The conflict between Iran and the United States is one of the most significant events happening in the Middle East today. It has already resulted in serious consequences, affecting Iran’s internal affairs as well as nearby countries. The confrontation has various economic and geopolitical reasons and its outcome will change the Middle East to a serious degree. This thesis will explore the nature of the American-Iranian conflict with all its contradictions and in various aspects. The analysis of the conflict’s roots, its key turning points and its effect on the region is necessary to understand the current situation in the Middle East. This thesis hopes to provide a detailed description of the conflict’s reasons, history, the current situation and its possible future.
The United States-Iranian conflict is a very important and multifaceted event that needs to be studied by anyone interested in United States foreign and Middle East policy. This confrontation has been actively going on for almost 22 years, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It can be said with confidence that the way this conflict is resolved will largely determine the future of the Middle East.
The conflict does not have one specific cause; rather, it is a rivalry of many economic, geopolitical and ideological interests. Talking about the economic roots of the conflict, it is primarily a struggle for oil fields and for the opportunity to sell the extracted oil resources. Iran has a large amount of oil reserves, so it is of particular interest to the United States. America has repeatedly intervened in the internal affairs of disloyal small states with large oil reserves, such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro. Iran was no exception to this list, moreover, American and British companies already had experience of extracting oil in Iran from the beginning of the XX century to 1979.
Iran is a strong geopolitical player and its active participation in the affairs of the region is contrary to American interests. It confronts the allied pro-American states of the region: Israel and the Persian Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the fight against Iran is an opportunity for the United States to strengthen its position in the region and support its allies. Moreover, the conflict is also ideological in nature: American foreign policy doctrine is about protecting its interests and values around the world. In its own perception, the United States is an exclusive state with the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries in order to protect democratic and Western values. Hence, an obvious ideological conflict arises, since Iran, after the Islamic revolution, is ideologically a convinced and tough anti-American state. The Iranians have repeatedly burned the American flag, fought Western influence left over from the Shah, with Ayatollah Khomeini calling the United States “The Great Satan”.
The impact of the American-Iranian conflict on Iran internal affairs is hard to overestimate. The economy of Iran is in deep crisis, due to the sanctions imposed by the United States. The severe sanctions regime has led to a huge increase in inflation, a sharp drop in the national currency and an increase in unemployment. The ban on trade with the United States of America led not only to a decrease in living standards, as a result of a decrease in total imports, but also to a crisis in industry, as it depended on foreign developments. It is not known what needs to be done to bring the economy out of this state, as in addition to the sanctions, additional damage to the economy was caused by the coronavirus
Today, the main object of the conflict is the Iranian nuclear deal. The United States has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and claims that Iran continues to enrich uranium for military purposes. Iran responds that it will return to the deal’s original conditions only if the United States lifts sanctions. A nuclear program is a way and form to resolve the contradictions between two countries on a formal legal international level. Consequently, the future of the deal will largely determine the further course of the entire conflict.
The aim of this thesis is to explore the nature of the conflict and its main stages, to understand how this conflict affected both sides, and to suggest how the conflict will develop further. When creating this thesis, the following methodology was used: process tracing, case study and historical and economic analysis in order to understand the nature and direction of the American-Iranian conflict. Qualitative research methods were used to conduct extensive and detailed research. Also, during the work on the study, different literature has been used, including academic articles, books, media publications, and so on. The studies and publication When writing the article, the most recent and relevant publications were used, with the exception of some fundamental works. A more detailed description of the used literature is provided before each chapter.
The work comprises an introduction, three chapters, a conclusion and a reference page. The first chapter, “The origins of the American-Iranian rival and how it is affected by oil”, is devoted to the roots of the conflict. It goes into the history of Iran in the XX century and tackles the most significant moments: the 1953 coup, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war. The ideology of American foreign policy and how oil is related to it is also examined in the first chapter.
The second chapter, “The history and the future of the American-Iranian conflict”, is a detailed description of the conflict: its development over time, and main events. The economic, geopolitical and strategic interests of both states are considered. Attention is also paid to the impact of the conflict on Iran’s internal affairs. At the end of the chapter, an attempt is made to predict possible scenarios for the development of events and which of them is most likely.
The third chapter is called “The Iranian Nuclear Program: Case Study”. This chapter is a case study of the program and is devoted to the history of the Iranian Nuclear Program and its possible future. It touches on the reasons why the program was launched, the key moments of its history, and why the Nuclear Deal was signed. The chapter also informs about the current situation around the program at the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency and tries to predict potential future scenarios of the deal.
The Origins of the American-Iranian Rival and How It Is Affected by Oil
The first chapter is devoted to the history of Iran in the XX century, the ideology of American foreign policy and the role of oil in the modern world. Work on these topics required the use of various sources: economic works, historical research, publications of international organizations. In order to investigate the state structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the main state document was studied: the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When writing the historical part of the chapter, the works of American researchers of the Middle East, Gasiorowski and Byrne, and British authors Dehghan and Norton-Taylor, who wrote about the 1953 coup, were used. When examining the Islamic Revolution, the works of Yamao and Shahri were cited, as well as the official report of the American diplomatic mission about these events. The Iran-Iraq war, written by Razoux and Elliot, is a comprehensive work about these events which was used to write the thesis.
To write a subchapter on the doctrine and history of American foreign policy, official reports were used, giving the state’s point of view on this matter. The work also cites the latest publications of political scientists Squiers, Walker, Mieckzkowski and others. The work contains references to fundamental works by Perkins and Nye, which are important for the discourse of American foreign policy. The use of various sources helped to expand deeper into the theme of American imperialism and American exceptionalism. When researching the topic of oil in the Middle East, OPEC reports were cited, as well as the work of Toby Jones on the study of the history of oil production in the Middle East.
General Description of Iran’s History and Economy
Iran is a state that is located in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is one of the most large and influential counties in the region. The history of the Iranian civilization is very long and the first state on its territory, Elam, appeared nearly 3000 years BC (Curtis and Hooglund, 2008, p. 7). Later, Iran became one of the most powerful actors in the region, when the Persian Empire of Achaemenid was established. Darius, one of the most famous Persian kings, expanded the Empire to the Balkan peninsula in the West and to the Ind river in the East, making it the largest and most powerful state. Zoroastrianism was a Persian state religion and Darius contributed much to its expansion in Persia. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Persia and, after the collapse of his empire, Persian territory was divided between the Parthians and the Seleucids (Curtis and Hooglund, 2008, p. 10). The Parthians won the war with the Seleucids, but later, in 224 AC, they were conquered by Ardashir the First, who established the Seleucid empire.
The Seleucid state existed until the VII century, when it was destroyed by the Arabs. Iran was annexed to the Umayyad Caliphate and Iranians were converted to Islam (Curtis and Hooglund, 2008, p. 14-15). However, unlike other local ethnicities that were Arabized after the conquering, Iranians were able to preserve many aspects of their ethnic culture while incorporating some aspects of Islamic culture. They also did not want to accept Arabic and preserved Farsi as their language. The cultural exchange was not unilateral, because they contributed much to the prosperity and progress in the Caliphate. Iranians developed science, medicine, philosophy and arts and brought many aspects of Iranian culture to Islam. Iranians are proud of their long and rich history, which is an important part of the Iranian identity.
Iran is a multi-ethnic society consisting of Persians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Lurs, Arabs, etc. Today, Islam continues to be the dominant religion among the Iranians. The official name of the state is the Islamic Republic of Iran (Iranian Government Constitution). 98% of Iran’s population are Muslims, 90% of them are Shia and 8% Sunni. According to the Iranian constitution, Islam is the religion of the state (Iranian Government Constitution). All laws of Iran are based on Islam and cannot contradict it.
The Iranian economy is a mixed economy with a significant public sector. The main sectors of the economy are hydrocarbons, agriculture and services. Though Iran is relatively diversified in comparison with other oil exporting counties hydrocarbons supply remains the main source of income for the Iranian economy (World Bank, 2021). Iranian soil is very rich in the amount of natural gas and oil. Iran occupies the fourth position in the list of countries by proven oil resources and, approximately, has 208,600 million of oil barrels, which is 13,45% of the total world resources (OPEC, 2021). Iran also takes second place in the world by the amount of natural gas. However, it is produced only for domestic needs with a small part coming for export in Turkey. The main importers of Iranian oil are European counties: mostly France and Italy; Asian-Pacific Region countries: China, Japan, Korea, India, and Turkey (World Bank, 2021). This makes Iran an influential actor in world politics and economy, because it supplies oil to many other countries and can also influence oil prices.
