In the first half of 2017 American-Iranian contradictions magnified. President Trump, in the course of his election campaign and after taking office, strongly condemned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Iranian Nuclear Program (JCPOA) and repeatedly threatened to annul the «worst deal in history». This is largely due to his desire to dissociate himself from President Barack Obama foreign policy course by showing that it is completely untenable.
And although, based on IAEA data, the U.S. President has twice assured the Congress that the Islamic Republic of Iran is following its obligations, Tehran continues to be the subject of bitter criticism both from the President himself and from the State Department. Iran's leadership is accused of violating the spirit of JCPOA and Resolution 2331 of the UN Security Council, calling to terminate the ballistic missile development program, and of aggressive politics in West Asia. Iran's actions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, as well as the support for Hezbollah and Hamas cause great indignation. There have been concerns about violation of human rights in Iranian prisons. On May 21, 2017, at the opening of the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, President Trump said that Iran finances, trains, and arms terrorist groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, who bring destruction and chaos to the region. «For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror», he said.
On June 14, 2017, at the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the United States House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that the U.S. Iranian policy has not yet fully shaped and the review process is still ongoing. At the same time, it will be aimed at blunting Iranian regional influence wherever possible, preventing Tehran from creating nuclear weapons and supporting those within Iran who lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Tillerson went on to say, «Those elements are there certainly, as we know.» In other words, providing support for peaceful regime change in Tehran.
The harsh rhetoric of the White House and the State Department is accompanied by the regular introduction of new sanctions against Iran. In 2017, almost every month, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and President Trump imposed sanctions against companies and individuals involved in the development of the Iranian missile program related to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the radical Shiite organizations.
Do the sanctions and the tough U.S. rhetoric towards Iran have ground? In Iran’s 20-Year Economic Perspective till 2025, the leadership promises that Iran would be a fully advanced country in South-West Asia (including Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Near and Middle East, and neighboring countries), and Tehran pragmatically pursues the goal, consistently expanding its economic, political, and military influence in the region. Does something happening ten thousand kilometers from the borders of the United States pose threat on their national interests? Obviously, not. In return, Washington’s accusations provoke Tehran’s sharp response.
On August 13, 2017, the decision of the Mejlis (the Iranian parliament) to allocate an additional USD 520 million for the development of the missile program and support for foreign military operations of the IRGC received wide coverage. On August 15, 2017, President Rouhani announced that Iran could leave the nuclear agreement in a matter of hours should the U.S. impose new sanctions. August 22, 2017, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Salehi made a resonant statement that the agency entrusted to him can resume uranium enrichment up to 20% in five days — the level that is necessary for the creation of nuclear weapons.
Taking the ideological component of Iran's foreign policy into account, one can assume that, on the whole, it is determined by pragmatic considerations. Harsh statements by the Iranian leaders, aiming for a psychological effect, are not likely to be put into action. And it is also unlikely that Teheran will be the first to violate its obligations. President Roukhani considers JCPOA the main achievement of his first presidential term: he and the liberal-minded Iranians who supported him in the presidential election in 2017 highly appreciate the economic prospects that the country has opened in connection with the lifting of sanctions. Many European companies have already returned to the Iranian market. The French company Total has signed a contract estimated USD 5 billion to develop the South Pars gas field, VW and Peugeot have started to ship cars, Boeing and Airbus started aircraft shipment, the EU countries signed an agreement on cooperation with Iran on nuclear technology. The development of economic ties with European states and high technologies will allow the Iranian economy, undermined by sanctions, to reach a stable level of development and overcome the difficulties of recent years. Therefore, President H. Roukhani, nominating candidacies for ministerial posts in the Mejlis, on August 20, 2017, stated that «Zarif’s [Foreign Minister] biggest duty at the Foreign Ministry is to protect Iran’s nuclear deal and prevent the US and other anti-Iran countries to succeed in their plots to kill the deal.”
In the U.S., the harsh rhetoric has not yet been followed by aggressive actions, and there are several reasons for this. Firstly, taking the international character of the agreement into account, the unilateral withdrawal of the United States will cause discontent among the other participants of the group of six, who are actively building up their cooperation with Iran. Secondly, such a gesture will reduce the ability of American companies to come to the Iranian market. Thirdly, signing and the following cancellation of the agreement on the nuclear program can create a negative precedent for possible negotiations with North Korea. Most likely, the policy of sanctions pressure on Iran will continue, hoping that economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions will ultimately make it difficult to conduct active Iranian policy in the region and may lead to an increase in internal dissatisfaction with the existing regime.
Logic dictates that the next aggravation of the psychological warfare between Iran and the U.S. will not go beyond political discourse. However, President Trump's penchant for taking spontaneous decisions suggests that Washington's failure to comply with the terms of the JCPOA can not be completely ruled out, which in turn will provoke Tehran's response. Long-term strategic risks of this development are very high. Failing to comply with the JCPOA by any party and the resumption of a nuclear program by Iran can lead to intensification of the development of similar programs in neighboring countries of the region and, ultimately, to violation of the regime of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Irina Fedorova, PhD in History, Senior Fellow, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences