Marco Parks, Aimee Hanstein, Cameron Price, CENTCOM Team
Week of Monday, June 28, 2021
Barack Obama and Donald Trump sitting together in the Oval Office
For decades, the US has struggled to develop an adequate foreign policy towards Iran that would address its main concerns — centered around preventing a nuclear weapon breakout — and its primary objectives — containing Iranian influence in the Middle East and promoting human rights/individual liberty within the country. One of the biggest inhibitors in allowing for the implementation and continuation of policy with Iran has been the nature of partisan politics in the US. Democrats and Republicans have vastly different interpretations of how to properly address Iran, and this point is made especially evident when looking at how both the Obama and Trump administrations dealt with the country. While the former generally prioritized engagement and diplomacy, a route that culminated in a nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, the latter pursued a more intolerant and isolated strategy. The Trump Administration’s policies led to a withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, an imposition of “maximum pressure” economic sanctions, and targeted attacks on Iranian VIPs. The policy dichotomy witnessed between these two administrations has very likely hurt the reputation of the US. Iran has likely become increasingly skeptical of the US’ ability to credibly commit to agreements because time has shown them that each new presidential administration is afforded the ability to tarnish ones that came beforehand with relative impunity.
While the particular policies they adopted with Iran differed tremendously, the Obama and Trump administrations shared one commonality: a desire to change Iran. As has been the case since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the US and its regional allies have been increasingly worried about Iran's revisionist ideology. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which accepts the status quo in the Middle East, Iran has strong ambitions to defend its sovereignty and project its sphere of influence in becoming a strong regional power, something its leadership believes is long overdue. This behavior very likely results from a strong sense of state insecurity, likely caused by Iran's history of foreign intervention. Yet, this type of Iranian behavior has consistently challenged US interests in the region which seem to include preventing a regional hegemon, fostering nuclear non-proliferation, and upholding the security concerns of allies. As such, the Obama and Trump administrations sought different strategies to rectify Iranian behavior, and potentially even the Iranian government system.
Fundamentally, four objectives have dominated the US policy agenda concerning Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran: 1) weakening Iranian influence in the region, 2) promoting democracy and human rights, 3) halting Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations, and 4) forestalling Iran developing nuclear weapons. From 2008 to 2016, the Obama Administration’s approach essentially adopted a “pressure and engagement policy” by combining a diplomatic track with political and economic pressures; from 2017 to 2020, the Trump Administration aimed to achieve a grand bargain as it sought “a better deal” through exerting maximum economic and political pressure on Iran. During this twelve-year period, while both administrations employed somewhat different means, these successive US administrations constructed policies that seemed to converge towards countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional behavior. However, the degree of change sought differed from one president to another — the Obama Administration's goals were seemingly more modest than those of the Trump Administration. Although the differences in Iranian presidents may have played a role in each US administration’s outcome, it is likely that the means by which the Obama and Trump administrations engaged and bargained with Iran are linked to the successes and failures they achieved in changing Iran’s practices.
The Obama Administration’s policies were aimed more towards nudging, or coaxing, Iran in a new direction. By prioritizing engagement and diplomacy, the Obama Administration was likely seeking to take advantage of a large coalition of Iranian citizens that wanted to democratize the country, the same people that elected the reformist Hassan Rouhani in 2013. While the JCPOA primarily sought to curb Iranian nuclear weapon ambitions, it is likely that the Obama Administration also hoped that opening up the Iranian economy with sanctions relief would bolster support for reformists — the only Iranian politicians more amenable to American diplomacy and steering Iran in a more desired direction. Yet, this plan needed time for the Iranian citizens to feel the benevolent effects of foreign investment, cultural exchange, and a more open society. The success of the reformist agenda in Iran depended excessively on the US and its compliance with the JCPOA, something that was not guaranteed when Trump was elected into office. His administration’s subsequent decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal undermined the legitimacy of the reformist agenda, very likely removing any faith that moderate Iranians had left in their party’s ability to enact progressive change.
The Trump Administration’s strategy shifted from coercion to pressure. By reinstating severe economic sanctions and threatening the use of military force, this administration's policies likely were more focused on changing the Iranian regime from within — that is, by turning the citizens against their own government. However, rather than achieving this, Iran’s hardliner base was very likely bolstered, indicated by the recent election of conservative Ebrahim Raisi. While Raisi is still likely to return to compliance with the JCPOA under the new Biden administration for the economic sanctions relief, it will probably be under different terms. Iran very likely felt betrayed by the US under the Trump Administration given its abrupt withdrawal from the JCPOA and will highly likely not trust the US to the same degree again. Raisi has already warned the Biden administration that talks on limiting Iran’s conventional arsenal, which includes the manufacturing of ballistic missiles, and their use of proxies is a non-starter in renegotiation attempts.
