Outlook for 2017: Iran-US Relations

4 mins read

Anton Rosén

In 2013 Iran seemed to be collapsing. With rising inflation, decrease in value of its national currency, a rising unemployment peaking at 13% and low crude oil prices, the country’s political elite was faced with the unforgiving reality of what international sanctions and bad reforms lead to in a globalized world. In May, the same year centrist moderate Mr. Hassan Rouhani was elected president of the Islamic republic after the years of conservative populist Ahmadinejad. During his race for presidency Mr. Rouhani stressed that it would not do to just clean up within the country, in order for the nation to prosper it had to shape up its relations with the international community especially in regards to western countries. Ahmadinejad and Rouhani was in this aspect counter opposites of each other. Ahmadinejad had looked at the west, and certainly the U.S as diabolic imperialists. Rouhani realized the importance of foreign investments. The thought was that once the country were rid of western sanctions the economy would surely prosper. So, in September 2013 someone somewhere picked up a phone a dialed another phone and a conversation took place which hadn´t taken place since the revolution of 1979. Former U.S president Obama spoke directly with president Rouhani and two bitter enemies seemed to be cautiously approaching each other.

Hassan Rouhani 2016

The key dispute between the two countries was of course the development of the Iranian nuclear energy-program and the American fear of long-distance nukes in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Iranian nuclear deal framework agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany) in 2015 marked a huge breakthrough and even though no side seemed to be changing their opinion, regarding one another as a threat, ice was breaking. The agreement roughly states that Iran will stop develop its nuclear energy program in a military direction under international observation in return for lifted sanctions.

However, the Obama administration received heavy critique both on its home-turf and from abroad over the deal. All the republican representatives in the congress voted against the framework agreement and one of the country’s long standing allies, Israel, was not in a good mood. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a “historic mistake”, holding the opinion that it would not prevent nor change Teheran’s ambition to gain nuclear warheads. Saudi Arabia, another key ally to the U.S, were also skeptical about the deal, but for other reasons than that of Israel. Saudi Arabia and Iran has been rivals since before the Islamic revolution and if Iran were to be free from sanctions this would put more air under their wings in the regional power struggle and increase the sectarian violence in the region, exemplified by the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Then came 2016 and the American presidential election. With Mr. Donald Trump at the steering wheel and with both the senate and house of representatives controlled by the republicans we can be quite assertive that the policy driven towards Iran will take a more hostile shape. During the campaign, President Trump slammed the Iran agreement as “catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East”. Signaling a strong dis-contempt with the Obama administration’s work regarding the deal, a back to the good ol’ ways vibe to Israel, where Iran would be put on a stricter leash, and sympathies with the Saudi Arabian perspective regarding regional stability.

Examples of a harsher course can already be witnessed in President Trumps effort to ban citizens of the Islamic republic and citizens from six other countries from entering the U.S in his controversial “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” executive order. President Rouhani recently slammed president Trump in regards to the travel-ban, maybe sublimely hinting at the eroding good-will holding the nuclear-energy agreement in place when saying; “You have issued visas, you have stamped them in passports, you have signed them and now you say you don’t accept it and they cannot travel to your country. They (the U.S. government) have contravened all international principles and commitments,”. The newly assumed U.S administration also invoked fresh sanctions on companies and individuals supposedly dealing with Iran along with a statement that Iran was “officially put on notice” in response to an Iranian missile-test carried out on January 29, arguably breaking U.N security council resolution 2231. The Iranians in turn insisted that the missile was not designed to carry nuclear warheads finalizing in them firing back with their own barrage of blacklisting against American citizens.

One may also wonder what effects the lifted sanctions actually had on the Iranian economy. It has gone almost a year since the sanctions and from the fact of being the second largest economy in the middle-east the country is on paper a lucrative prospect for foreign investors. And investments have been done. One example is a $4.8-billion preliminary deal between the National Iranian Oil Company and a consortium led by France’s Total to expand the South Pars colossal offshore gas field. However, hurdles remain since the U.S still has widespread sanctions remaining against the country not related to the nuclear-energy program. Another key issue has been for President Rouhani to trickle the new investments downwards, towards the people in need. A question that arises is how the people of Iran will react to both the antagonism of Trump in combination with an economy that does not really react in the way of what was hoped for in regards to the lifted nuclear-energy sanctions. Will President Rouhani be punished for painting a to hopeful picture of what the agreement would result in, in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections?

Many things can be concluded. Both the Iranians and the Obama administration walked through fire in order to see the nuclear-energy agreement was done. The U.S relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia did take its toll under the Obama administration because of their work with Iran. The future will show how the new regime in Washington will go about repairing these key relations to the U.S, but for now the rhetoric indicates that a reversed stance towards Iran will be one way, with old principles returning and the pragmatism that ruled under Obama falling out of discussion. The situation shows disturbing tendencies but the question is if both sides will have enough reason to keep the train on the rails because in reality the nuclear-energy agreement is the best tool for each side to make the other work with them in constructive way. The recent events remind each actor about the realpolitik importance of the agreement. As the U.S – Iranian relations and the nuclear agreement fell off the radar in importance to other international challenges in 2016, this year it will certainly come roaring back into spotlight, especially with the Iranian presidential election coming up in May.

By Anton Rosén

Banner photo is from David Holt. It is a wall painting on the former US embassy in Teheran.

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