Four decades of mistrust between Tehran and Washington isn’t likely to end soon. But it can be managed if mutual diplomacy prevails.
When the P5+1 countries, namely United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany, along with the EU, signed the Joint Cooperation Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in July 2015, it was a decisive step towards reducing Iran’s international isolationism.
This lucrative démarche had the potential to gradually restore partial stability in the Middle East. This fragile balance, which the region has been lacking since the beginning of the new millennium, came to an end two years ago on May 8th, 2018.
A distinct legacy of Donald Trump’s administration will be the mistake of single-handedly walking away from the JCPOA, also known as the 'Iran deal'.
This error caused the US to miss prospective opportunities to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities and to restrain Iran’s regional expansionism.
Under American guardianship, irrespective of decades’ worth of reciprocal accusations and sowed mistrust, this deal would have enabled fair competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia in terms of oil exports instead of destabilising, one-sided support.
During the press conference when announcing withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Trump explicitly underlined that the “US no longer makes empty threats”, a discourse that was disregarded by Iranian authorities.
Contrarily, it has since emboldened Iran’s activities in the Middle East, such as the Iranian-backed Houthi militia attack on Saudi Aramco, attacking the K-1 Air Base, and storming of the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The direct and indirect costs of these attacks against US interests resulted in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, which Trump justified using the same sentiment.
Iran’s expansionist foreign policy comes at the expense of its people.
After cutting off the most important artery of Iran's military leadership vein in its modern history, on the same day of Soleimani’s assassination, Trump tweeted: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”.
This thinly veiled threat aimed to oblige Iran to accept a new deal, with new conditions.
Despite their immeasurable loss, Iran's careful political manoeuvring de-escalated tensions.
A fresh start?
Two years since the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, a new stage is set, framed by the upcoming presidential elections both in the US and Iran, in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Although Covid-19 has currently hindered any major developments in the US election cycle, after the nominees are confirmed, their campaigns will pick up pace – and scrutiny.
As the Republican incumbent, Trump’s platform will follow his general lack of strategy. He is sure to bully China for the spread of Covid-19 and finger it as the cause of significant damage to the US economy while continuing the Iranian stalemate with his “maximum pressure” campaign.
On the other side, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate, will likely steer his campaign to persuade Iranian authorities that the US is willing to pursue solutions.
Biden did not mince words when he said that Trump made a “profound mistake” when he walked away from diplomatic opportunities presented by the deal.
His political campaign has the herculean task of convincing Iranian authorities that a new, fair, nuclear deal is feasible.
US sanctions over the last two years have wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy. Inevitably, the economy will be at the forefront of next year’s presidential elections in Iran. The next president of Iran not only has to stop the downward spiral, but also reconfigure US-Iran relations.
While there are several names emerging, a hardliner win could be looming. Although no one has officially declared their intent, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a conservative former military officer that served as mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, is a contender.
The new president of Iran in 2021, if a hardliner, would most likely repeat the follie of the Ahmadinejad era when Iran became a pariah state.
Unapologetic in their stance towards the US, the hardliners could squander the only gains Iran has made from (under Mohammad Khatami) isolation on the international stage, such as the 2004 Paris Agreement and 2005 Brussels negotiations.
Setting the stage
Nevertheless, conditions are tougher today as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's (IRGC) hold over politics and the economy is much tighter. They could be the spoilers for any potential resolution.
A war of words and designating each other’s official military arms, IRGC and CENTCOM, as terrorist organisations, would also present challenges for the new Iranian president. Whoever gets elected would have to shoulder the responsibilities of balancing the IRGC’s designs on any new nuclear deal.
With the pressure of sanctions and a stagnating economy, the return to ‘normal’ after Covid-19 could trigger demonstrations in the streets as witnessed in 2017-18 and 2019.
The insistency on an “economy of resistance” would be more stressed in Tehran’s foreign policy discourse and hardliners would consistently raise American 'untrustworthiness'.
Although Trump’s political moves are unpredictable, Iran’s continued provocations by virtue of its Yemeni and Iraqi proxies might be tolerated until the end of the presidential election cycle.
Iranian authorities should keep in mind what Ayatollah Khomeini did during the Iran-Iraq war.
Despite the reluctance of Khomeini to withdraw from the conflict, he accepted the UN resolution to cease the war for the sake of Iranian people by likening his decision to “worse than drinking poison.”
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could take a page out of his book, taking on the responsibility to cease economic war for the sake of the Iranian people.
The assassination of Soleimani and a one-way withdrawal have irrefutably diminished the prospects of US diplomatic interventions, and a U-turn from this point would be challenging.
Proposing and subsequently re-negotiating a fair nuclear deal seems the only logical approach to re-establish the US’s impaired credibility.
What is certain is that both explicit and clandestine initiatives between these two countries will shape the region and avoid future conflict.
Regardless of who becomes the next president, the future relations of Washington and Tehran – built on four decades of mistrust – will not tolerate any backpedalling.
The election of a Democratic candidate in the US would create a path towards a new nuclear deal. Yet, a hardliner win in Iran would create a more chaotic atmosphere for the stability of the region.
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