Photo Credit: Dragan Tatic
By Pranav Reddy
A key element of U.S. foreign policy has been nuclear nonproliferation. In layman’s terms, the United States wants to prevent states that do not already have nuclear weapons from getting them. A notable example was Bill Clinton’s 1998 sanctions on India over its Pokhran-II nuclear device tests. More recently, the United States has focused primarily on preventing Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear capabilities. The United States’ favored instrument has been sanctions, which are aimed to force such states to halt their nuclear programs. In the hopes of a diplomatic resolution, the United States, European Union (EU), Iran, and the P5+1—the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany—signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July, 14 2015 to limit Iran’s nuclear facilities to strictly civilian purposes. In exchange for compliance, the United States and the EU agreed to slowly lift sanctions. However, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, and despite calls for a revived deal by the current Biden administration, there is no guarantee one will form.
In order to analyze U.S.-Iran tensions, it is necessary to review—albeit summarily—the history of Iran during the Cold War. The original constitutional monarchy shared power between Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and the Pahlavi dynasty. Mossadegh frequently clashed with Reza Shah Pahlavi over several issues, such as cabinet appointees and, most importantly, foreign policy. The most controversial and ultimately fatal decision for Mossadegh was the vote to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. The Eisenhower administration decided, along with the British government, to depose Mossadegh and replace him with the more pliable Reza Shah Pahlavi. In August 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency organized a coup, and within days the Shah had returned to power. Most importantly to the United States and United Kingdom, oil sales resumed. Mossadegh spent the rest of his life under house arrest after being convicted of treason. The Shah proceeded to rule from 1953 to 1979 and enjoyed generous U.S. support—primarily through arms sales—despite his abysmal human rights abuses, leading Amnesty International to remark, “The shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.”
However, the Shah would face a popular uprising in 1979 featuring a bizarre alliance between Marxist guerillas, constitutionalist remnants of the National Front, and the Islamic fundamentalist Revolutionary Council, led by soon-to-be leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The coup also facilitated what would later be known as the Iranian hostage crisis. Seizing hostages from the American embassy in Tehran, the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran demanded the extradition of the Shah to face trial for his crimes. The United States refused and instead granted him asylum. Subsequently, in September 1980, Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran, which the United States supported by providing Iraq with both dual-use biological weapons and diplomatic cover for Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. After a prolonged and bloody stalemate, the war ended with a return to the status quo, and Iran returned all hostages unharmed after 444 days. To this day, animosity between the United States and Iran remains.
With this in mind, the case can be made that the United States has been, at best, an unreliable negotiator or, less generously, an imperial power looking to reestablish a friendly client state in Iran. This fundamental dynamic is at the core of what shapes U.S.-Iran relations, not the nebulous definition of state sponsors of terrorism, nor the Orientalist claims of Sunni-Shia tensions: Shia are the largest denomination in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, all of which are U.S. allies. The JCPOA, a product of the Obama administration, is a reversal of previous U.S. legislation. The JCPOA lists several restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Many of the demands are technical details on the mechanics of producing fissile material, but the overall goal is to restrict Iran to solely civilian energy production. In exchange, Iran expected certain EU and U.S. sanctions to be lifted by 2023.
At the time of U.S. withdrawal in May 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had verified Iran’s full compliance with the deal, and the Trump administration did not mention any violations of the agreement in its statement of withdrawal. IAEA reports show that Iran fully complied until May 2019, when it began to progressively violate the JCPOA limits. In its most recent report released in March 2022, the IAEA indicates that Iran has enriched uranium to 60% purity (the JCPOA limit is 3.67%). Nevertheless, the IAEA reported in February 2022 that Iran was still two years away from a functioning nuclear weapon, and Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated that it may take up to five years. Iranian officials state that if the United States returns to the JCPOA, Iran will also return to the agreed-upon restrictions.
The election of Joe Biden led to renewed hopes of a deal. However, in the United States the agreement faces internal opposition. New York Times Opinion Columnist Bret Stephens argues that “[the Iran deal] leaves us even weaker and meeker than the previous deal.” Additionally, Rand Paul was the only Republican senator who did not oppose the new agreement. Time may not be on Biden’s side in negotiating a new deal. On average, the minority party has gained two Senate seats in a president’s first midterm cycle since 1950, and polling indicates that this trend may continue. Already, the talks in Vienna have hit numerous issues and delays, from protests over Russia’s participation to Iran demanding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be taken off the U.S. list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Iranian officials want guarantees that the United States will not simply leave the agreement again for a second time. Despite this, there is a slim possibility that the removal of oil and financial sanctions may help the Biden administration resolve the current consumer crisis and lift his ailing approval ratings. Project Director of the Crisis Group’s Iran Project and Senior Advisor to the President, Ali Vaez notes that Iran had a slight rupture with Russia over its attempts to insert its own demands for the removal of sanctions from their invasion of Ukraine. These frays may indicate that a new deal could be quickly agreed upon before the November 2022 midterms.
Whether or not a new nuclear deal materializes remains to be seen. What can certainly be said is that the United States’ approach to Iran has failed to produce the desired results and has left Iran more fractured. From destroying the only democracy Iranians knew to the failed sanctions-based strategy that has contributed to its economic crisis, the United States has only pushed Iran closer to nuclear capabilities. At the same time, U.S. influence has only decreased; the Iraq and Afghanistan wars failed to ensure a U.S.-friendly regime remained comfortably in power, and the United States has been left with fewer options to maintain a positive presence in the Middle East. With increasing division over what Amnesty International has explicitly called Israeli apartheid, and the U.S. public very unhappy with the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance, the United States’ strategy of tension in the Middle East may soon be coming around in retaliation.