U.S. And Iran Relations At A Crossroads: Is New Leadership Necessary For A Peaceful Future?

Last month, U.S. and Iran relations reached a new low point after Tehran issued an arrest warrant for President Donald Trump over a drone strike which killed top Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani. According to the New York Times, 35 other individuals were also issued arrest warrants for their roles in “directing the assassination,” says Iran’s top prosecutor, Ali Alqasimehr. Iran has since appealed to the global community for support, calling on INTERPOL, a French based international police organization, to issue a “notice of red alert” and help them bring Trump to justice. However, INTERPOL denied this request, stating that under the grounds of its founding constitution “it is strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” The United States has responded by discrediting the arrest warrants, with Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook calling the move a “political stunt” and an example of “propaganda…that no one takes seriously and makes the Iranians look foolish.” 

The drone strike in question occurred in the early hours of January 3rd, 2020, as Soleimani was leaving the Baghdad International Airport, who according to the Independent, was due to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. At approximately 1:00 local time, four Hellfire missiles obliterated Soleimani’s convoy along an access road just outside the airport, killing the General and nine others. Soleimani, who was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran behind Ali Khamenei, had previously expanded Iran’s military presence in the Levant, having provided assistance to Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian Civil War. The General’s leadership also resulted in Iran’s increased support of Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups. The United States further held Soleimani responsible for “the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members” and accused him for “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Soleimani’s death is hardly the first instance of bad blood between the United States and Iran, who have maintained an increasingly hostile relationship for over half a century. In 1953, the CIA orchestrated a coup which removed democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, which was previously controlled by the United Kingdom. Mosaddegh’s ousting cleared the way for the United States to develop a close partnership with Iran’s Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who over the following decade introduced a variety of westernized economic and social reforms. However, these changes came with the price of heightened political turmoil, as nationalists like Ali Khomeini gained popularity and organized a resistance movement against the Shah and western influence. By 1979, Iran’s Revolution was in full swing, as nationwide opposition forced the Shah to flee the country and eventually seek out refuge in the United States, leaving Khomeini to take power. As a result, relations between Iran and the West continued to deteriorate, and in November 1979, a mob of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 American, who were held hostage for 444 days. 

Hostile exchanges persisted over the following decades as Iran began developing the technology necessary for a nuclear weapons program. The United States responded by imposing severe economic sanctions on Iran, and the United Nations and European Union followed suit. However, this did not eliminate Iran’s desire to acquire weapons grade uranium, who seek a means of deterrence against powerful regional adversaries, specifically the nuclear capable Israeli government. By 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a statement saying Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons remained “a matter of serious concern,” which Barack Obama took note of upon his election to the Presidency that fall. Obama quickly began negotiations with Tehran, and in 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed upon and ratified by Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany. Under the deal, Iran was barred from producing uranium exceeding 3.67% enrichment, far below the required 90% enrichment necessary to build nuclear weaponry. Iran also lost more than 98% of its total uranium stockpile, and its nuclear factories at Natanz and Fordo saw cuts in their number of operational centrifuges. In exchange, Iran was freed from sanctions, allowing the country to sell oil to international markets and retrieve more than $100 billion in frozen overseas assets, according to the BBC.

However, the election of Donald Trump in 2017 instantly put a time capsule on the agreement, considering his relentless campaign promises to put an end to the “horrible, one-sided deal.” Just sixteen months after his inauguration, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and reinstated sanctions on Iran, citing a need to place the regime under “maximum pressure.” Unsurprisingly, these actions have caused Iran’s economy to plummet, and as food and gas prices continue to skyrocket, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, causing the worst political turmoil in Iran since 1979. No doubt the Trump administration anticipated such events, considering the maximum pressure policy was intended to force the Iranian’s hands and have them agree to a new deal which better aligns with the Republican Party’s political ideology. Unfortunately, Washington and Tehran are no closer to a new agreement, and since the United States formally pulled out in May 2018, Iran have gradually begun to abandon the JCPOA commitments as well. Specifically, Iran are now ignoring “all limits” on research and development for centrifuge technology, are resuming uranium enrichment at Fordo, and as of January 5th, 2020, two days after Qasem Soleimani’s assassination, are no longer abiding by the JCPOA’s limit on operational centrifuges. 

Rather than forcing the Iranians to return to the negotiating table, Trump’s maximum pressure policy has instead served as a rallying point for Iranian government, and a justification for the regime to cause even more violence, destruction, and regional instability. For instance, Iran has since attacked multiple oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and is responsible for a September 2019 attack on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Iran even shot down an American military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz, and the United States, who insisted the unmanned aircraft was flying above international waters, nearly responded with a retaliatory strike of their own. With these events causing an accumulation of tension to build between these two countries, many world leaders feared that Soleimani’s assassination could bring about another full scale military confrontation in the Middle East. Within days of the General’s death, Iran retaliated by firing missiles at an American military base in Iraq, injuring several U.S. service members and personnel as a result. 

While no further military exchanges have occurred since, suspicion and mistrust has clouded any opportunity for productive peace talks to continue. The United States still suspects Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and Iran has not forgotten the drone strike which killed its top defense official. With that being said, it is unclear how exactly the U.S. and Iran will correspond with one another in the future, as serious questions remain regarding a path forward towards cooperative U.S. and Iran relations. However, it is certainly possible, if not plausible, that the COVID-19 crisis could actually lead the way for a more productive relationship between the United States and Iran to develop. This perspective may not gain any particular traction from major media outlets, but it is a valuable train of thought which does merit some consideration. 

It is no secret that both American and Iranian leadership responded poorly to the coronavirus pandemic, with over 290,000 cases reported in Iran and a staggering 4.2 million counts in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University as of Saturday July 25th. By failing dismally to protect their populations from the deadly outbreak, on top of each government’s inability to appeal to demonstrators angered by non-coronavirus related national crises, the public backlash against American and Iranian political figures could be crippling. For Donald Trump, who faces reelection in November, his inattention to the severity of the coronavirus could cost him the Presidency and pave the way for Joe Biden to take office instead. Biden, who served as Vice President under Obama, has already indicated his intention to rejoin the JCPOA. Whether or not this is possible is yet to be determined, but a change in American leadership could at the very least persuade Iran to resume peace talks with the United States, who under such circumstances could potentially be a much more negotiable country. 

With living conditions continuing to deteriorate in Iran, it is not an unrealistic suggestion to make that heightened social tensions could amount to a regime change and the downfall of Ali Khamenei. As Iran’s Supreme Leader, Khamenei has relentlessly suppressed free speech and is responsible for tens of thousands of politically motivated assassinations, including the deaths of “about 1,500” protesters in the fall of 2019 alone, according to Reuters. With the spread of COVID-19 adding to the many layers of social unrest in Iran, calls for a new leader may be in order before long. After all, Iran is not a country which has historically tolerated ineffective governance.

Peace between the United States and Iran is ultimately a service to the Middle East. For far too long, this region has played witness to some of the world’s most horrific and brutal fighting, which would only be exacerbated by further violent interventions between the United States and Iran. Hopefully, fresh leadership on both sides of the negotiating table can bring about long lasting and durable tolerance between these traditionally adversarial states. The formation of an alliance or partnership is not necessarily needed, nor does it seem likely, but both countries must accept their political differences and commit to a future of peaceful relations. The alternative is the continuation of more unpredictable military conflicts, which one day could lead the world to war.

Peter Koenigsbauer

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