The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was undoubtedly the Obama Administration’s foreign policy signature. On the other hand, President Trump has consistently claimed that the JCPOA was the worst deal he has ever seen, withdrawing from the agreement in May 2018. He has since pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” toward Iran. As a result, the last four years represent one of the lowest points in the four-decade confrontation between Washington and Tehran. President-elect Biden has stated that he is prepared to take the U.S. back into the 2015 nuclear deal, provided that Iran returns into full compliance with that pact and agrees to future negotiations for longer and more stringent constraints on its nuclear activities. Last September, Biden said that President Trump has “recklessly tossed away a policy that was working to keep America safe and replaced it with one that has worsened the threat.” This potential key shift in American policy can reduce tensions between the two nations and contribute to stability in the Middle East. However, many uncertainties and formidable challenges need to be addressed and overcome before this policy can occur.
Roots, Opportunities, and Challenges in Iran-U.S. Animosity
President Trump not only withdrew from the nuclear deal, but has also taken many steps to ensure that his successor will not be able to revive it. Under the Trump Administration, Iran has faced unprecedented sanctions and President Trump will probably announce more sanctions before January 20, 2021, the date of President-elect Biden’s inauguration. Iran has few, if any, friends in Washington. Most Republicans and Democrats are likely to oppose lifting the sanctions and/or demand concessions from Tehran in return for lifting some of these sanctions. The fact that Republicans are likely to control the Senate and have gained more seats in the House further complicates any move by the future Biden Administration to reverse Trump’s policy. Meanwhile, Iran has said that it is open to negotiation but has placed various conditions on returning to the JCPOA, including compensation for the U.S.’s withdrawal and sanctions. More importantly, Tehran has gradually moved away from the nuclear deal’s limits since the summer of 2019 in response to the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. According to a recent report by the United Nations Atomic Energy International Agency (AEIA), it has continued to build up its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and accelerate its nuclear research.
The roots of the Iran-U.S. conflict can be found in the geography and history of the Middle East. The Iranians, for good reasons, perceive their county as the dominant power in the Gulf/South Asia region. The nation is home to one of the most ancient civilizations in the world and over the centuries has developed a strong national identity despite having multiple ethnic and sectarian minorities. Further, it has a large population and well-educated middle class. In addition to this long history and demographic advantages, the country holds the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves (after Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Canada) and the second-largest natural gas reserves (after Russia). It is one of the founders of both the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Natural Gas Forum. It is clear that Tehran is a leading actor in the global energy market.
The underlying drive of Iran’s regional policy is a strong sense of “victimization.” Without foreign powers, the argument goes, the country would have been the dominant regional power. In other words, the Russian, British, and now American presence has denied Tehran its supposedly “natural” supremacy in the region. The Iranian leaders argue that their domination would not mean occupying their neighbors’ territories or imposing any conditions on them. Rather, regional states would work together, without foreign intervention, to promote cooperation, avoid conflicts, and address their economic and political differences in a peaceful manner. Within this context, Iranian policy under both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic has been consistent: foreign powers should leave.
On the other hand, the United States has vital economic and strategic interests in the Gulf and the broad Middle East/South Asia region and feels a need to maintain a heavy presence to protect these interests. The so-called “shale revolution” and the U.S.’s significantly improved energy outlook does not mean that Washington is less dependent on oil and gas supplies from the Middle East. With the largest economy globally and with growing and robust interdependence between global economies, it is a vital U.S. national interest to ensure the non-interruption of oil and gas supplies from the Gulf to the rest of the world. In addition to energy security, Washington’s other key interests in the region include countering violent extremist groups, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and guaranteeing the security of Israel, among others. Against this background and for the protection of its interests, the United States has for decades invested heavily in building and fostering relations with most of the countries in the region. In short, rhetoric aside, the broad U.S. economic, political, and military presence in the Gulf and the broader Middle East region is not likely to shrink any time soon, regardless of who occupies the White House.
Trajectory and Strategic Implications
Two days after Joe Biden won the election, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on his Twitter page: “A sincere message to our neighbors: Trump’s gone in 70 days, but we’ll remain here forever.” Now with Biden Administration taking office on January 20, the United States will continue its economic, cultural, and military engagement in the Middle East, however, priorities might change. Biden will likely emphasize human rights more than the previous one, yet, American foreign policy under any administration has always been driven by and reflected its perceived national interests and values.
Furthermore, Iran will maintain its status as a regional power for the foreseeable future. It will also remain an important neighbor and trading partner. For more than a millennium, the Gulf’s inhabitants – including Arabs, Persians, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and other minorities – have lived side-by-side, despite their ideological disagreements. This will not change. Washington’s leadership change should be viewed by all Gulf countries as a strategic opportunity to engage in a dialogue to address their underlying common threats and emerging opportunities, especially now. For example, regional cooperation is desperately needed to address the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the health systems. The persistently low oil prices have dealt a heavy blow to economic development in all regional powers. No country can overcome any of these challenges by itself.
Dr. Gawdat Bahgat is a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He is the author of 11 books on the Middle East. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the policies of the Department of Defense.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.