At the beginning of the XX century, Iran was governed by the Qajar dynasty. During the reign of King Mozzafar ad-din Shah Qajar, Iran was in a deep crisis (Curtis and Hooglund, 2008, pp. 23-24). The state lost many of its former territories in various wars and corruption in the country was enormous. The state lacked any democratic institutions, which led to the 1906 Constitutional revolution, resulting in making Iran a constitutional monarchy (Curtis and Hooglund, 2008, p. 25). In 1921, Shah Qajar was overthrown by Reza Pahlavi, who himself was overthrown by his allies. His son, Mohammed Reza Pehlevi, became the ruler of Iran and the last monarch in Iran’s modern history. Mohammed Reza Pehlevi implanted a policy directed at westernization and secularism. In foreign affairs, he cooperated with the United States and Britain.
On August 19, 1953, Iran experienced a pivotal coup d’état. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi removed elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from office (Gasiorowski and Byrne, 2004, p. 24). The coup was planned by the intelligence agencies of the United States and the United Kingdom (Dehghan and Norton-Taylor, 2017). The main goal was to get rid of Mossadegh, who attempted to nationalize Iranian oil, which was only produced by British corporations at the time.
Mossadegh was put under home arrest just after the coup and remained there until his death. However, his efforts to nationalize oil received widespread support in Iran (Gasiorowski and Byrne, 2004, p. 30). Massive wealth disparity, inequality, lack of economic changes, and the absence of a coherent political agenda fueled public resentment, which grew even more after the radical Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini became the opposition’s leader. Ayatollah Khomeini dedicated his entire life to the fight against the Shah’s rule, which regularly arrested and persecuted him. He was expelled from Iran in 1964 and spent nearly 15 years in Turkey and Iraq before returning to Iran to continue his political struggle (Shah, 2009, pp. 26-27). The process culminated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which brought Islamic fundamentalists to power, forcing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to leave the country.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran
Khomeini criticized the Shah’s government, as well as the US, Israel, and the USSR, in his speeches. He fused Islam and politics, with one of his key aims being to achieve the Islamization of society (Shah, 2009, p. 27). He intended to forcefully extend religion’s domain to what was considered to be ideology in other cultures, while also transforming religion into a political weapon. As a result, the links between religious, ideological, and political activities in Iran have become increasingly blurred, and they are now part of a single system.
After the revolution, the Shah’s institutions of authority were demolished. In December 1979 the new Iranian Constitution legitimized the dominance of Islamic values based on Khomeinism (Iranian Government Constitution). The repression of the opposition, including former anti-Shah supporters, was followed by an Islamization policy encompassing all spheres of life: economic, political, judicial, social, cultural, and military. After coming to power, the new government passed a number of new laws, the most important of which was the decision to completely nationalize the oil fields (Shahri, 2010, p, 112). This decision is relevant today: all oil fields are in the hands of the Iranian state.
In November 1979, Iranians occupied the American embassy in Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeini requested that the former shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had sought asylum in the United States, be returned to Iran (Shah, 2009, p. 28). Despite the White House’s refusal, the Shah was forced to flee the country. Although some of the American hostages were released shortly after, 52 embassy workers were kept in Iran until January 1981 (I.C.J. Pleadings, United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran, 1982). As a consequence of the revolution, the United States introduced a set of economic sanctions against Iran, which have only grown stronger over time, and cut diplomatic ties with the country.
After dealing with the United States in this manner, Tehran began to plot measures against Iran’s other enemies. The Shiite clergy made no attempt to conceal their disapproval of the Central Asian Soviet republics’ atheistic regimes. However, Tehran wanted to resolve an old conflict with Baghdad first. Iran became the Middle East’s only Muslim country governed by Shiites. After assuming power, Ayatollah Khomeini started proclaiming that the Islamic revolution should be spread to other states in the region, including Iraq, where Shiites make up the majority of the population (Shah, 2009, p. 28). The Dawa Party was the most active Shiite party in Iraq in the 1970’s, fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government in response to major Shiite repressions (Yamao, 2008, p. 258). This party supported Iran’s revolution and relocated its headquarters to Tehran in 1979.
Saddam Hussein was concerned that, as Iran’s presence grew, Shiites in Iraq would embrace Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for a revolt. As a result, in 1980, he launched an eight-year war against Iran (Elliot and Razoux, 2015, p. 66). Iraqi forces invaded the Iranian province of Khuzestan on September 22, 1980: Iran, as per Baghdad, began the war by violating Iraqi borders. The Iraqi army advanced deep into Iran, but the conflict reawakened Shia Iranian patriotism. Iranians enlisted in the army, and by the middle of 1981, the Iranians had recaptured a portion of the occupied lands.
Saddam Hussein offered peace to Iran the same year, however, Khomeini refused the truce, and Iranian forces invaded Iraqi territories. Iranian forces captured the al-Faw peninsula in February 1986, cutting Iraq off from the Persian Gulf coast (Elliot and Razoux, 2015, p. 367). The United States interfered in the conflict after the parties started a so-called tanker war, in which they shelled third parties’ oil tankers, posing a threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf. The United States Operation Praying Mantis was launched on April 18, 1988, targeting Iranian positions in the Persian Gulf, including three former oil platforms which served as Tehran’s strongholds (U.S. Strikes 2 Iranian Oil Rigs and Hits 6 Warships in Battles over Mining Sea Lanes in Gulf, 1988). The conflict between the two countries came to an end when Iran was offered a humiliating truce: on August 20, 1988, a cease-fire was declared.
Many Iraqi Shiites sought shelter in Iran during the war: major Shiite groups declared their intention to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, cost Iran $400 billion of economic damage (Iran-Iraq War, 2018). At the same time, Iraq was engulfed in massive debts, owing Kuwait $14 billion (Evans, 1990). Iraq invaded Kuwait two years after the war ended. The use of chemical weapons was documented during the Iran-Iraq war. A month after the war ended, Ayatollah Khomeini died of a heart attack. Tehran’s foreign policy has become more reserved, though the country’s goal of spreading the Islamic revolution has not been abandoned.
American Presence in the World
Since the XIX century, the United States has identified itself as the preeminent political, military, and economic force not only in the American region but also in the International System in general. Consequently, nowadays the country faces its share of geopolitical challenges. Mass migration, political unrest, and drug trafficking have resulted in decades of violence, which the United States and its partners have failed to resolve. Among the current risks, there are the pandemic and its economic consequences, climate change, cyber domain perils, and the superpowers’ rivalry.
In order to compete in this battle, Washington uses certain tools against countries it wants to influence. These instruments include isolation of the country, the introduction of sanctions, the use of military means, opposition support, direct military intervention, war, diplomatic methods, disengagement, regional coalitions, deterrence, and proxy wars (Szayna et al., 2017, pp. 1-2). However, among these tools can also be found the country’s inclusion in international trade, development of cultural ties and tourism, integration of the country into international organizations and treaties.
On March 3, 2021, the White House introduced the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, a strategic plan of Joe Biden’s administration. According to the paper, the central element of the US defense strategy now is the protection of democracy in the world (Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, 2021). “Authoritarianism is on the global march”, and the United States “must join with likeminded allies and partners to revitalize democracy the world over”, as stated in the Guidance (Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, 2021). Among the tools of threatening the document lists “cross-border aggression, cyberattacks, disinformation, and digital authoritarianism to infrastructure and energy coercion” (Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, 2021). The White House stresses that the United States will never abandon the use of military force as a necessary national interests’ defense instrument. However, diplomacy remains the most important tool of US foreign policy.
