Middle East

U.S. foreign policy on Iran going forward


United States policy toward the Middle East since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has developed primarily within the context of the Global War on Terrorism, as well as against the broader backdrop of regional proxy conflicts that almost always involve Iran. America’s Arab allies have also treated Iran as a diplomatic adversary since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This revolution almost four decades ago resulted in the establishment of the first official modern theocracy based on Islamism. U.S. foreign policy on Iran going forward, if formulated in consideration of recent demonstrations, has the potential to influence a much more comprehensive agreement that addresses the U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, as well as human rights concerns, in relation to potential changes to the agreement between Iran and the West.

Image courtesy of WSFURLAN (c) 2016

The Islamic Revolution began with mass, countrywide protests over socio-economic grievances related to political corruption. Likewise, the recent Iranian protests, which began on December 28, 2017, and which have continued into January 2018, are a similar type of protest.

On January 16, 2016, the Obama Administration implemented the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear agreement between the UN P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China) which was agreed to on July 14, 2015. The JCPOA was intended to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while providing Iran sanctions relief. However, this controversial agreement—President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement—has received intense opposition within U.S. foreign policy debates. President Trump campaigned vehemently against the Iran nuclear agreement and, upon taking office, initially certified that the deal was in the U.S. national security interest before deciding not to issue this certification on October 13, 2017 (the President must reissue this certification every 90 days). However, on January 12, 2018, the President decided to extend the sanction waivers while threatening to terminate the agreement if it is not “fixed” by the next deadline, on May 12, 2018, as of this publication.

The Trump Administration has identified Iran among the foremost challenges for U.S. policy, going forward. President Trump’s National Security Strategy, released on December 18, 2017, states that the “interconnected problems of Iranian expansion, state collapse, jihadist ideology, socio-economic stagnation, and regional rivalries have convulsed the Middle East.” This Administration’s approach can significantly impact the Middle East’s geopolitical developments in the years ahead and, if pursued properly, has the potential to further solidify America’s alliances with its Arab allies against Iran.

U.S. policy should focus on continuing to monitor the issue of nuclear proliferation, as well as the terrorist threat from and internal human rights violations in Iran. For the first time since the 2009 Green Revolution, a protest in Iran poses a real challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian Supreme Leader blamed the protests on an alliance between the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to undermine the foundation of the regime—a regime that, ironically, took power by means of protests that challenged the foundation of the US-backed government in 1979.

While the 2009 protests were organized in Tehran by the elite class over a fraudulent election, the 2017-2018 protests seem to be driven by economic problems such as unemployment, inflation, and rising food prices. The protests also were caused by a general disappointment in their current government’s failed promises that were driven by a hope for change which, in part, legitimized negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program.

However, Iran’s destabilizing activities in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, as well as its intensified proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, have depleted its resources to the detriment of its population. The demonstrators chanted “death to the dictator,” reminiscent of the Arab Spring protests that rose up against authoritarian corruption. Furthermore,  this discontent was expressed in cries such as “We don’t want an Islamic Republic.”

President Trump has tweeted messages of support for the protestors in Iran, saying that it is “time for change!” and that “the world is watching!” These statements,  coupled with President Trump’s refusal to certify the JCPOA, further demonstrate the Trump Administration’s clear return to an adversarial foreign policy with Iran. Therefore, the United States can put pressure on its partners, especially in the European Union, to renegotiate the sanction-related aspects of the nuclear agreement based on these emerging concerns. In that way, the West should stand for its values and show solidarity with the people of Iran. These recent protests in Iran have now opened the opportunity for the P5+1 powers to address Iran’s human rights violations within the context of the JCPOA’s sanctions relief.

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