads capable of accommodating nuclear devices. In October 2015, Iran tested a newer version of its Shehab-3 intermediate-range ballistic missile named Emad. If the Emad were capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, as suggested by observers, it would constitute as a violation of a UN Security Council Resolution. The Iranian authorities have indicated that Russia had begun delivery of the S-300 air-defense missile system to Iran, a prospect that Moscow halted during the nuclear negotiations.
Furthermore, the JCPOA has not completely improved relations with the United States. Fearing what Khamenei believes is the United States’ soft power approach designed to undermine the nature of the Islamic Republic, he banned all contact with the US on any matter not related to the JCPOA and ordered against making commercial deals with US firms. In regional issues ranging from Syria to Saudi Arabia and dealing with ISIL, Tehran has adopted a more confrontational approach.
In conclusion, it is not certain what the future will be for US-Iranian relations. Iran will be expected to abide by the JCPOA. Beyond that, the future depends on several factors, the more immediate of which follow. The role Iran chooses to play in the Syrian conflict and in the war against ISIL will shape relations. Furthermore, both countries have upcoming elections whose results will foreshadow future relations. Elections on the parliamentary and Guardian Council elections will begin in Iran, however the majority of the reformist candidates have already been disqualified. The outcome of the US presidential elections will begin and could bring forth a more assertive, if not activist, US role in the Middle East dismantling the current hard earned progress.
*Dr. Amin Tarzi
Senior Fellow, Program on the Middle East
Foreign Policy Research Institute