Military security is one of the three pillars of the United States global strategy. The United States is at the top of the list of countries with the highest military expenditure in 2020, having spent $778 billion, which is 39% of the world share (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2021, p. 2). America accounts for 95% of the world’s foreign military bases created with a view to protecting the territories from external threats (Benjamin et al., 2019). The United States currently maintains about 800 military bases outside its territory (Turse, 2019). Allegedly, the US military is located in 160 states and regions, including 11 aircraft carriers, each of which can be considered a naval base; the American presence in space is growing as well.
In today’s world, the United States is one of the few genuinely global forces. Its military presence reaches any point on the globe and its economic might powers global trade and industry. Its political and cultural appeal, labeled “soft power” by Joseph Nye (Nye, 1990). It is so widespread that most foreign organizations represent American interests. Military-wise, the chasm between the United States and the rest of the world is widening. Although military spending in most other countries is declining, it is increasing in the United States (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2021, p. 1). There is little chance that any state would devote the resources required to begin competing with, let alone surpassing, the United States’ military power and presence in the world.
In order to understand American geopolitics, it is required to comprehend the idea of “American exceptionalism”. Since “American exceptionalism” is a contentious issue in American politics, it certainly has an impact on both domestic and foreign policy processes. The phenomenon of “American exceptionalism” is inextricably linked to the establishment of the first colonies, therefore, it is important to begin documenting its evolution in the XVII century. The colonists arrived to establish the “city upon the hill” (Squiers, 2018, p. 79). The religious rhetoric was not randomly selected, given that the first English settlers were Puritans fleeing religious persecution.
The success of the American Revolution bolstered individualism, and the United States began to flourish as an autonomous international actor. Throughout the XIX century, “American exceptionalism” remained a uniquely American phenomenon, not expanding beyond the Western Hemisphere in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine (Perkins, 1963, p. 3). However, as the United States’ economic power increased, so did its influence in international relations. Being one of the winning countries in the First World War, the United States greatly expanded its strategic reach, prompting the intention of introducing American ideas to other countries (Keene, 2015). Despite the fact that the Great Depression called into question America’s extraordinary economic position, “American exceptionalism” returned to the American foreign policy agenda with the beginning of the Second World War. With the outbreak of the Cold War, the American political establishment saw itself as “defender of the free world” (Walker, 2018, p. 43). As a consequence, the concept was eventually ingrained in American ideology.
This idea underwent another crisis in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal when it was shown that America was not resistant to political turmoil that is typical of other nations. Ronald Reagan brought back the concept of “American exceptionalism” to the foreign policy agenda in the 1980’s (Loconte, 2016, p. 78). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, American ideals became more widely accepted. The phenomenon of “American exceptionalism” became a foundation for the establishment of democratic values, which were to be applied to the entire world and to which America was to actively contribute.
George Bush Jr.’s administration realized that the unilateralist approach, in which the ideology of “American exceptionalism” was actively involved for ideological purposes, had failed. The establishment of democratic societies in Iraq and Afghanistan remained in doubt, and relations with some NATO allies deteriorated (Santos and Teixeira, 2013, p. 132). Barack Obama, in turn, proposed the concept of “post-American exceptionalism” (Löfflmann, 2015, p. 309). According to it, American global leadership should be restructured to focus on international collaboration rather than dominance.
“American exceptionalism” is inextricably linked to and often leads to isolationism. President Donald Trump has been representing the isolationist political tradition for the past four years. He managed to pull the United States out of UNESCO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia (Maizland, 2021). It is believed that next in line were the World Health Organization, and, possibly, the World Trade Organization. A crowd of supporters of Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential elections stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Tan et al., 2021). Thus, the 2020 US elections provided more proof against “American exceptionalism”.
Overall, “American exceptionalism” is a philosophy that asserts that the United States has been charting a completely new course since its inception. It is a nation that has an extraordinary political and economic endowment of liberty. The concept goes all the way back to the founding fathers and continues throughout American history. In addition, sometimes there’s the scenario where “American exceptionalism” is a pretext for expansion.
Another concept that is partly rooted in “American exceptionalism” is “American imperialism”. In the XIX century, many American leaders claimed that the US could enter European imperial nations and create colonies abroad; thus, the age of “American imperialism” was about to begin (Adams and Kohout, 2017). Imperialism is the practice of stronger countries extending their political, military, and economic dominance over weaker states. “American imperialism” was motivated by three main factors: a desire for military might, for new markets, and a belief in American cultural supremacy. Throughout the XIX century, the US managed to enlarge its territory by having bought Alaska and annexed Hawaii. The United States’ 25th President William McKinley was in favor of this annexation, and his reelection in 1900 indicated that a majority of Americans supported his policy (Mieczkowski, 2020, p. 80). Thus, the impact of US imperialism grew and America gained an empire.
Following the war between Spain and the United States, the acquisition of an American empire sparked a heated debate. The new power that the US would wield around the world was a source of contention for both supporters of American expansion and critics of colonial rule. Between the 1870’s and 1914, the United States and major European powers embarked on an unparalleled period of colonial foreign policy (Linden, 2012, p. 282). Given that the US government had used Manifest Destiny policies to extend its empire for decades, such measures were evolutionary (Lubojemski, 2018, p. 40). When America’s imperialist movements collided with the same aspirations of Europe’s most dominant nations, the result was a combination of events that aided the outbreak of World War I.
By the end of the Second World War, the US obtained foreign territories of the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa while also occupying parts of Germany and Japan. With the end of the war, there was a global anti-colonial uprising (Immerwahr, 2019). WWII had wreaked havoc on imperialistic states. The US then agreed to decolonize, or relinquish territories, rather than strengthen its hold, as was the case of many other imperial states following World War I. The US intervention in third-world countries and participation in conflicts which are considered to be elements of the Cold War, namely, the Korean and the Vietnam wars, is labeled as an instrument of “American imperialism”.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which created the unipolar world order. In the framework of it, the United States has embarked on what is called “soft imperialism” (Antonescu, 2014, p. 194). In 1980’s Latin America and 1990’s Asia, American economic pressure to establish floating exchange rate and open capital markets had an imperialist tone. Financial and economic institutions have become the leading edge of the US international influence after the United States lost its production dominance to Japan and Germany in the late 1970’s. The United States used political leverage to open financial markets all over the world.
Nonetheless, the 1990’s are characterized by the growing military expenditure which was necessary for such events as the Gulf War and the Kosovo intervention (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2021). The colonial emphasis on the Middle East became entrenched, and the Bush administration seemed to be moving closer to a military confrontation with Iraq. Following 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the word “imperialism”, which had previously been a contentious term in American politics, began to gain traction.
The evolution of imperialism in foreign affairs reveals various US administrations’ imperialist ambitions. The belief in “American exceptionalism” shaped the US military culture. Throughout the fall of the Soviet Union and the 1990’s, the belief in American exceptionalism grew simultaneously and inextricably with imperialism. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 served as motivators for the United States to intensify its imperial foreign policy, given pro-intervention rhetoric that existed before 9/11 and a history of expansionist ambitions.
The Role of Oil in Middle East Disputes
Oil is the planet’s critical resource that is crucial for the world’s economic, technical, political, and strategic interests. It is used for the manufacturing of various products; however, the main product is fuel. Without fuel, it can be expected that the world economy would eventually collapse because the modern types of production and transportation would not work. Due to its value, oil has always been an object of interest for different states and companies. Not every country has oil and not every country has enough amount of oil resources that would be enough for its demand. Thus, it has been a cause for conflicts and wars between the states.
The Middle East is a region that has the most amounts of oil. According to the 2020 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) research, Middle Eastern countries occupy six of the top ten positions in a list of states ranked by proven oil resources. (OPEC, 2021). The proportion of Middle East oil from the total world resources is 54,67%.
Oil sales are the main source of budget revenues of these countries, which makes their economy dependent on oil prices. The increase in oil prices would lead to economic growth and vice versa. One of the factors that affect oil prices is the cartel agreements by OPEC and major political events like wars and revolutions. The cartel agreements allow OPEC member-states to hold prices at the level they want and avoid dumping. If countries want to decrease the price, they increase oil production. If they want to increase the price, they decrease the production. The first example of this policy was shown in 1973 after the Arab-Israeli war. The OPEC countries refused to supply oil to countries that supported Israel and increased oil prices three times, which led to the so-called 1973 oil crisis.
Wars and revolutions in oil-producing countries also impact oil prices. Prices increase when a revolution occurs or a war starts because market supply decreases. The Persian Gulf War, The Desert Storm operation, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein or the Arab Spring in Libya are examples of this tendency. Thus, it makes instability and turmoil in one or a few oil-producing countries beneficial to other oil-producing states, because they lose a competitor and gain more profit.
The United States has a long history of involvement in the Middle East for the sake of protecting its interests, including oil supply. It was Americans who discovered enormous oil reservoirs in Saudi Arabia in the 1930’s (Jones, 2011, p. 208). The political agreement was achieved between Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Saudi King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud that Americans would protect Saudi Arabia in exchange for cheap oil. This deal, with few exceptions, will continue for a long time.
The United States considers the Persian Gulf as a region of their strategic interest. Jimmy Carter stated that an assault on it would be considered an assault on American interests and that the United States would be ready to use armed forces to oppose it (Carter, 1980). Since the 1950’s, the United States established and supported various dictator regimes there that were loyal to the American interests and supplied oil, and overthrown those that were not. Iran was one of the first examples of this kind of policy.
Iran has traveled a long and unstable path of development throughout the XX century. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, a tough Islamist regime emerged, actively manifesting itself in international politics and in conflict with the United States. US foreign policy around the world and in the Middle East has always been aimed at spreading American influence. This influence is of an economic, geopolitical and military nature, as well as the ideological character of American exceptionalism. Economically, the sides compete for oil, which is abundant in the Middle East and Iran.
The History and the Future of the American-Iranian Conflict
The second chapter is devoted to the history of the confrontation between Iran and the United States. A number of papers on this topic have been cited here, including books, articles, and journal publications. The work of the British academician Busby on the Iran-Iraq conflict paid great attention to the post-war situation in Iran and US-Iraqi relations. The works of other academic authors were also used: Rezaei, Katzman, Alenezi. In studying the more recent history of the conflict, news publications from The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, and Wall Street Journal were used. While writing the second chapter, attention was also given to the speeches of the US presidents, references to which are also present in the work.
To write the second subchapter on the impact of the conflict on life in Iran, a very in-depth economic study conducted by the US Department of Treasury was used. It detailed a study of the Iranian economy after the imposition of sanctions. The work of Iranian academics Ghasseminejad and Jahan-Parvar on sanctions was used to provide an alternative perspective on the economy. The chapter describes sanctions and how they work. The thesis cites Hufbauer’s fundamental work, ‘Economic sanctions reconsidered, which explores sanctions in detail. This work was written back in the 1980’s, but it was reissued several times. Indeed, this oeuvre is an important academic work referred to by all researchers on the topic of sanctions. Newer works by Hufbauer’s successors, namely, Shojai, Root, Biersteker, Berjeik were used. To study the Iranian population’s perception of the conflict, sociological research was used. The Iranian Public Opinion, At the Start of the Biden Administration was used to explore this issue. When writing the third subchapter, practically no literature was used, since it is an original study and an attempt to predict a further development scenario.
History of American-Iranian Relations after 1988
Since the late 1970’s-1980’s, relations between the US and Iran have been generally hostile, sometimes escalating into open confrontation and only rarely allowing talks or clandestine collaboration on particular issues. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, America was able to resolve the issue of the release of US diplomats who had been held as hostages in Tehran since 1979. The Reagan administration imposed new sanctions on Iran in response to Tehran’s support for international radical extremist groups in the Middle East in the early 1980’s, with the aim of undermining Washington’s foreign policy positions (Busby, 2014, p. 9). President Reagan’s administration engaged in clandestine economic and military-political deals with moderate Iranian officials, who were expected to support Washington in defending its strategic interests in the Middle East. Another worsening in American-Iranian relations occurred after the revelation of unofficial links between the two countries (Busby, 2014, p. 54). Thus, despite unsuccessful attempts to stabilize bilateral ties with the Iranian authorities and the imposition of new sanctions by Washington against Tehran, Ronald Reagan failed to put an end to the crisis.
In the meantime, there was a revaluation of Iran’s nuclear energy development by the Iranian government. In the context of the Iraq war, Iranian officials gradually started to shift their critical stance toward nuclear weapons to a more realistic one, in order to find deterrence options. Since nuclear arms would be the ultimate sign of strength, prestige, and stability, Iranian authorities ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to enrich uranium in 1981 (Rezaei, 2017, p. 30). As a result, the primary motivation for Iran to resume its nuclear program was defensive rather than financial. Concerns about the introduction of Iraq’s and Israel’s nuclear programs prompted Iran to look for the requisite technology in other countries in order to establish its own nuclear program. Iran’s first efforts to establish projects for the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles were ignored by Reagan’s administration in the 1980’s (Rezaei, 2017, p. 33). It was attributable to the fact that Iran was engaged in a war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988, and Reagan, on the other hand, was more concentrated on the rivalry with the Soviet Union.
At the beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush sought to create positive American-Iranian ties. The United States lifted a set of economic sanctions against Iran (Katzman, 2021, p. 47). Nonetheless, Teheran’s foreign policy approach of supporting international terrorist organizations, manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and construction of intercontinental ballistic missiles continued. As a result, George W. Bush shifted his Iran policy to an economic and political path targeted at isolating Tehran on the international stage.
In 1990, Iraq occupied Kuwait, which served as the beginning of the Persian Gulf war. Iran accused Baghdad of aggression and adopted a wait-and-see policy (Alenezi, 2020, p. 59). America welcomed Iran to join the international coalition’s armed forces, and Saddam Hussein called on Iran to unite against the US. Iran preferred neutrality, which helped the country restore diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and also secure loans from Western countries and increase oil sales (Alenezi, 2020, p. 60-61). The United States has begun to see the Iranian nuclear program as a challenge to its defense in the 1990’s. George W. Bush failed to stabilize relations between the US and Iran and isolate it from the global system.
During his first term in office, Bill Clinton followed in the footsteps of ex-presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush in imposing sanctions on Iran and isolating it. At the time of the second Clinton administration, the White House’s foreign policy toward Iran shifted dramatically in favor of normalizing ties between the two countries. However, the failure of the governments of both states to come to substantive reciprocal compromises and sign bilateral agreements prevented the revival of economic and diplomatic ties between the US and Iran (Katzman, 2021, p. 7-8). The United States experienced a radical reconsideration of the issue of the Iranian nuclear program creation during the presidency of Bill Clinton, which was an important factor in the development of American-Iranian ties. The US has placed a high priority on the advancement of Tehran’s nuclear program, which has progressed beyond the confines of interstate rivalries, assuming a regional and international position in stability and security issues.
Iran’s strategy of expanding its nuclear program while also supporting terrorist organizations has forced the United States to place new economic sanctions on the country. After the election of a new Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, who is known for his moderate views, hopes for a thawing of the US-Iran conflict grew (Mirbahheri, 2007, pp. 305-306). The lobbying of American businesses that had experienced major losses as a result of the sanctions was aimed at relaxing these sanctions.
International terrorist threats, Iran’s funding of radical extremist groups in the Middle East, and the growth of Tehran’s nuclear program persuaded George W. Bush’s administration to take a stronger anti-Iranian stance. Consequently, the US tightened sanctions against Iran, reinforced its policy of isolating Iran, and actively backed the Iranian opposition in its efforts to destabilize the Muslim regime in Tehran by financing human rights programs (Katzman, 2021, p. 49-50). The George W. Bush administration thoroughly examined military options for resolving Iran’s nuclear crisis. Between 2001 and 2008, Washington was successful in persuading the United Nations Security Council to oppose Iran’s nuclear weapons program, resulting in the passage of four UN Security Council resolutions.
