Deep ideological differences and mutual mistrust have marred the relationship between the United States and Iran since the Islamic Republic replaced the nation's monarchy nearly four decades ago. But time has done little to heal the wounds that each country has inflicted on the other. Their enduring enmity will be on full display this week as U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to "decertify" the deal Iran has struck with global powers on its nuclear program by arguing that the agreement isn't in the best interest of U.S. national security. Though Washington will likely keep sanctions relief for Tehran in place for now, Trump's speech will trigger a 60-day review period during which Congress will have the power to reimpose them.
Despite this apparent setback for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the prospect that the longtime adversaries will eventually set aside their grievances hasn't entirely dimmed. Because while political narratives come and go, the geopolitical forces that led to the nuclear deal's inception are here to stay, pushing the United States and Iran closer and closer to rapprochement.
The President's Gamble
The current U.S. administration has placed far more emphasis on curbing Iran's activities throughout the Middle East than its predecessor did. Within the past year, the White House has tried to unite Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, into a coalition against Iran while stepping up its military aid and weapons sales to Sunni powers across the region. In all likelihood, Trump will steadfastly maintain this tough stance when he unveils his administration's policy on Iran later this week, announcing additional targeted sanctions against it. As long as the nuclear deal remains intact, though, the use of Washington's strongest tool against Tehran — wide-reaching sanctions — will be off the table.
By reopening the debate about the JCPOA with the threat of withdrawal, Trump hopes to either rein in Iran's regional meddling or persuade Tehran to broaden the deal to include restrictions on its ballistic missile program and on its support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The president's strategy, however, is not without risk. Any cracks that open within the JCPOA's framework could spread quickly, perhaps even leading to the deal's collapse. Trump's approach also relies on the assumption that Iran — a country with a precarious political balance to maintain within its borders — won't respond aggressively to provocation.
Still, the president's gamble may not be as risky as it seems. We need only look at the forces that shaped the JCPOA's signing in the first place to see why. Over the past decade, the United States has searched for a way to reduce its presence in the Middle East and shift its attention to other parts of the world, including a resurgent Russia and a rising China. The solution it has settled on is to balance Middle Eastern powers — including Iran — against one another, forming a built-in check to prevent any one country from becoming too influential. But Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons program was something that neither the United States nor its European allies could allow. The JCPOA thus offered a means of halting the program's progress without risking the outbreak of war.
The United States' pressing need to look beyond the Middle East persists to this day. In fact, if anything, it has become even more imperative: China's economy and military prowess are growing, the standoff between Russia and the West endures, and the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has deepened. Reviving the nuclear ambitions of — and the threat of conflict with — Iran by abandoning the JCPOA would doubtless detract from the United States' ability to address these urgent needs in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific. It would also harden North Korea's belief (not to mention Iran's) that negotiation with the United States on nuclear issues is futile.
To make matters more complicated, Washington is alone in its newest strategy to contain Iran's influence. Unlike the United States, Europe considers Iran's regional ambitions to be separate from its nuclear activities, and the JCPOA to be pertinent only to the latter. The White House has blurred that distinction in a way the deal wasn't designed to handle. This discrepancy is the reason that the rationale behind Washington's decertification of the accord is key: The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agree that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran is not complying with the deal. And as long as Iran upholds its end of the bargain, the European Union will likely push back against any U.S. attempt to reinstate broad sanctions, which would damage several European companies. (The Continental bloc has already vowed to challenge the United States in the World Trade Organization if it tries to do so.)
All of these factors will make it difficult for Congress to put sanctions back in place against Iran. But perhaps that's exactly what the Trump administration is counting on. After all, the president derided the nuclear deal during his campaign for office. By punting the issue to Congress, where lawmakers will have a hard time resuming sanctions, Trump can wash his hands of the decision and gain the political cover needed to keep the agreement in place while adopting a tougher stance toward Iran.
Weighing the Cost of a Nuclear Weapon
Of course, the United States is only half of the JCPOA equation. And though Iran is often portrayed throughout the West as an erratic and unreliable partner, the country — like all nation-states in the global system — is a rational actor whose moves reflect its constraints and imperatives.
Chief among them, for the Islamic republic, is the simple need to survive. Throughout history, Iran has faced the threat of invasion from the west, first from powerful forces in Mesopotamia and then from the state of Iraq, particularly under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Seizing the chance that revolution afforded, Saddam invaded the Islamic republic not long after its establishment in 1979, prompting former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to restart the deposed shah's nuclear weapons program in search of a credible deterrent against Iraq. Vital oil reserves along Iran's border with Iraq has only heightened its vulnerability in modern times.
