Are the U.S.-Iran relations finally thawing?

Since 1979, relations between Iran and the US have been practically non-existent. Following the 1979 Revolution, all types of partnerships collapsed leading to Iran being one of the most ostracised countries in the international arena. However a combination of factors could now create the opportunity to end the four decade long feud.

Preceding the Revolution, Iran and the US were close allies, thanks to the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was installed by the U.S. government. In 1978, President Carter stated: “There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more” when commenting on his relationship with the Shah of Iran. Growing discontent within Iran leading to the ousting of the Shah who was replaced by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini can be pin pointed as the moment when relations reversed dramatically. The Shah’s popularity had declined significantly by this point and his relationship with the US was a major rallying point for protesters. The involvement of the CIA in the Iranian coup in 1953 provided fuel to the revolutionary’s fire, and the view that the Shah was the puppet of America became widespread among the Iranian people. Khomeini advocated the chance for a strong, independent Islamic nation, free from American influence. A common perception is that Khomeini and his followers manipulated the situation using the US as a scapegoat in order to consolidate power and destabilise the Shah’s regime. What is clear, however, is how widespread anti-Americanism was throughout the Iranian society in 1979.

Iran’s nuclear programme has long been a major issue preventing good relations with the West. Investigations by the IAEA, following the claims from the West that Iran’s nuclear programme is used for the development of weapons, have been ongoing for a number of years. Iran maintains that its nuclear activity has the sole aim of developing energy.

The nuclear problem meant that Iran has been ostracised by not only the US but other major global players. In 2012, the EU agreed to an oil embargo on Iran and froze assets of Iran’s central bank. The US now operates an arms ban and near total economic embargo on Iran. Economic sanctions have become more strict over the years with the aim of crippling the Iranian economy. Sanctions which were implemented following the 1979 hostage situation were expanded in 1995 to include firms dealing with the Iranian government in relation to oil, gas, exports in refined petroleum products, petrochemical and dealings with the Iranian Republican Guards Corps. The restrictions imposed on Iran’s economy remain unprecedented.

The sanctions may have succeed to some extent, as the Iranian economy has struggled to fully utilise the global opportunities. The stringent sanctions have had a devastating effect on Iran’s energy sector which makes up 80% of the government’s revenue. The restrictions have allowed for Iraqi oil exports to overtake Iran in recent years. The intensification of sanctions have led to a collapse in the value of the rial which reached an all-time low of 23,900 to the US dollar in September 2012. This fall has pushed consumer goods further out of reach of the average Iranian. Price inflation is around 20% whilst unemployment stands at around 30%. Iran has a large educated population and the constraints on the economy means there is insufficient employment opportunities leading to a surge in educated Iranians seeking jobs abroad. The declining economic situation is aiding discontent with many calling for the government to seek an end to the sanctions that are infringing on the country’s prosperity. Whilst Iran may have cut ties with the US to gain political independence, economic sanctions exemplify the extent to which the US can still have a negative impact on Iran.

The change in political leadership of both countries has enabled a fresh opportunity for diplomatic discussions. In his inaugural speech in 2008, President Obama made a statement which can be interpreted as being directed at Iran, asserting: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, a relatively political moderate whose electoral campaign noted a commitment to rekindling discourse with the West should he come to power, has also increased the likelihood of a healing of the cold conflict. Rouhani’s election also implies that the discourse of the general Iranian public has shifted away from being staunchly anti-American.

The 24 November deadline for an agreement to be reached by Iran and the P5+1, a group of six nations involved in diplomatic efforts since 2006 to attempt to find a resolution to issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme, are appearing more likely to succeed than any previous efforts. A number of hurdles need to be overcome before any agreement is likely to be reached however. The increase in restrictions announced on 29 August by the US were called “not compatible” with the spirt of ongoing negotiations by President Rouhani. The announcement by the IAEA in September that they have experienced resistance from Iran could further hinder the process. The watchdog reported that Iran had only implemented three out of five nuclear transparency steps outlined in preliminary discussions in November 2013 by last month’s target. Whilst there are still issues which could destabilise the discussions, the current series of talks are at the most developed stage with the most potential for resolution.

The current crisis developing in Iraq has led to an unexpected adverse event in the form of being a potential catalyst for alleviating hostility between Iran and the US. The establishment of a Sunni Muslim caliphate on Iran’s doorstep will be viewed by Tehran as catastrophic. Iran wants a stable neighbour, preferably led by a Shiite government. Iran’s position in the Middle East is under direct attack by the growth of ISIS. Allying with the West against the organisation would give the country potential to maintain its position. Unfortunately what Iran and the US desire for the outcome of the Iraq crisis differs significantly. Iran wants an ally that it can dominate, whilst the US want its own type of government to have friendly relations with and increase its position in the region. In haste to crush ISIS, the US needs to be careful not to be short-sighted if an agreement is met. If the US lifts economic sanctions in return for support against ISIS, they have the potential to allow Iran to continue with its nuclear programme, ultimately providing them with a win-win situation. With the onset of a threat to both countries, the two powers will be looking for a legitimate opportunity for an “alliance” to defeat ISIS.

Recent events have led to the most promising likelihood of a resolution to the breakdown of relations since their onset in 1979. The harsh economic sanctions appear to have had the desired effect on the Iranian economy by providing little chance for growth and instilling discontent among the Iranian people. The change in discourse of the people away from complete anti-Americanism is reflective in the election of the moderate Rouhani in 2013, who appears more amenable to relations with the West. Even though the nuclear question remains unanswered, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he remains “quite optimistic” a solution can be found. The rapid growth of ISIS has created a common enemy for both the US and Iran. And as they saying goes -“your enemy’s enemy is your friend”. Over the past four decades, no other point has seemed as promising as now in ending hostilities between America and Iran. The next few months will be crucial in seeing whether workable relations can be restored fully.

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Categories: Middle East, North America

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