The 9/11 attacks shifted dramatically the White House’s position on international terrorism and the countries that support it. Iran continued to aid radical terrorist groups fighting Israel in Palestine and Syria. George W. Bush identified Iran as part of the “axis of evil” in his message to the US Congress, accusing the state of supporting international terrorism and attempting to obtain weapons of mass destruction (Bush, 2002). Iran’s nuclear policy prompted the American Congress to pass the 2005 Law on Supporting Democracy in Iran, which served as the official reason for the US foreign policy to depose Iran’s Islamic regime. Iran was listed as the key danger to the United States in the 2006 National Security Strategy, as it sought to build nuclear technology, support international terrorism, and try to disrupt Middle East peace (The national security strategy of the United States of America, 2006). Diplomacy was cited as the preferred method for solving the Iranian problem, but military action was not ruled out.
Barack Obama’s administration’s policy of normalizing relations between the US and Iran consisted of the White House’s willingness to engage in direct talks with Iran. At the same time, it should be noted that Tehran’s leaders refused to engage in such talks aimed at limiting the nuclear program’s growth (Katzman, 2021, p. 56-57). Consequently, Barack Obama’s foreign policy efforts have largely focused on tightening the economic sanctions and establishing Iran’s isolation. Despite the US-Iran tensions, the Obama administration did not rule out the possibility of engaging in negotiations with Iran’s authorities to resolve interstate disagreements on a variety of topics, including Tehran’s cessation of uranium enrichment (Katzman, 2021, p. 58-59). In 2010, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution №1929, initiated by the United States (United Nations Security Council resolution, 2010). By a majority vote, the United Nations Security Council strengthened the current international sanctions regime against Iran
In 2015, the United Nations, the European Union, the United Kingdome, France, Russia, China, and Iran signed a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under it, Iran was to stop developing nuclear weapons and the United States and the United Nations were to lift sanctions against it (United Nations Security Council, 2015). In 2017, US President Donald Trump declared his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, claiming that Iran had violated the terms of the agreement (Landler, 2018). On May 8, 2018, the United States announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and new sanctions against Iran, as well as threatening sanctions against all countries that buy Iranian oil. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, claiming that United States sanctions were aimed at undermining Iran as a nation rather than combating terrorism. At the time, the European Union backed Tehran by introducing a series of steps that would enable the union to maintain economic relations with Iran.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is part of Iran’s armed forces, was formally classified as a terrorist group by the Trump administration in 2019. Trump described Iran as a “terrorist supporting regime”, and the Guard Corps and its Quds Force, headed by Qassem Soleimani, as terrorist organizations (Revolutionary Guard Corps: US labels Iran force as terrorists, 2019). On June 13, 2019, a boat with unidentified individuals approached two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and attached explosive devices to their sides before detonating them (Kirkpatrick et al., 2019). The boat, according to the US military, was one of the IRGC’s vessels. In 2019, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Wintour, 2019). It also proclaimed the continuation of uranium enrichment after the EU was unable to reach an agreement with Tehran
However, this was not the end of the United States-Iranian clashes. On December 27, 2019, unnamed individuals opened fire on one of the US military bases located in Iraq (Starr, 2019). The Trump administration accused Hezbollah, a Lebanese paramilitary group established with the help of the IRGC, of the assault. On December 30 the US fought back by bombing Hezbollah bases in Syria and Iraq (Kataib Hezbollah: Iraq condemns US attacks on Iran-backed militia, 2019). In response, Hezbollah supporters conducted the American embassy takeover in Baghdad, which lasted the entire day (US Baghdad embassy attacked by protesters angry at air strikes, 2019). General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in retaliation for the shelling of the American base and takeover of the embassy (Qasem Soleimani: US kills top Iranian general in Baghdad air strike, 2020). The next day, Iran vowed to avenge Soleimani’s assassination, and Iraqi deputies voted to expel American troops from the country.
Donald Trump has stated that he will not do so until Iraq pays for the destroyed military bases (Fritze, 2020). On January 8, 2020 missile strikes were conducted against the US airbase in Al Asad (Rubin, 2020). Donald Trump promised to retaliate with new sanctions against Iran, at the same time urging the Iranian government to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. However, one of the main messages delivered by Trump was his pledge that Iran would not become a nuclear power while he was in office. The current US President, Joe Biden, states he is willing to meet with Iranian officials to discuss restricting the country’s nuclear program (Norman and Gordon, 2021). In terms of possessing nuclear weapons, Biden wants to keep Iran at bay.
From 1988 to 2021, American-Iranian affairs should be regarded as the main direction of US Middle East policy. It has had a profound impact on not only the Middle East but also on the international relations system in general. America’s foreign policy concerning Iran is characterized by the US strengthening and weakening sanctions against Iran on a regular basis. This strategy, however, did not succeed in resolving the key contradictions between the United States and Iran.
Sanctions Imposed on Iran: History and Description
The conflict between the United States and Iran has had a great impact on Iran’s internal affairs. One of the most essential things, with the help of which the United States influence Iran, is sanctions. Sanctions are one of the tools that the United States and its allies usually use, in case they do not support some state’s policies and want them to change. The United States can impose various types of sanctions and they can be classified in different ways. They can be comprehensive and affect the whole country or selective (also known as targeted), affecting particular persons, taking decisions (U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2021). If selective sanctions are imposed, their assets are blocked and the country gets restrictions on foreign trade. The sanctions can also have economic or diplomatic character and both of them can be used.
The United States imposed different types of sanctions during its history. At first, the United States adhered to the use of comprehensive sanctions. They supported the United Nations resolution on the imposition of sanctions on Iraq in the 1990’s, which were effective, but resulted in harsh humanitarian consequences (Biersteker and Van Berjeijk, 2015, p. 27). After this, the use of targeted sanctions became a more common practice. Despite the fact that they address fewer people than comprehensive, their effectiveness is almost the same.
However, the efficiency of sanctions, both selective and comprehensive, is a debatable issue. There is a research that shows that often sanction policies are not effective and do not achieve intended goals (Biersteker and Berjeijk, 2015, p. 17). The imposition of sanctions fails its mission when it is used as the only tool and it is more effective when it forms part of an overall strategy. This strategy also involves political pressure on leaders of the state and its efficiency is influenced by its scale. If a targeted country is pressured by total international isolation, it is more likely to abandon its criticized policy. International sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990’s were successful and made Saddam Hussein stop from occupying Kuwait. Nonetheless, he managed to stay in power for 12 years after that, so another contributing factor of sanctions efficiency here is the stability of the regime.
From the economic point of view, the consequences of sanctions imposition are debatable. The result of economic sanctions varies from case to case and there is no one general strategy that can be used every time (Shojai and Root, 2013, p. 1488). Mostly, the efficiency depends on sanction goals and what countries imposing sanctions want to achieve. If sanction goals are more particular and a target’s regime has fewer opportunities to oppose them, their effectiveness would be higher. The result of economic sanctions depends on the current economic, political and social situation in a targeted country and on its relationships with other countries. An opportunity for a country to cooperate with other countries that did not impose sanctions also influences the outcome of sanctions. If the country on which sanctions were imposed has additional markets and can export goods to other countries, then sanctions would not be that efficient.
Nonetheless, there are benefits to imposing economic sanctions that make it a reasonable way to influence a country. One of the most efficient tools in financial sanctions is a foreign asset freeze of a target’s country or its leaders and elites (Hufbauer et al., 2009, p. 48). In this case, sanctions are manifested in the stop of financial flows and the impediment of trade. Another argument in favor of targeted economic sanctions is their non-violent nature. Their imposition helps to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and avert hurting innocent people.
Anti-Iranian sanctions can be divided into two stages: unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States from 1979 to 2005, and multilateral sanctions imposed from 2006 to the present. The history of American sanctions imposed on Iran is long and began in 1979. After the American embassy was occupied, the United States government imposed harsh economic sanctions and froze Iranian foreign assets. Their impact was tangible and it was one of the reasons why Iran decided to release the hostages (Hufbauer et al., 2009, p. 48). US sanctions in the 1980’s and 1990’s were aimed at pressuring Iran to stop funding terrorist groups and limiting Iran’s desire to increase its strategic influence in the Middle East.
The list of sanctions levied on Iran by the United States in the 1980’s includes the prohibition of foreign organizations from lending money to Iran; the prohibition of selling weapons and providing military aid to Iran by any states (accepted in 1984); the prohibition of any trade between Iran and the United States (accepted in 1987, partially canceled in 1995). In the 1990’s, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, sanctions imposed on Iran became more serious and provided harsh measures not only for the US citizens but also for residents and organizations of other countries, if they invested more than 20 million dollars in the energy sector of Iran.