With Saddam's removal from power, Iraq presented more opportunity than risk to Iran, and Tehran began to exert influence over its neighbor's Shiite leaders. But Iraq's fate also served as a stark warning: The weapons of mass destruction that were once an asset for Saddam became the liability that led to his downfall. The message was not lost on Iran, which halted most of its nuclear weapons development in 2003, even as it used the facade of the program's progress to drive a grand bargain with the United States.
This strategy, though quite rational, backfired by encouraging the creation of a powerful sanctions regime that crippled the Iranian economy. Prior to 1979, Iran's economy was roughly the size of Saudi Arabia's; today it is only three-fifths as large. As a result, the Islamic republic has struggled to make good on many of the promises that brought it to power. And in a country with a lengthy history of revolution and political upheaval, the popular backlash that sustained hardship tends to generate doesn't bode well for the government’s self-preservation.
Iran's leaders, who lack the immunity to widespread discontent that North Korea's dictatorship enjoys, believe that the greatest threat to the nation's stability today comes from within. Countering it requires a stronger economy and the careful management of social and political discord — both goals that have reinforced the growing sentiment among Iranians that the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program isn't worth the steep cost of sanctions. Consequently, Iran is keen to avoid making any rash decisions about its nuclear weapons development. Rather than uniting the United States and its allies by restarting its shuttered program, Tehran will likely keep using the issue to drive the wedge between them even deeper.
A Piece of a Bigger Puzzle
Iran will enter into any new negotiations over its nuclear program with an eye toward the rest of the international community as well. Iran has little incentive to remain a pariah state, given the extent to which that status has already devastated its economy, and a movement toward diplomatic moderation has blossomed among the country's leaders since the late 1980s. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is now the standard-bearer for that movement, though the volatile nature of the nation's politics has hampered his attempts to act on that ideology so far.
Nevertheless, he and his contemporaries have the heft of geopolitics on their side. Though Iran's rhetoric has traditionally targeted the United States, it is Turkey and Russia that may be more likely to threaten Tehran's security interests, especially as Washington withdraws from the region. Iran is deeply concerned about Turkey's resurgence in the lands it previously controlled during the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq and the Levant. And Russia — a country with which Iran has fought numerous wars — has similarly increased its involvement in Tehran's backyard over the past decade. Detente with an external powerhouse like the United States would certainly improve Iran's position against both threats.
Saudi Arabia is another regional rival that Iran is sure to watch, particularly given the Sunni kingdom's close relationship with the United States. Despite that partnership, however, Washington's strategy of balancing power in the Middle East requires just that: balance. Saudi Arabia's influence could therefore wane in the coming decades, especially since its prominence is based in oil reserves and the wealth that comes with them. As the Saudi oil industry becomes less lucrative over time, it will call into question the kingdom's economic vitality — and by extension, its utility as the United States' most powerful Middle Eastern ally.
Of course, Iran's economy relies on oil, too. But it is far more diversified, which suggests that it will fare better in a world where oil no longer reigns supreme. Moreover, Iran has the advantage of strategic location. As China works to build land routes through Asia to Europe, it will have to choose whether to pass through Iran or Russia — a decision that Beijing's natural rivalry with Moscow will make easy. With a quick glance at the map, it is clear how Iran's position on China's newest Silk Road would give Washington plenty of opportunities to counter both China and Russia if Tehran were its partner.
A Partnership Checked by Politics
The slow-moving undercurrents of geopolitics can take years to shape domestic policy. In the meantime, Iran and the United States will continue to display their mutual animosity at home. Iran's powerful hard-line groups, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have staunchly opposed negotiation with the United States. Trump's recent actions have only reinforced their belief that Washington cannot be trusted, and if Rouhani's administration offers to discuss scaling back its conventional weapons program, as some have suggested it might, their objections will only grow louder. Until Iran takes true strides toward a more moderate foreign policy, its conservative groups will continue to disrupt any agreement with the United States that stretches beyond its nuclear program.
Back in the United States, Iran's support for Middle Eastern militant groups and threats to the Persian Gulf have slowed Washington's attempts to pull back from the region. The reputation Iran has gained among the American public hasn't made things any easier: Many of Iran's current leaders were visible figures during the Islamic Revolution, the subsequent hostage incident at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the talks regarding Iran's nuclear program, all events that painted a picture of an untrustworthy nation. That paint will only start to chip away when the next generation of political leaders rises to power in both countries.
For now, Iran and the United States have reached a crossroads in their relationship. Many of their long-term imperatives have begun to align. But it remains to be seen how quickly they will override the more immediate national and regional problems that each state now faces. And should the nuclear deal collapse, it could push back the lasting relationship that Iran and the United States have begun to build by another decade.