Defining Objectives for the U.S.-Iran Relationship

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Administration have been quick to use forceful rhetoric when discussing U.S. policy towards Iran during their first five weeks in office. However, whether a strong-armed approach to Iran is in fact the most effective direction for U.S.-Iranian relations is an open question. Early on the campaign trail, candidate Trump voiced his disdain for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the P5+1 world powers – the U.S., Russia, China, UK, France, and Germany – and Iran, threatening to “rip it up” on his first day in office. And although the nuclear agreement remains intact, President Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal since he assumed office, calling it “one of the worst agreements I’ve ever seen drawn by anybody.”

In late January, Tehran test-launched a medium-range ballistic missile, a move the Trump Administration deemed in violation of UN Resolution 2231, which “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Soon after the test, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” declaring, “The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests,” and the U.S. Treasury Department enacted new sanctions on Iran, sanctioning 13 individuals and 12 entities connected to Iran's ballistic missile program and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

A little more than a week later, during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump proclaimed his administration “will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing…a nuclear weapon.” And the next day, President Trump labeled Iran “the world’s top sponsor of terrorism,” and said, “we're not going to stop until that problem is properly solved.”

These statements provide the backdrop for the Trump Administration’s approach to Iran so far, which has emphasized tough talk, new sanctions, and a desire to distance itself from the Obama Administration’s dealings with Tehran.

The U.S. and Iran remain at odds over conflicting Middle East interests. While Iran has attempted to expand its influence across the Middle East by aiding proxy groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen and by supporting pro-Iran governments in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has worked to curb Iranian clout and has steadfastly stood behind regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel who are similarly concerned with Iran’s provocative behavior.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which established Iran as an Islamic republic, U.S. Presidents have delineated different U.S. foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis Iran. In the last decade, President George W. Bush, consumed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, pursued limited engagement with Iran, while President Barack Obama prioritized negotiations with Tehran in what ultimately culminated in the nuclear agreement. During President Obama’s tenure, the U.S. and Iran experienced perhaps their most open diplomatic channels since the Iran hostage crisis that ended in 1981.

As the Trump Administration weighs its options, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iranian Affairs John Limbert says an important starting point in determining a path forward in U.S.-Iran relations could come from asking and answering two important questions: “What are our goals?” and “What do we want to achieve in this relationship?”

“If we have no goals, then we have no way to measure the success of our actions and will end up taking steps with no visible purpose beyond making us feel good,” explains Limbert.

Undertaking aggressive actions, such as ripping up the nuclear agreement or drawing up plans for a military engagement to initiate regime change in Iran, could ultimately lead to more complications and challenges for the U.S. than maintaining the status quo. Stepping away from the nuclear agreement could turn the other members of the P5+1 and the international community at large against the U.S., while a potential military confrontation could pull the U.S. into another open-ended conflict in the Middle East.

Iran’s current standing in Middle East also presents a challenge for the United States. The Iranian regime, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, appears to have galvanized public support after delivering on a nuclear agreement that led to the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, which crippled the country’s economy for years. Furthermore, Iran has strengthened its position throughout the region with its meddling in several conflicts in the Middle East. Tehran has increasing influence in struggling Iraq, has supported the Houthis in Yemen who have battled Saudi forces to a virtual stalemate for control of the country, and has enhanced its cooperation with Russia to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.

The U.S.-Iran relationship might be best served by accepting the fact they “have begrudgingly tolerated each other,” says Alireza Nader, a Senior International Policy Analyst at RAND Corporation. “The U.S. and Iran differ on many issues, and tensions between the two once-allies may increase dangerously in the near future,” explains Nader. “But the U.S. would likely have more to gain by sticking with the complicated relationship that has defined ties between Washington and Tehran since 1979.”

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