The Obama Administration’s approach was a continuation of the long-standing “carrot and stick” strategy towards Iran, combining both incentives and disincentives in an attempt to convince Iran to put limits on its nuclear ambitions. While, from 2001 to 2009, the G. W. Bush Administration relied extensively on the “sticks” through economic sanctions and sometimes the threat of military force, the Obama Administration, by contrast, leaned on the “carrots” through emphasizing diplomacy and rapprochement with Iran. The eventual impact of this strategy, in his first term, was largely unsuccessful in achieving any of the four long-term US policy objectives with Iran. Although the Obama Administration likely thought that a softer approach of engagement would serve as a better tool to deter Iran, the administration was met with a principlist Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This president was outwardly adversarial toward the US and pursued policies that likely further strengthened Iranian non-state actors in the Middle East. The advancement of non-state actors was most clear in Iraq, where its proxies enhanced their influence in a fashion that was likely driven by opportunism. Both of these factors very likely made the Obama Administration's attempt to roll back Iran’s regional and nuclear developments exceedingly difficult. Iran emerged in the region with leverage and played an increasingly influential role in neighboring countries that likely raised security concerns among the Gulf regimes, Israel, and the US.
While Iranian domestic political developments very likely impeded the Obama Administration's initial attempts to engage and reconcile with Iran on the nuclear front, Obama’s second term almost certainly benefited from the election of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Rouhani’s attitudes concentrated on changing Iran’s international image by improving the country’s diplomatic relations with the West and strengthening the Iranian economy through lifting trade sanctions. The amenability of Rouhani to the Obama Administration's pressure and engagement strategy almost certainly increased the Obama Administration’s incentives to revise the US overall policy towards Iran. The interpretation that the 2013 change in Iranian leadership gave an impetus to the talks with Iran as evidenced by the fact that Obama and Rouhani spoke via phone on September 27, 2013 — the first direct presidential level communication since 1979. This very likely functioned as a break in the gridlock previously imposed by Iran’s former President Ahmadinejad, eventually culminating in the finalization of the JCPOA in July 2015. In retrospect, the sanctions likely produced limited outcomes, as demonstrated by Ahmadinejad’s rancor, and this conclusion likely led the Obama Administration to invest extensively in diplomacy which succeeded.
During the first half of the Obama Administration’s engagement attempts, it became evident that traditional US tactics in dealing with Iran proved inefficient as they did not result in achieving the US objectives in its relation with Iran. The economic and political isolation imposed by American policies did not prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear activities, and neither did Iran change its regional behavior. It is thus evident that America’s long-standing policy of sanctions and dialogue likely had no tangible impact on the perceptions of Iran’s decision-makers. Isolation and military threats likely buttressed Iranian hardliners in their narrative of distrust in the West and diversionary tactics and did not lead to any rapprochement. Therefore, the Obama Administration took the opportunity of an Iranian moderate president and seemed to pursue a policy of changing Iranian behaviors through diplomatic engagement, likely as an alternative to these traditional tactics.
The Obama Administration’s approach was to clinch a deal with Iran on the nuclear front, though it was not comprehensive and did not subdue Iran’s malign behavior in the region — this very likely was the source of the Trump Administration’s grievances and fed into its narrative. By withdrawing from the JCPOA and reinstating sanctions, the Trump Administration very likely sought to compel Iran to renegotiate a more comprehensive JCPOA by pressuring Iran’s economy and preventing Iran from strengthening its military capabilities and its ability for intervention in the region. While this was the explicit reasoning for the Trump Administration's change in US policy, these measures should be interpreted within the Trump Administration’s efforts to curb Iran’s influence and to weaken its ballistic missile program. Furthermore, the austere sanctions that comprised the Trump Administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” likely created economic hardship to mobilize internal unrest that might lead to regime change in Iran.
The Trump Administration’s frequent threats of targeting Iran militarily amounted to minimal action, though the US military’s assassination of Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani in 2020 did serve as a tangible implementation of Trump’s rhetoric. The Trump Administration's threats to the Iranian regime risked triggering a regional war that might have developed into a worse scenario than the Iraq invasion in 2003. Moreover, the administration's withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran had the potential for negative ramifications on the Gulf’s regional security. This step also risked accelerating Iranian nuclear activities, magnifying the risk of confrontation and a costly war with Iran. The Trump Administration’s sanctions, assassinations of Iranian leaders (the killing of Soleimani and the tacit approval of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh), and condemning rhetoric were seemingly met with hollow threats of retaliation by Iran, given that it took little substantive action against the US. While the eventual increase in Iran’s enriched uranium stores to 20% should not be taken lightly, they were almost certainly not equivalent in effect to the initiatives the Trump Administration has pursued to undermine Iran’s hegemonic efforts.