Since the mid-2000’s, the United States has changed the sanctions’ target and declared the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to be its primary mission. The United States has made it a priority to limit the extent of Iran’s nuclear program to solely civilian use of nuclear science and prevent any attempts to use the program to make weapons (Katzman, 2021, p. 41). These sanctions have had a great impact on the Iranian economy and Iran’s nuclear program.
Iranian banks’ operations have been stymied as a result of new sanctions. The targeted sanctions imposed by the United States were aimed at Iranian individuals and organizations involved in nuclear production. The United States sanctions strategy included not only economic pressure, but also political and informational. American unilateral sanctions were followed by a furious information campaign waged not only in the media but also at the level of top state officials.
Multilateral sanctions against Iran were introduced only in 2006 when the United Nations supported the United States policy. Resolutions Nos. 1696, 1737, 1803, and 1835 of the United Nations Security Council, adopted between 2006 and 2008, included only a few restraints on Iran and conditions for cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency in the field of nuclear production. However, the most serious and extensive sanctions measures aimed at combating the implementation of the nuclear program did not begin until 2010. Thus, Resolution No. 1929 adopted in 2010 imposed a slew of sanctions on almost every aspect of Iran’s economic and political system, with severe repercussions for the region.
Another significant move toward Iran was the European Union’s resolutions, which actively supported the sanctions regime. The EU has greatly expanded the scope of the United Nations sanctions by adopting the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737, which requires member states to take additional steps to influence Iran. The EU Council replied to each Security Council resolution on the Iranian problem by expanding the list of selective sanctions. It complied with a comprehensive list of technologies prohibited for sale to Iran, placed restrictions on Iranian financial and banking institutions, and imposed an embargo on Iran’s gas and oil sales. This package of European sanctions was imposed in January 2012 (EU Council Decision No. 2012/35 / CFSP, 2012). Its results were particularly detrimental to the economy of Iran.
The first successful negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia) took place on November 24, 2013. It led to the creation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that stipulated Iran’s refusal to enforce its nuclear program and the weakening of sanctions (Katzman, 2021, p.2). A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was drafted on April 2, 2015, after another round of negotiations between the same participants. According to this document, imposed sanctions against Iran are not exempted, suspended, or terminated. However, the new proposal calls for the relaxation and eventual abolition of sanctions in the event that the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms Iran’s compliance with its main nuclear obligations. In January 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency released its conclusion on Iran’s compliance with the Plan’s key agreements. This was accompanied by a partial easing of sanctions by the European Union and the United States. However, the latter immediately imposed new sanctions, though on a different basis – in connection with Iran’s missile operations.
President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, promising to reinstate US nuclear sanctions that had been lifted since the pact went into effect in January 2016. These sanctions were issued in two main tranches: oil embargo imposed on 7 August 2018, and selective sanctions imposed on 5 November 2018 against over 700 individuals and organizations (Crisis Group, 2020). Since then, the United States has slowly added additional sanctions against Iran and Iran-related entities and businesses.
Upon assuming office, Biden announced that he would not lift sanctions in order to get Iran back to the negotiation table (Biden will not lift sanctions to get Iran back to negotiating table, 2021). He said that he would try to resurrect the nuclear agreement, but that Iran must first reverse its nuclear actions. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Tehran would only comply if the United States first lifted all economic sanctions imposed on the country.
The Impact of the Conflict on Iran’s Internal Affairs
Sanctions have influenced the Iranian economy in a serious way. Upon the whole, it can be said that sanctions have resulted in its decrease (Ghasseminejad and Jahan-Parvar, 2020, p. 3). When sanctions were first imposed, they resulted in negative short-term and long-term outcomes for particular enterprises and industries in general. The lifting of sanctions led to a return to roughly the same levels as before the sanctions, but no full return could be achieved. The firms mostly affected by the sanctions were those that were directly linked to the State.
Sanctions affected Iran’s economic indicators, such as GDP per capita, imports, exports, inflation rate and the exchange rate of the Iranian rial (Katzman, 2021, p. 52). The Iranian economy has contracted by 20% and for the same amount, unemployment has risen. The export of oil has also decreased more than two times during the most severe years of sanctions (Katzman, 2021, p.52). The financial sector has also suffered due to the leaving of foreign banks from Iran and inaccessibility to reach foreign assets with hard currency. Inflation has risen to 40-45% since the United States’ withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal in 2018. The Iranian rial fell nearly four times in value immediately after this decision was made, compared to the rate in 2012 (US Dollar to Iranian Rial Rates, 2021). The level of the American-Iranian trade remains minimal, while local production faces problems related to the dependence on imported parts.
According to a poll conducted among Iranian citizens, 68% of the respondents claim that the economic situation in Iran is getting worse. Three out of five Iranians want their state to trade with countries that have proven to be reliable partners in the past, while still producing many essential products at home (Gallagher, Mohsen and Ramsay, 2021). Roughly 50% of respondents say the US sanctions have had a significant negative impact, and more than four in five say the sanctions have harmed the lives of ordinary people.
When asked to describe Donald Trump’s policy toward Iran, most of those surveyed defined it as being hostile, expecting ties with the US to be somewhat less aggressive under Biden. The withdrawal of the terrorist tag from Iran’s central bank, condemning the assassination of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as a violation of international law, and a full US return to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action compliance are named among the positive measures the Biden administration could take to boost US ties with Iran.
According to the survey, the majority of Iranians support the nuclear deal. Iranians are adamant that they will not negotiate with the Biden administration until the US is fully compliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The suggestion that European countries make clear commitments to increase trade and investment in exchange for Iran returning to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has divided Iranians. More than four out of ten of those interviewed believe that no current steps are being taken by the EU to shield Iranian companies from US sanctions (Gallagher, Mohsen and Ramsay, 2021). Fear of the United States, according to the majority of respondents, is the primary reason why European companies refuse to trade with Iran.
The Biden administration has stated that it will seek talks with Iran to reinforce the terms of the agreement and resolve other US concerns after the US rejoins the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iranians are taking a wait-and-see approach to wider talks: a majority will only consent to new talks after the US complies with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for a few years. A demand to end uranium enrichment was categorically rejected by 85% of Iranians interviewed, and 72% opposed making the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action sanctions against Iran permanent (Gallagher, Mohsen and Ramsay, 2021). When asked about talks on advanced conventional weapons, respondents rejected a proposal that Iran stops testing ballistic missiles.
To summarize, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has publicly expressed hope that a Biden administration will return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a new administration in Washington is unlikely to be able to reform Tehran’s long-standing policies. However, the young Iranian community, which is not affected much by propaganda and clergy opinions, overwhelmingly supports improved ties with the US and the possible sanctions relief that a Biden presidency might bring. The United States will continue to pay attention to Tehran’s involvement in major global security threats, such as nuclear proliferation, extremism, cybersecurity, and the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. While a complete or partial restoration of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is possible, significant improvement in the US-Iran relationship will be doubtful until Tehran’s leadership changes.
Further Development of the Conflict
The future of the conflict between the United States and Iran is difficult to predict as it depends on many factors. The conflict has been dragging on for about 40 years and it can hardly be said with certainty that it will end soon, although such a possibility cannot be ruled out either. However, one can try to guess in what directions the conflict will develop in the future. In general, three possible scenarios for the further development of the situation can be imagined: aggressive, protracted, and peaceful.
The Aggressive Scenario
The aggressive development of the conflict was most anticipated during the Trump presidency. It was during this period that many strikes were inflicted on Iranian positions in Syria and Iraq, including the assassination of Soleimani in January 2020. Then the possibility of a full-fledged military development of the conflict with Iran was the most possible. Joe Biden stated he wanted to get back to the deal, which implies that his policy towards Iran will be different from that of Trump.
