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What the Capitol Hill storming means for Iran

For years, US policy in the Persian Gulf has oscillated increasingly further between Democrat and Republican administrations. Just as a priority for Barack Obama was the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the relief on sanctions, so too was it a key objective for Trump to tear it up.

Within a fortnight, Biden will be sworn in as the next president, and has indicated a return to the Obama strategy, to the consternation of Republicans who would like to see Trump’s hardline approach continue. Last Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol Building shows just how polarised US politics has become in an era when every issue is a partisan issue. For the foreseeable future, Biden is going to have a tough job uniting Americans and will have to pick his battles.

The debate over how to deal with Iran remains beset on both sides by two underappreciated problems. The first, the belief that ideological fluctuations in the White House count for more than tangible shifts on the ground in Iran. The second, the fact that these fluctuations themselves, and America’s increasingly literal civil war over the soul of its politics, mean that the US is no longer in a position to make long term promises.

A return to the JCPOA will not be simple. The deal was initially reached only after arduous negotiations spanning some four years and with the backing of Russia, China, and the EU. It took Trump far less time to tear up the deal and send a strong message to Iran about America’s ability to stick to its word.

US-Iranian relations are much worse than they were when the deal was signed. Trump authorised the drone strike of Iran’s most notable general last January. An Israeli attack—almost certainly approved by the US—killed a top nuclear scientist in Tehran in November. Iran is now talking about compensation for the sanctions reimposed by Trump in breach of the JCPOA. Elections in Iran this summer are likely to produce an even more hardline administration less amenable to signing a nuclear deal.

It’s not like up until now Iran has been waiting around for a friendlier US administration to re-up the deal. Tehran has bolstered its relations with China, which sees Iran as an attractive ally in a region dominated by the US. As Trump developed US relations with Iran’s Gulf rivals, Tehran has proved itself capable of striking Saudi Arabia with conventional warheads and continue pursuing a bellicose foreign policy in the face of sanctions. There is no reason to assume that Iran is desperate to come to the table and that America can unilaterally enforce a return to the JCPOA because it has decided to.

But in pursuing a policy of antagonising Iran and cozying up to Saudi Arabia, Trump has painted the US into a corner. This current strategy relies on America to keep Iran pinned down with overwhelming force, both economically and militarily, with regime change the only possible endgame. This is the same approach that failed in Iraq, where a US-led embargo lasted 13 years and caused untold suffering. It did not, however, result in the deposition of Saddam at the hands of crowds of hungry protestors as was hoped, and the embargo came to an end only with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Relying on overwhelming force also requires, not only the willingness to intervene militarily in Iran but, more crucially, confidence that successive administrations will be prepared to push the button themselves. There is a clear strategic problem with committing US troops to the Persian Gulf while tensions increase in the South China Sea. More importantly, war fatigue in Congress is now endemic on both sides of the ailes. Two generations of Americans have lost loved ones in faltering overseas conflicts. Those who failed to take heed of “another Vietnam” now warn of “a second Iraq”.

And if America doesn’t have the stomach to go to war in Iran, it’s regional allies will. Israel has already indicated it’s prepared to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran under the Begin doctrine. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have so far promised not to weaponise their own civic nuclear programmes, the prospect of a regional nuclear war will call for reconsideration.

What Biden can do, in regards to Iran, is focus on the short term. For instance, a pause-for-pause option could mean that the US temporarily lifts sanctions in return for Iran discontinuing the enrichment of uranium. It’s a starting point for negotiations that Biden will hope to get well under way before a more hardline president likely takes office in the summer.

The Republican opposition to diplomacy with Iran will continue. The hubris that underpins the hardline approach has proved resilient, even in the face of successive failures and America’s precarious political situation. And the fear that Tehran won’t hold up its side of the bargain in the long run is justified. But equally, America can no longer be expected to dangle the sword of Damocles over Iran forever.

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