Real US-Iran rapprochement still far away
The official implementation of the Iran nuclear deal raised speculation that relations between the United States and Iran might enter a new and more promising stage. However, differences over terrorism, missiles and proxy wars, as well as political attitudes in both countries, are likely to block true reconciliation.
On January 16th, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran had curbed its nuclear programme enough for the international community to begin lifting economic sanctions, as stipulated in the nuclear deal signed by the P5+1 countries and Iran in July 2015.
US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the occasion as “the moment that the Iran nuclear agreement transitions from an ambitious set of promises on paper to measurable action in progress”. The news that Iran had met its timetable on reducing and dismantling parts of its nuclear infrastructure was overshadowed in part by the announcement of a prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington in which five Americans were exchanged for seven Iranians.
The prisoner release in particular led to speculation that the nuclear deal would lead to a real lessening of long-standing bilateral tensions and that Washington and Tehran would enter a new chapter in their troubled relations.
But soon after the American prisoners had left Iran, US President Barack Obama slapped additional sanctions on Tehran for conducting missile tests in October 2015 that had raised the ire of the US Congress, both Republicans and Democrats alike. Although the sanctions were not onerous — they targeted a few individuals and companies involved in Iran’s missile programme — they provoked an angry response from Iranian officials.
In a televised address, Obama, while hailing the nuclear deal and the release of the Americans, cautioned that Washington still had problems with Iran’s “destabilising activities” in the Middle East. Nonetheless, he ended his remarks by appealing directly to Iranian young people by saying “you… have the opportunity to build new ties with the world. We have a rare chance to pursue a new path.”
It is precisely the potential for a “new path” that has worried Iranian hardliners the most. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knowing that most of Iran’s youth want to reach out to the West, is concerned about “corrupting” influences on the nation’s younger population.
Khamenei, while welcoming the lifting of sanctions against Iran that were related to the nuclear programme, said in a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rohani that Iran needed to “guard against deceit and violations of arrogant states, particularly the United States”.
In another sign that the hardliners are digging in their heels, Iran’s Council of Guardians, which is responsible for vetting political candidates, disqualified about 40% of the 12,000 candidates wishing to run for parliamentary elections scheduled for February 26th. The vast majority of those disqualified are considered part of the reformist camp, which prompted Rohani to criticise the vetting process.
Hence, while Iran will continue to cooperate with the United States on some issues — such as the remaining aspects of the nuclear accord and attending talks on the Syrian crisis — hardliners will do their best to prevent a restoration of relations.
On the US side, politicians of both parties, while welcoming the release of the American prisoners, continued to criticise Iran’s behaviour. Republicans running for president have emphasised that the Americans detained in Iran should never have been incarcerated in the first place and that the windfall of cash that would soon go Iran’s way with the lifting of sanctions would enhance its ability to pursue terrorism and other nefarious activities.
Even Kerry acknowledged on January 21st that some of this money might be used to fund terrorist activities, though he emphasised that most of it would probably be used to shore up Iran’s economy.
During the Democratic presidential debate on January 17th, both Hillary Clinton and US Senator Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, were asked whether the United States should normalise relations with Iran. Sanders, while saying the United States should move “aggressively” on this front, added that he disagrees with many of Iran’s policies and would not favour opening the US embassy in Tehran. Clinton was tougher, saying the release of American prisoners was only “one good day over 36 years”, talked about Iran’s “bad behaviour,” and emphasised that it was too soon to normalise relations.
Therefore, it is unlikely that Obama, or any of his potential successors, will soon move to restore diplomatic relations with Iran even if Tehran was receptive to such a move. Although a Republican president might be tougher on Iran, it is unlikely such a president would scuttle the nuclear deal, as pragmatism would override campaign rhetoric. Hence, US-Iran relations will likely remain cool and aloof with occasional episodes of cooperation.