Iran has had a tumultuous relationship with the West. It was exploited by the British in the 1920s, and then invaded by them with the Soviets in the 1940s. In the 1950s the US supported a coup against the democratically elected government, only for the autocratic Shah to be overthrown by a theocratic revolution in 1979. In 1980 Iraq invaded Iran with the support of the US and its allies, and Iran took US hostages. Since then, tensions have been pretty high.
Iran has constantly been a victim of foreign exploitation and invasion, and as such guards its security and ability to defend itself quite fervently. During and in the aftermath of the devastating Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iran’s leadership desperately pursued a nuclear deterrent in order to prevent such wholesale destruction again. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fiercely pursued this objective. However, in the early 2000s the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered Iran’s secret facilities and exposed the program to the world. Crippling sanctions and isolation from the international community soon followed. Iran was left without a friend in the world. However, since the Presidency of the hardline Ahmadinejad, two important elections occurred: That of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran and Barack Obama in the US.
These were two Presidents bent on diplomacy. Rouhani and Obama were both elected on platforms of doing things differently, and in a matter opposed to their conservative predecessors. For Rouhani, it was the promise to dismantle sanctions and open Iran once more to Western markets. For Obama, it was an end to needless foreign conflicts. Both Presidents have achieved these aims. The P5+1 (US, UK, Russia, China, France + Germany) talks with Iran, the resultant deal, and the projected peace and continued cooperation are a groundbreaking success for diplomacy. Obama has breathed life back into that instrument of foreign policy that seemed to collect dust from disuse during eight years of Bush.
I won’t bore you with the vagaries of the deal, but know this: The Republicans hate it, the Israelis loathe it, Obama is happy with it, and the Iranians are satisfied. Without getting too far into the specifics of nuclear weaponization, Iran has agreed to submit itself to regular checks by the IAEA, and dismantled equipment vital to the production of weapons-grade plutonium. All experts in the field claim that this sets their program back at least 10 – 15 years. Though all are not pleased, this is a huge success for diplomacy, and an instrumental step forward in terms of progressing US-Iran relations.
Economically, the benefits are legion. Iran suffered terribly under the economic sanctions, and its consumers felt the worst of this. European goods became prohibitively expensive or non-existent, and the population suffered. With the sanctions lifted, $100b worth of Iranian assets abroad have been unfrozen, as well as Iranian banks now being allowed to access the international banking system. Furthermore, the EU and UN have completely unlocked trade barriers, opening the world market to Iranian oil exports. Critically, US companies and individuals are still not allowed to trade with Iran, though I expect the US will soon change their stance once its corporations lobby enough. Many European countries are already holding meetings with the Iranian leadership to secure deals to modernize Iran’s air fleet and its oil processing industries.
Strategically, Iran is now important than ever to US interests, so you can be forgiven for feeling a little cynical about the timing of this deal. US policy in the Middle East has fallen apart. Syria and Iraq are sliding ever closer to state failure, and Iran remains the only nation in the region committed to fighting all forms of Sunni terrorism. Though this is all part of Iran’s proxy war with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance, the US may find that it has far more in common with its old enemy than its old autocrats in the Gulf and even perhaps Israel.
There are fears that the economic boom that Iran is expected to reap over the next few years (The Economist claims 5-8%) will be used at least in part to bankroll militias in regional conflicts, but let’s be honest – there is no other state in the region that doesn’t do that already, the US included.
This is certainly a gamble for Obama – a President that has achieved more through diplomacy than any other in recent memory. Indeed, in an interview with Thomas Friedman from Foreign Policy, Obama was quoted as saying “We are powerful enough to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk.” If cooler heads such as Rouhani continue to prevail in Iran, then there is little reason why this gamble shouldn’t pay off. Similar to Nixon visiting China, we may well witness a ‘Clinton Visits Iran’ moment in the coming decade. The real test for Rouhani is to make good on his promises to the people that elected him. He promised strong economic growth if he took the country down the path of nuclear disarmament. If the economy falters now, he will have no scapegoat, and Iran will likely turn back to another Ahmadinejad – a result beneficial only for Saudi Arabia.
Iran and the US need each other, and they would do well to remember that in these times of insurrection, regional instability and uncertainty.
Words by Brad Griffin