Iran’s Foreign and Security Policies

US withdrawal from the JCPOA and new conditions for sanctions relief unrelated to the nuclear program, have further complicated Iran’s foreign policy. Iran is dependent on EU commitment to maintain the treaty and its economic benefits. China and Russia are helpful but opportunistic trading partners. While regional dynamics are changing marginally to Iran’s advantage, it is possible that personnel changes in the US administration will further empower Iranian hardliners.

On 8 May 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after long criticising the nuclear agreement for failing to secure US interests. Since then, the Trump administration has undertaken a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to modify both Iran’s domestic and foreign behaviour. The campaign is designed to change the regime’s calculus in 13 areas, as laid out by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in his May 2018 speech and in an article in Foreign Affairs published that same monthFootnote 72 . The list is comprehensive, ranging from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, to its regional activities and human-rights abuses.

To further curb Iranian regional ambitions, the US administration also has announced a shift in its Syrian policy, from countering DaeshFootnote 73  to containing TehranFootnote 74 . Washington’s campaign has created tensions between the US, the European Union and its key member states. Europe has worked ardently to maintain the JCPOA but has faced a number of challenges stemming from difficulty adjusting EU policy and alleged plots conducted by Tehran on European soilFootnote 75 . For its part, the Iranian regime has sought to undermine US policies by forging and maintaining critical relationships to ensure the country is not isolated and is able to keep the Iranian economy afloat.

Iran’s international relations present the country with the greatest opportunity and greatest challenge going forward.

How Iran leverages its international relations to overcome isolation

While attempting to secure European support for its Iran policy, the Trump administration has made it clear that it does not see the buy-in by Brussels and key European capitals as critical to the success of its pressure campaign. Instead, the administration has adopted a more forceful, ‘go-it-alone’ approach to its engagement with Europe and CanadaFootnote 76  on this and a number of other issues.

Iran has tried to leverage the various points of tension between the US and its traditional allies by highlighting the Trump administration’s willingness (and at times even eagerness) to pull out of international agreements and impose tariffs and sanctions on friends and adversaries alikeFootnote 77 . As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif put it in two tweets on 3 October 2018, “UN top court rules that US must comply with obligations violated by re-imposing sanctions on Iranian people when exiting #JCPOA. Another failure for a sanctions-addicted USG and victory for rule of law. Imperative for int’l community to collectively counter malign US unilateralism”. Zarif again, “US abrogated JCPOA–a multilateral accord enshrined in UNSC Resolution 2231- arguing that it seeks a bilateral treaty with #Iran. Today US withdrew from an actual US-Iran treaty after the ICJ ordered it to stop violating that treaty in sanctioning Iranian people. Outlaw regimeFootnote 78 ”.

The Iranian approach has yielded some positive outcomes for the regime. For example, these divisions played out at the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2018, when the US failed to receive the support of the majority of the international community, including core allies, in condemning TehranFootnote 79 .

The US has also sought to use Iran’s egregious activities against Tehran in its appeal for European support—a tactic used by the Bush and Obama administrations from 2005 to 2012Footnote 80 . Tehran has aided Washington in its efforts to single out the regime as deeply problematic by continuing its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and a number of other non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Reported terrorist plots on European soil in 2018 have further tarnished its image in the eyes of European governments. In spite of these developments, however, European capitals have reiterated their commitment to the JCPOA and taken the lead to preserve the deal, with China and Russia taking a backseat to EU efforts.

Russia and China are two other critical parties in the JCPOA implementation process. Both have long leveraged Iranian isolation to their advantage, developing ties in a number of areasFootnote 81 . Beijing and Moscow allowed Iran to avoid complete isolation at the height of US pressure and sanctions, which ultimately led to the JCPOA. Following the US withdrawal from the agreement, the two giants have become once again instrumental lifelines for Iran. They have, however, a compartmentalised approach to their foreign policies and often try to balance conflicting interests, such as in the case of their relationship with Washington and Tehran. For example, the two giants have been wary of blatantly disregarding US sanctions. They continue their activities in Iran while carefully navigating their interests and ties with the United States as demonstrated by Moscow’s refusal to sell the Sukhoi Superjet 100 to Iran until its aircraft meet the US requirement of incorporating less than 10 per cent of US componentsFootnote 82 . As a result, although Beijing and Moscow are critical to Iran’s ability to overcome US pressure, Iranians do not fully bank on them and continue to pursue ties with the European Union, which the Supreme Leader deems central to the country’s decision-making capacity in the matterFootnote 83 .

Despite tensions, Iran’s ties with Russia continue to shape the security landscape in the Middle East—a relationship now strengthened by realignment in the regionFootnote 84 . The shift in Turkish domestic politics coupled with the rift in the Persian Gulf and tensions in the Saudi-Turkey relationship have pushed Tehran and Ankara closer to one another. The two countries are now cooperating closely with RussiaFootnote 85 .

Relationships posing a challenge to Iran’s reintegration into the world order

In recent years, Iran has become more active on the regional stage. The country has long forged ties to a number of non-state actors, from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Yemen. The level of command and control and support for these groups varies significantly but the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the Arab Spring and the rise of Daesh, have afforded the regime more flexibility and influence beyond its borders. Nonetheless, Tehran’s support for various clients has created tensions in its relationship with Europe and provided the Trump administration with more ammunition for its pressure campaign.

Iran is finally seeing the dividends of its participation in the Syrian civil war: it has helped secure the Assad regime’s grip on power and reaped economic dividends from the reconstruction efforts. However, Tehran’s close ally Russia also stymies to a certain extent the regime’s reconstruction plans in Syria. The conflict has allowed Iranian troops to gain battlefield experience for the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq War and create a significant force composed of fighters ready to be redirected to other theaters. On the other hand, the conflict has also taken a reputational toll on the regime.

The October 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives has brought to the fore a number of tensions in the US-Saudi relationship and created momentum for US disengagement from the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts in YemenFootnote 86 . Although this may not lead to a complete US withdrawal from the war, it does further bog down Tehran’s main regional opponent in a conflict with no end in sight. Iranian presence in Yemen, however, also remains a point of contention with the international community, as it exacerbates an already catastrophic humanitarian situation.

Looking ahead

A number of developments in the short- to medium-term could trigger an escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran and determine the long-term success or failure of the JCPOA.

The parliamentary elections in Iran will take place in 2020, just as the US presidential election campaign begins to ramp up. The campaign period in Iran, although fairly short, often exacerbates tensions and infighting within the regime. This could present a flashpoint as hardliners increase pressure on the moderates, pushing the JCPOA and the economy to the forefront of the campaign. Campaign season often sees increased destabilising activities, such as ballistic missile tests and increased pressure on civil society, including arrests of dual nationals.

Should the P4+1 and Iran successfully sustain the JCPOA until then, the 2020 US elections could determine the deal’s future. If President Trump is re-elected, it will become far more challenging for Iran and the P4+1 to maintain the agreement in place, especially if the moderates lose ground in the presidential elections in Iran in 2021. However, if President Trump loses the election, especially to a Democrat, the United States may seek to revitalise the JCPOA.

A final unknown must also be factored into the equation: a possible escalation between Iran and Israel as a result of the volatile situation in Syria.

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