For more than 40 years, Iran’s relations with the US have been a political hot potato in both countries, with numerous failed attempts at détente and frequent sabotage by both domestic opposition and external actors. As Iran approaches presidential elections likely to consolidate power for so-called conservatives, the most optimistic scenario would be a restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal and a reduction in tensions particularly in Yemen and Iraq. Normalization of US-Iran diplomatic relations is unlikely at least until Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, passes from the scene.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a high point for US-Iran ties. The product of years of diplomacy beginning with European dialogue with Iran in 2003, the JCPOA would not have been possible without direct high-level US-Iran talks that began in 2012, but only bore fruit after the re-election of US President Barack Obama that year and the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. The rapport established between American and Iranian negotiators – particularly Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and Ali Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization -- helped achieve this landmark agreement. But hawks on both sides began to chip away at it even before the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
On the Iranian side, Iran’s security establishment held onto an American hostage, Siamak Namazi, while releasing other US detainees in return for freedom for Iranians held in the US for sanctions violations. On the US side, Congress passed by veto-proof majorities legislation that required Europeans and others who had traveled to Iran to get visas to go to the US – something they previously did not need. This was a restraint on Iran’s ability to benefit economically from the nuclear restrictions it had embraced in the JCPOA and thus an early US violation of the deal.
The Trump administration, from its inception, seriously undermined the accord. Trump’s first, if short-lived, national security advisor, Michael Flynn, put Iran “on notice” a week after Trump’s inauguration, prompted in part by a provocatively timed Iranian ballistic missile test. Trump railed at advice from his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and second national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, that it was still in US interests to remain within the JCPOA. In 2018, Trump fired both and replaced them with hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton who supported his decision to quit and to restore and then add to a mountain of sanctions on Iran.
This policy of “maximum pressure” proved an abject failure and nearly brought the US and Iran to war. Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to return to the JCPOA and if possible, build on it. Talks in Vienna, while slow moving and indirect, appear likely to achieve that result although too late to impact the June 18 presidential elections – which appears to be Khamenei’s intention.
Restoration of the JCPOA ideally will also help reduce US-Iran tensions in the region, especially as the US continues to withdraw from Afghanistan and lessen its military footprint in Iraq. Iran has already begun talks with Saudi Arabia – in Iraq – and could reduce its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen in return for an end to Saudi involvement in that disastrous war and its support for anti-regime Iranian dissidents. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stopped comparing Khamenei to Hitler and in a 180-degree shift, told a television interviewer recently: “All we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran…We want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world”.
Given the toll that war and Covid-19 has taken on regional economies, a period of de-escalation should be welcomed by all countries. Despite a variety of proposals for multilateral talks on regional disputes, smaller discussions are probably the best format for now, with quiet encouragement from the United Nations, Europe and the United States.
Any progress in US-Iran bilateral relations will have to await the formation of the next administration in Iran and a period of testing for a restored JCPOA. Even if both sides remain compliant for a year or two, it may be difficult to make further headway given the likelihood of a hardline new administration in Iran staffed by figures with strong anti-Western views.
Despite occasional thaws under reformist/pragmatist Iranian administrations – and Democratic U.S. administrations – hostility and mistrust have long been the default setting in both Washington and Tehran.
It took 16 years for the US to restore diplomatic relations with Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and 30 years to normalize ties with China after the Communists took power in 1949. It has been 41 years since Washington broke with Iran during the hostage crisis that followed the Islamic revolution. Unlike the Russian and Chinese revolts, the Iranian revolution was fought in large part to expunge US influence from the country. Fear of restoring that influence, or being humiliated by US actions – as occurred when Trump quit the JCPOA – has constrained Iranian diplomacy toward Washington. Plus, Tehran no longer needs the US to do much more than relieve secondary sanctions in order to pursue lucrative economic ties with Europe and China.
For Khamenei anti-Americanism is a bedrock principle. Once he passes from the scene, it may be possible for a future Supreme Leader to tackle the question of normalizing US-Iran diplomatic relations. But Iran is likely to remain wary of US interference in its domestic politics and a host of foreign policy differences also remain, especially over Israel and Iran’s support for groups the US State Department labels as terrorist. “Normal” relations remain a distant prospect without a radical change of heart – or regime – in Tehran.