However, if we assume that Biden will be forced to choose a military solution to the conflict, then such a development of events will have negative consequences for both the United States and Iran. The US will most likely be supported by allied countries in the region: Gulf countries, Turkey and Israel. All these countries display an extremely negative attitude towards Iran. The conflict with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries is primarily economic in nature. These countries are the main exporters of oil in the region, so it would be beneficial for them to eliminate an influential competitor, namely, Iran, so that the war will be beneficial for them in the long term. The conflict will also have short-term benefits in the form of abnormal increases in oil prices.
For Israel and Turkey, Iran is the main geopolitical opponent in the region. In a sense, Iran and Turkey are already at war with each other through their proxies in Syria. Nothing will prevent Turkey from taking the side of the United States in case of war, because it is a member of NATO. Israel is also contending with Iranian influence in the region, as evidenced by the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in which Israel fought against pro-Iranian Hezbollah formations. Israel also takes part in the Syrian conflict and periodically attacks Hezbollah and IRGC positions in Syria.
Speaking about the military strategy, it can be assumed that in the case of conflict, the means of electronic warfare will first of all be used to eliminate the Iranian air defense. After that, artillery, aviation, and drones will be actively involved. If the main military infrastructure is destroyed, an offensive by the armed forces can be expected. The foothold for the offensive of the fleet will be provided by Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar. The offensive of the ground forces will be conducted from the territory of Iraq, since there are US bases and, if necessary, they will be able to transport more troops.
Despite the fact that the armed forces of Iran are quite strong by the standards of the region, the American forces, together with the allied forces, will be able to occupy Iran in a short time. After that, the creation of an occupation government can be expected, similar to the government created in Iraq after the American invasion. Iranian oil and gas will be fully controlled by the United States and allied forces, and companies from these countries will receive contracts on very favorable terms.
The war will be strongly condemned by China since Iran is a Chinese ally in the region and an exporter of oil. Due to oil reasons, the war may also not be supported by other countries of the Asia-Pacific region and European countries such as France and Italy. On the other hand, if the occupying government offers them contracts on favorable terms, their dissatisfaction will be lower.
Russia’s position on this issue will be controversial. From a political point of view, Russia will unequivocally condemn such an invasion, since it runs counter to Russian interests in the region. Iran and the pro-Iranian President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, are the main partners of Russia in the Middle East, so if they are removed, it will be a strong blow to the Russian presence in the region. On the other hand, Russia, as an oil exporter, will benefit greatly from the elimination of a competitor and an increase in oil prices. A similar situation already occurred during the Arab Spring in Libya, when Russia did not support its ally Muammar Gaddafi but made a profit as a result of the increased oil price.
Thus, the American invasion of Iran will bring a number of benefits for the American government and its allies, as a result of eliminating one of the main geopolitical adversaries and gaining control over the huge reserves of oil and gas. On the other hand, the United States will meet with serious domestic and international condemnation, since this war will be completely imperialistic and possess only economic and strategic interests. This development of events is unlikely since President Biden is inclined towards a more peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran.
The Protracted Development of Events or a Peaceful Solution to the Conflict?
This development of events suggests that for a long time, at least throughout Biden’s presidency, the development of events will occur in approximately the same vein. Both sides will demand a nuclear deal, but everybody will insist on their own terms. The Americans will want to end Iran’s use of its nuclear program for military development, and the Iranians will insist on lifting the sanctions.
If the United States initially rejects the use of military methods, and Iran does not reciprocate, then such a development of events will be possible. However, the US still has the ability to impose new and harsher sanctions. The Iranian economy is in deep decline as sanctions hit hard. To date, Iran has managed to survive, but eternal existence in these conditions is impossible. Sooner or later, the economy will reach such a critical level that the threat of a coup d’état will be an alternative to compromise. In such circumstances, the Iranian government will be forced to negotiate with the United States, but it is not clear whether the United States will want to deal with it if in the event of a coup, a more loyal government might come.
Another question is how well-thought-out and comprehensive the sanctions strategy will be. If tough sanctions are supported by Europe in exchange for certain economic concessions from the United States, for example, the sale of Iranian oil resources at favorable prices, then they will be much more disastrous for the Iranian economy. In this case, Iran will only have to hope for China’s help and it can be assumed that China will provide it. Cooperation between China and Iran is mutually beneficial, so Beijing will be forced to support its main Middle East partner. For example, China can support Iran in the UN Security Council or provide it with lucrative economic contracts: buying oil at a higher price or providing loans. It is difficult to predict exactly what steps the PRC will be ready to take and to what extent the United States will be ready to resist them.
One can hardly expect such a development of events when President Biden will abandon the use of sanctions if he fails to reach an agreement with Iran. Sanctions are one of the main tools that the US government uses to pressure other countries. After Joe Biden became president, he announced that he would use sanctions against Iran, Russia, North Korea (Spetalnick et al., 2020). Sanctions are effective leverage because they do not require military intervention and are less expensive in terms of costs. In the case of a well-thought-out strategy, they help to achieve the set result.
If the current Iranian government does not agree to compromise, Washington will also be satisfied with the scenario of a revolution or a coup d’état. The ever-declining living standards of the population will force Iranians to take to the streets and actively express their dissatisfaction with the existing regime. The protest will also be supported by liberal-minded individuals from the Iranian elite. In the event of the overthrow of the Ayatollah regime, they will be able to take power and negotiate with the West. It can be expected that in case of an upsurge in the anti-government sentiment of Iranian protesters and Iranian liberal elites will support the United States.
Thus, the most likely option is that the conflict will be resolved slowly, but through agreements and discussions, and not by war. The solution to the conflict depends on the internal situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the determination of the United States to pursue a tough and consistent policy in order to achieve its goals. The deep economic crisis and political contradictions in Iran will sooner or later lead to the need for the ruling elite to conclude a new deal with the American administration. If the Iranian authorities do not have enough political will, then a scenario of exacerbation of the existing political crisis with adverse consequences for the Iranian elite can be expected.
It is difficult to predict what consequences the solution to the Iranian-American conflict will bear for the region. If a more moderate deal is concluded, Iran’s influence will remain practically at the same level. The Iranian authorities will not be ready to sacrifice their foreign policy ambitions if the situation does not directly affect their existence in the event of severe external pressure. In the case of a tough solution to the Iranian crisis, an influential regional player in the Middle East will disappear, which will be beneficial for the United States and its allies.
The Iranian Nuclear Program: Case Study
The third chapter is a case study of the Iranian nuclear program. First of all, official documents were used, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency charter and the UN Security Council resolution on the nuclear program. Books and publications by Halit, Lenze, Vaez and Sadjadpour giving a deep historical overview of the program starting from the fifties and the methodology of its study were used. Kerr’s report on Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal was invoked. To study current events and try to predict the future of the nuclear program, publications from the media were also used: CNN, NBC, The New York Times.
The Description and History of the Iranian Nuclear Program
Iran’s development of its nuclear program dates back to the middle of the XX century. In 1958 Iran ratified the International Atomic Energy Agency charter and established the Tehran Nuclear Research Center in 1959 (The Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 1989). The country’s first nuclear reactor was installed in 1967 with the assistance of US specialists (Halit and Lenze, 2020, p. 34). In 1968 Iran signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Kerr, 2020, p. 2). Upon the initiative of Reza Shah Pahlavi, a project for the construction of 23 nuclear power plants was launched in 1973. The construction of the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center began in 1974, with the assistance of the French Technique Atom and experts from the United States and Germany. Iran signed agreements with the German Kraftwerk Union in 1974 for the building of two nuclear power plants in Bushehr (Vaez and Sadjadpour, 2013, p. 5). Iran also collaborated with the French Framatome in 1976 in order to construct six more nuclear reactors in Bushehr.
The treaties were dissolved after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Nuclear energy research was halted under duress of Ayatollah Khomeini, who viewed it as an “anti-Islamic phenomenon”. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Tehran began talks with the Soviet Union and China on nuclear energy cooperation. In 1992, Russia and the PRC agreed to build two reactors in Darkhovin, and 1995, Moscow and Tehran agreed to complete the Bushehr reactor. The center in Isfahan was finished in 1997 with the assistance of the PRC.
