By Afro-Middle East Centre
Relations between the two countries were non-existent since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent US embassy hostage crisis which resulted in the deaths of around fifty Americans. The USA then militarily and financially supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a war against Iran. It also maintains a trade embargo on Iran, and has spearheaded sanctions – including secondary sanctions – against the country. Considering the US strategic relationship with Israel, and its support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it was expected that it would be difficult for the administration of US President Barack Obama to win the Senate vote. The powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the USA, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spent over 30 million dollars in the past few months lobbying US Congress and senate members to support the motion rejecting the deal. However, Obama secured the votes required to filibuster the motion in the week before the debate on it, and was able to successfully withstand two other attempts to pass similar motions.
Despite this victory for the deal, it will not significantly alter US-Iranian relations, and the US trade embargo on Iran will continue. The USA will now permit ‘international’ companies to trade with Iran using the US financial system, thus allowing EU and Asian oil trade to resume and investment into the Iranian economy to dramatically increase. But a US embassy will not be opening in Tehran anytime soon, nor is Iran rushing to despatch an ambassador to Washington. The nuclear deal is an arms control treaty whose language and details have much to do with technical specificities, compliance mechanisms and inspection details. It is, according to both the USA and Iran, transactional. The Obama administration has called it a solution to ‘one of many problems’ associated with the Islamic Republic, while Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei promoted it as ‘heroic flexibility’ necessary to extract concessions from the USA. While US policymakers are concerned about Iran’s support of proxies, and its attempts to undermine US interests, many in Iran fear the deal is aimed at weakening the regime and that too many concessions had been made to achieve it.
Future US-Iranian relations arising out of the deal will likely be similar to relations between China and the USA following US President Richard Nixon’s agreement with China in 1972. After the communiqué about the agreement between the two states had been issued, the Chinese government increased its support to Viet Cong forces fighting US troops in Vietnam; the Cultural Revolution continued; and Beijing maintained its support to guerilla groups in Africa and Asia.
Only seven years later, in 1979, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping did China begin to rethink its foreign policy. Although China is now fully integrated into the international system, it still opposes US interests. It is employing its military might to secure resource-rich disputed islands in the South China Sea, has utilised its UN Security Council veto to protect its allies – including Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and is currently involved in around a dozen WTO disputes with the USA over alleged infringement of intellectual property and trade violations. The evolution of US-Iranian relations will follow a similar path. Iran is unlikely to simply comply with and accede to the US worldview and interests, especially as US power is waning compared to China, which has a different view on intra- and interstate relations and the nature of the international system.
With the Iran deal having passed through the potentially difficult process in the US Congress, the winner of the 2016 US presidential election will be irrelevant to the future of the agreement. Although the USA is, theoretically, able to unilaterally sanction Iran, it will be extremely tough to implement more nuclear-related sanctions, especially if Iran complies with the stipulations of the agreement. Moreover, the accord was between Iran and the P5+1 (USA, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany), and a unanimous UN resolution gave effect to it once it was concluded. Any US attempts, then, to undermine it will be shunned by the international community, especially by the European Union, meaning that the USA will have to institute sanctions on its own, drastically reducing their effectiveness.
With little opposition to the deal being expected from Iran, especially since it has largely been supported by Khamenei, it will take full effect in January 2016, and will quickly become irreversible, with Iran being the biggest winner from it. However, it is not an indicator of broad rapprochement between Iran and the West; indeed, by allowing Iran greater flexibility in its operations in the Middle East region, the agreement may in the short term even allow the Islamic republic to undermine western interests in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq.