Looking Ahead to Post-Obama U.S.-Iran Relations

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Looking Ahead to Post-Obama U.S.-Iran Relations

The nuclear issue may be defused for now, but multiple factors could continue to undermine relations.

Looking Ahead to Post-Obama U.S.-Iran Relations
Credit: REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

The permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran hammered out an interim nuclear deal (the so-called Joint Plan of Action) which entered into force on January 20. The Joint Plan of Action will involve Iran eliminating stockpiles of its more highly enriched uranium, dismantling some its enrichment related infrastructure, agreeing to more inspections and not to activate any more centrifuges. In return, Iran gets some sanctions relief. However, given the poor history and number of irritants in each bilateral relationship between Iran and the West, it is likely that a broader politico-security deal with Iran, if there is to be one, will still be in the process of being negotiated a couple of years from now.

In my forthcoming book on Iranian foreign policy, Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I B Tauris, 2014), I make the argument that active containment of Iran has failed and that active engagement (consistent diplomacy and the utilization of a range of soft power tools, mainly economic, to support and achieve clear diplomatic objectives) will help rebuild relations between Iran and the West. The U.S. and its Western allies could include positive measures such as sanctions relief and eventually sanctions removal, foreign direct investment to develop Iran’s oil and gas industry, and technology transfer from countries such as Japan to achieve this objective. But such engagement requires time. I also argue that a deal with Iran not only hinges on the success of the preliminary nuclear deal, but also on the success of any renewed cooperation in other areas. For example, should there be clear headway made from bringing Iran into informal or formal talks on the future of Syria (e.g. Geneva II) or Afghanistan, then this could contribute to confidence and sustain future diplomatic engagement.


It is difficult to identify where Syria might be by the end of the decade given the current stalemate in the conflict. The situation remains fundamentally tied to establishing facts on the ground by the Syrian military and opposition forces. No matter how surprising the election of a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was in the recent Iranian presidential elections, Iran’s solid political, financial and military alliance with Syria will endure because the mutual fear of insecurity and rationale for resistance to U.S. or Israeli regional hegemony remains.

It is therefore highly likely that after this initial nuclear negotiation, the U.S. and Iran will encounter some serious ideological and geo-strategic obstacles that will be far more difficult to resolve than a compromise on technical details for a nuclear program that Rouhani has already explicitly stated has “no place in Iran’s security doctrine.” Given the current dynamic, Iran’s relationship with the West is unlikely to change dramatically in the coming years. At best, there could be more economic cooperation, particularly in signing new oil and gas contracts and in settling past debts. The relationship remains fundamentally constrained by the Israeli government and the U.S. Congress which take a skeptical view of any Iranian foreign policy reform and a punitive approach to sanctions enforcement and tightening. It also remains constrained by the ultra-nationalist hardliners in Iran (including the IRGC) whose interests are best served by maintaining an anti-Western policy and those in the political establishment who are unwilling to cede further concessions to the West on sensitive security matters without reciprocal concessions.

Managing the Diplomatic Track

It is therefore possible amid tight institutional constraints that the Obama administration has done all it can do on Iran and will leave a legacy of improved relations without any overall political reconciliation. The lack of normalized relations will continue to perpetuate the negative aspect of relations between Iran and the Gulf States because the U.S. will be unable to leverage substantial ties with Iran into a win-win regional security strategy. Although the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance in the Islamic world and accusations about alleged Iranian interference in the domestic affairs of the Gulf States are likely to continue, there are signs the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may be moderating its stance on Iran. Besides speculation that secret talks between the UAE and Iran over an unresolved islands dispute in the Persian Gulf are close to a successful conclusion, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has publicly stated his support for sanctions against Iran to be lifted. Whilst such negotiations and gestures may lead to improved bilateral relations between the UAE and Iran, it is doubtful they will facilitate meaningful changes in the region.

The U.S. Congress has already expressed resistance to rolling back sanctions against Iran. Although the Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate (52 Democrats versus 46 Republicans as of December 2013), about half of all senators back a bill for onerous new sanctions against Iran called the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act  proposed by Senator Robert Mendez (D-NJ). It is unclear if the bill will achieve the two-thirds majority needed to pass, but President Obama has already threatened to veto it since it would compromise the current diplomatic agreement. However, the bill probably would gain the necessary congressional support if Iran was perceived to have broken the agreement. Such a unilateral move without close coordination with western allies could be enough to undermine the entire sanctions regime.

Robert Gates recently asserted that: “There is no international problem that can be addressed or solved without the engagement and leadership of the United States…,” and yet the U.S. government has been unable to solve the Iranian conundrum for the past 30 years, even when it was in its interests to do so immediately post 9/11. What U.S. foreign policy has lacked in the Middle East is diplomatic ambition. Whereas hundreds of billions of dollars have been pumped into the War on Terror over the past decade, little headway has been made in policy areas that could have contributed more to bridging the old ideological and sectarian divides that have manifested themselves in new Middle East conflicts. Lack of tangible progress on the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) has not only created a jaundiced view of the issue by those most familiar with it, but some Israeli politicians are now openly skeptical of U.S. arbitration. Nevertheless, the successful conclusion of a two-state solution would make it infinitely easier to be optimistic that progress could be made on other regional issues. Importantly, the conclusion of the MEPP would help define borders, ensure the recognition of Israel by all the states in the Arab world, and contribute to an overall reduction in regional tensions.

Finally, whilst the Obama administration has managed to avoid becoming embroiled in the Arab Spring, it has not managed to resolve the crises in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The U.S.-Iran deal and the MEPP could therefore be the beginning of the U.S. government regaining traction on vital Middle East issues. At the same time, the Obama administration must remain cognizant that it is the only actor capable of managing a resurgent Iran and providing security guarantees to the Gulf states and Israel to allay their fears and limit any hard power responses.

Post Obama U.S.-Iran Relations

Under the next U.S. president, the pendulum should swing back from the extremes of the George W. Bush administration’s military adventurism and the Obama administration’s largely hands-off policy during the Arab Spring to a point where the U.S. government becomes a strategic enabler in the Middle East. In this sense the U.S. government could use its vast resources to set the preconditions (including helping to activate the political will of the region’s political leaders) necessary to concluding revised security and economic treaties. The cases of chemical weapons use against Iranian and Syrian civilian populations as well as widespread concern about the Iranian nuclear program all point to the urgency of implementing a new regional security agenda which is acceptable to all stakeholders.

The U.S. government should be championing this with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories in the Gulf States and across the region (including NPT non-signatories such as Israel, India and Pakistan) where the U.S. could leverage its strong bilateral relationships into forming an agreement on applying revised Safeguard Agreements and Additional Protocols. This would be a logical extension of the Iranian nuclear deal which has raised the bar of transparency and verification, and it could become a possible interim step to establishing a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East (WMDFZME). The incentive for Israel to finally declare its nuclear arsenal and submit to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls would be the immediate implementation of substantial additional measures designed to enhance its national security. For Iran, such an agreement would further undermine its resistance ideology.

Whilst Obama’s main foreign policy legacy so far appears to be in establishing the Action Plan with Tehran, only with the U.S. government engaging more ambitiously and actively on the MEPP and on other security and economic issues can a broader legacy with Iran and the Arab world be realized.

Dr. Robert Mason is Lecturer in International Relations at the British University in Egypt. He tweets @Dr_Robert_Mason