The United States revealed in 2002 that Iran was constructing centrifuges to produce enriched uranium for military purposes, urging the United Nations to implement sanctions. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited these sites, but found no direct evidence of a military aspect in Iran’s nuclear production (Amanpour, Ensor and Labott, 2002). Iran signed an additional protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2003, extending the agency’s verification capabilities.
The United States and the European Union, on the other hand, insisted on a full cessation of uranium enrichment, guaranteeing Iran economic aid and assistance in joining the World Trade Organization. The International Atomic Energy Agency has adopted a resolution requesting that the Iranian nuclear dossier be transferred to the UN Security Council. In 2005 the US imposed the first sanctions on Iranian banks, businesses, and individuals involved in the nuclear industry (Katzman, 2021, p. 22). The UN Security Council imposed sanctions in 2006 in response to Iran’s failure to stop enriching uranium; in 2010 Iran was sanctioned by the EU. Several rounds of talks have taken place between the six states and Iran since 2010. The most notable outcome was the signing of a six-month joint plan on November 24, 2013 in Geneva, in which Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5% and halt building new centers. Simultaneously, the date for signing a comprehensive agreement has been consistently pushed back.
A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in 2015 by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. According to the document, Tehran guaranteed the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and promised to obtain no more than 300 kg of low-enriched uranium within 15 years; not to produce highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium; reduce the number of nuclear centrifuges from 19000 to 6100; transform the Fordow concentrator into a technology center; use the Arak reactor solely for peaceful purposes; and to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to the nuclear facilities (United Nations Security Council, 2015). In return, the six states agreed to lift all sanctions connected with Iran’s nuclear program, including those imposed by the UN Security Council and by individual countries. In the event that Iran violated the terms of the agreement, sanctions will be renewed within 65 days.
Iran is completely compliant with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the Agency’s director, the nation is under unprecedented scrutiny: an enormous number of inspections is carried out each year. Over 2.6 thousand units of nuclear materials and equipment are sealed, and hundreds of thousands of photographs are received daily from surveillance cameras at Iranian facilities.
One of Barack Obama’s most significant foreign policy accomplishments was the signing of a nuclear agreement with Iran. During his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump criticized the arrangement (Tur, 2015). Despite this, he repeatedly prolonged the freeze on American sanctions – the US did not lift the sanctions when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed, but just suspended them –, seeking to have new restrictions added to it. In 2018, Donald Trump declared his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. The United States President made his decision based on information provided by Israel, which made public details of Iran’s secret nuclear weapons development program.
The Iranian Foreign Minister said that his country will not amend the deal or make new compromises. He urged the United States to meet its obligations or face the repercussions of rejecting the agreement. Following Donald Trump’s announcement about the United States withdrawal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran would not withdraw from the agreement and would continue to work with the remaining five signatories.
At the same time, Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly opposed the nuclear deal’s cancellation or modification, stating their willingness to expand cooperation with Iran. The European leaders wanted to keep the agreement, but they were ready to finish it. They specifically addressed the possibility of including in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action issues such as control over Iran’s nuclear activities after 2025, as well as steps to curb Iran’s presence in the Middle East.
The Future of the Iranian Nuclear Program
Today, the Iranian nuclear program is the key point in American-Iranian relations. Both the United States and Iran have stated that they plan to resume enforcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Erlanger, 2021). Both countries have started talking to other signatories to the agreement. At the same time, the US agreed to an informal consultation with the full complement of initial parties to the deal, as requested by the Europeans, while Iran declined due to a lack of knowledge of the potential outcomes. The specifications and protocol for a mutual return to full compliance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have yet to be decided upon by Washington and Tehran.
The US has taken the first small step toward returning to the nuclear agreement. It has withdrawn the statement sent to the United Nations under Donald Trump on the need to restore the influence of Security Council sanctions on Iran (Pompeo Arrives at UN to Deliver Trump’s Demand on Iran Sanctions, 2020). However, the United States still has a number of steps to take to lift the sanctions restrictions. This includes the cancellation of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the program, as well as the lifting of sanctions against the Supreme Leader, the Central Bank of Iran, and other Iranian leaders and businesses. If the United States is planning to normalize relations with Iran, they need to release Iranian accounts in other countries, restore trade with Iran and cease conducting an information campaign against Iran. Currently, the US should continue forming its interagency team in order to restore the deal with Iran.
Iran also has to make some concessions in order to reach an agreement again. These steps should include: the decrease in uranium enrichment, the reduction of low enriched uranium reserves, and restoration of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s right to carry out additional checks in accordance with the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. These actions are necessary to fulfil the provisions of the program, therefore they are required to restore it.
Despite the fact that it was expected that Biden would reverse every Trump foreign policy decision, he is not eager to reach new agreements with Iran. Nonetheless, the first step in restoring the agreement should be taken by the United States. If they were the first to leave, it would make sense if they lifted the sanctions first, as requested by the Iranians. The lifting of sanctions would allow Iran to understand that the United States is serious and not going to deceive the Iranians. Indeed, the lifting of sanctions first would be logical and coherent, but some may interpret this step as a sign of weakness before Iran, which Biden could not allow to happen. The US presents itself as a strong superpower which never yields to anyone and believes that all the states must be ready to fulfill its will.
Another option is a scenario in which Iran agrees to be the first to make concessions and returns to the terms of the deal. It is impossible to say unequivocally how the United States will react to this: will it really lift the sanctions or find a reason to leave them? After all, this requirement of the Americans can only be a diversionary maneuver necessary to justify economic and information aggression against Iran. The Americans will be able to continue blaming and sanctioning Iran until it makes big concessions beyond its nuclear program.
On the other hand, the United States can keep its word and lift the sanctions. This option is also preferable, as the countries can finally agree. However, Iran also does not want to make concessions first, as this will lead to a drop in the authority of the government. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal in 2018 is inherently pressure on Iran. If Iran believes that the US was wrong, then it should not be the first to make concessions, otherwise it will confirm the US accusations.
Thus, the improvement of relations between the two states and the restoration of the nuclear deal is the most preferable solution to the problem around the nuclear deal. This will allow both parties to agree and resolve contradictions, therefore, the transaction will be beneficial to both parties. Concluding a new deal or returning to the old one will strengthen the Iranian economy, increase the Iranian rial exchange rate and restore the economy. For the United States, the deal will be beneficial, since the need to conflict with Iran will disappear and it will be possible to achieve the necessary goals peacefully.
Throughout the twentieth century, Iran’s growth has been long and unsteady. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, a hardline Islamist government arose, influential in foreign affairs and at odds with the United States. American exceptionalism is the ideology that justifies American imperialism, which is manifested in the expansion of American economic, geopolitical and strategic interests. The struggle in the Middle East is largely waged over the huge oil deposits located there. Iran is a country with one of the largest oil reserves in the world. For a long time, Iran’s oil industry was run by British and American corporations. After the arrival of the Ayatollah regime, the entire oil industry was nationalized, which hit the oil imports of these countries. On the other hand, Iran also has great political influence in the region, which runs counter to the interests of the main US allies in the region, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran actively manifests itself in foreign policy, interferes in the internal affairs of Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, limiting the geopolitical influence of an unfriendly actor is an important task of American foreign policy.
For now, all official diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States are severed. Nevertheless, countries will continue to engage in dialogue, which has to be constantly interrupted due to the frequent reluctance of countries to make compromises. A certain thaw in relations came under Obama’s term, when the sanctions began to be lifted, but under Trump, the conflict returned to the confrontation phase. Biden was elected President of the United States in 2020, and he was expected to maintain Obama’s position on reaching an agreement with Iran. However, five months after taking office, it is difficult to conclude that Biden has begun to take steps to soften his relationship with Iran. At the moment, the main issue of the conflict is who will be the first to make concessions: Iran or the United States.
The cornerstone of the conflict is the Iranian nuclear deal. The US is doing everything it can to prevent Iran from possessing its own nuclear weapons. If it is possible to agree on this problem, then most likely, over time, it will be possible to resolve the entire conflict peacefully. A peaceful solution is the most preferable in this situation, as it will help to avoid unnecessary deaths and allow the parties to agree. If the parties fail to reach an agreement, then we can expect a further protraction and aggravation of the conflict, which in the worst case could end in another senseless and bloody war in the Middle East.
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