The Trump Administration's policy of “maximum pressure” almost certainly suffocated Iran by isolating it from the world economy and effectively catalyzing a deep recession in the country. Iran’s GDP fell by 5.4% in 2018 and 6.5% in 2019 and the value of the Iranian rial collapsed with inflation rates reaching 49.5%. Nevertheless, the ruling Iranian elites have likely found ways to circumvent the sanctions, given the evidence of Iran’s illicit economies, with ordinary citizens catching the brunt of the economic strife. Though it created hardship for Iran, it did not push the regime to change its behavior as the Trump Administration had intended. A likely response to this administration’s austerity, Iran tried to become economically self-sufficient while being creative with innovative mechanisms such as bartering to circumvent the restrictions on its financial system. While these mechanisms were not completely successful, the regime has almost certainly been able to adapt to the sanctions to a certain extent.
It is highly likely that the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA reflected poorly on the reform movement led by Rouhani and empowered the hardliners — consequently, this likely pushed the domestic balance of power in favor of the Iranian regime. The failure of the nuclear deal to bring economic benefits and the Trump Administration's confirmation of the principalists’ perspective that the US never planned on ameliorating relations likely discredited Iran’s pragmatists with whom Obama’s administration dealt. In retrospect, the effect of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA is evidenced by the hardliners’ victory in both Iran’s parliamentary elections in 2020 and the presidential election in June 2021. Moreover, following the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the parliament approved plans to stray further from the nuclear deal and stop international inspections. These shifts, likely catalyzed by former President Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, have had lasting effects by complicating US President Biden’s current efforts to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal.
The Obama Administration’s main focus was on diplomacy, which is evident in the JCPOA. It is likely believed that if it could engage in diplomacy with Iran, it could help mitigate Iran’s nuclear program and potentially stop it from building nuclear weapons. This deal seemed to succeed until the US withdrew from the deal under President Trump. The Trump Administration’s use of sanctions and a “maximum pressure” strategy seemed to take more of a military and economic approach towards Iran’s nuclear weapons which very likely did little to deter Iran from creating them. The administration’s retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed proxies were mainly due to attacks against US personnel but were also likely related to Iran’s nuclear program in an attempt to show that the US would not stand for Iran building weapons. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave 12 demands to Iran and threatened to impose the strongest sanctions in history if conditions were not met; these demands included declaring to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program and permanently and verifiably abandoning such work in perpetuity, releasing all US citizens as well as citizens of US partners and allies, and ending support to the Middle East terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Given the rigid and all-encompassing aspect of these demands, it is likely that they were not meant to be taken seriously in diplomatic terms but rather meant as a message to Iran that their own behavior is the root cause for sanctions being placed upon them.
In a display of force against Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Bahrain entered into the Abraham Accords which were facilitated by the US and were signed in September 2020. While the accords were mainly designed to create a diplomatic relationship between these countries (the United Arab Emirates and Israel have their own accords and Bahrain and Israel have their own), these accords were also signed as all of these countries fear an uprising of Iranian power in the CENTCOM region. Though these accords do not specifically mention stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons, it is likely that they were also signed as a way of balancing against Iran — the largest regional adversary. Israel is most likely trying to garner support in the region in the event it does decide to go to war with Iran, and is also probably keen on taking attention off of itself by normalizing its relations with some Arab neighbors. However, it does not seem the Abraham Accords have prevented or deterred Iran from building nuclear weapons and is not likely to do so moving forward. Instead, the Abraham Accords likely have further encouraged Iran to continue pursuing a nuclear weapon as its only guarantor of security after witnessing historically and religiously opposed regional adversaries sign a cooperation agreement. Iran has almost certainly benefited from the animosity between Israel and its Arab neighbors because it has allowed it to increase its regional influence without a concerted effort to stop it. Iran will likely try to undermine any future cooperation agreements in the region, especially those that seem to be targeting it.
Consistent oversight from the IAEA, UN, and the US on Iran’s nuclear program are important means to deter Iran from breaking the rules of the JCPOA or any other future deal the US may make with Iran. However, Iran has recently experienced attacks against its nuclear facilities, specifically its primary plant, Natanz, and based on these attacks, Iran has restricted IAEA access to the sites. It is highly likely that Iran believes these attacks were acts of sabotage and is fearful that the IAEA is more likely to support Israel or the US and encourage or partake in acts of sabotage while on site. Therefore, it is currently highly unlikely that this type of oversight would prevent any action from Iran.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that countries such as the US continue with nuclear talks and take a less aggressive approach in order to ensure rapid enrichment and creation of weapons does not happen. CTG also recommends the IAEA work with Iran both to ensure no acts of sabotage are carried out when visiting plants and to achieve an agreement for oversight. The CENTCOM Team will continue to monitor all news coming out on nuclear enrichment or development in Iran and will continue to report on it in CTG’s 3D report. The CENTCOM Team will be writing a Part Four for The Iran Project which will use predictive analysis to look at what the world can expect from President Biden on Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Part Four will also look at how Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, will impact the current talks or future of the talks if a deal is not reached, as well as the overall relationship between the US and Iran.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 “Barack Obama and Donald Trump sitting together in the Oval Office” by quapan licenced under Creative Commons
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