Understanding the relationship status between the United States (US) and Iran is confusing and uncertain.
The relationship between Iran and the US appears to be evolving within a framework of political posturing and an international governance system that the two can manoeuvre inside of. The political behaviour and military actions, evidenced in recent weeks, illustrate that the future of this relationship remains volatile.
You may wonder, so what’s new? On 27 July 2017, Iran launched an operational satellite into orbit via the use of a Simorgh space launch vehicle (SLV) from the Imam Khomeini National Space Centre, 220 kilometres southeast of Tehran in the Semnan province – the first evidence of activity within Iran’s space program in over three years. The concern, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – that a ballistic-missile derivative of the Simorgh has the potential to reach intercontinental range.
The international response – the US, Britain, France and Germany warned the United Nations (UN) that Iran had taken “a threatening and provocative step” by testing a rocket capable of delivering satellites into orbit and asked the UN chief to investigate. “Iran’s longstanding program to develop ballistic missiles continues to be inconsistent with (the UN Security Council Resolution 2231) and has a destabilising effect in the region.” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley filed the report on behalf of the four countries.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, denied that Tehran had missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads.
In the wake of this exchange, the following is worth a moment’s consideration as we try to understand the seemingly complex and fuel-driven interplay between the US and Iran.
First, the UN Resolution 2231 is a key foundation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. This Resolution encourages Iran not to undertake activities pertaining to ballistic missile development with the capability of delivering nuclear weapons – including launches using such technology. However, the Resolution fails to explicitly articulate that such activity would be a breach under the agreement.
The launch therefore does not unequivocally contravene the JCPOA agreement despite US President Donald Trump assertion that Iran’s behaviour failed to comply with ‘the spirit’ of the JCPOA.
Since the inception of the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations, has repeatedly found Iran to be in compliance with the agreement.
Second, so what next? The Trump administration continues to seek and implement harsher economic sanctions on Iranian outfits involved in activities that included missile development, software theft and weapons procurement while the administration also continues to allude to a renegotiation of JCPOA provisions.
In response, Iran’s parliament has voted in favour of a bill, which proposes that the government allocate an additional $260m for the “development of the missile programme” and provide the same amount to Iran’s Quds Force, a branch of the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, the official state news agency Irna said. Meanwhile, Iranian and US navy warships continue to engage in instances of shadow boxing in the Persian Gulf.
This escalatory behaviour continues to occur against the backdrop of an operational JCPOA framework where compliance is asserted as instituted. As a result, several questions about the future relationship between the US and Iran are ignited.
First, how will the US’s relationship with the JCPOA manifest itself in the short to long term? Second, will Iran receive a timely economic return for its compliance? And third, will Iran’s involvement in multiple proxy wars and terror-related activity whereby the US is its opposition, yield an unwelcome return on JCPOA investment?
The answers to these questions remain somewhat uncertain but may be assessed with the following in mind. The future of US commitment to the JCPOA will, one way or another, have significant ramifications for its international political credibility. Dually, US capability to potentially enter an escalated period of tension with Iran would have major consequences for regional peace and stability.
Pressure on Iran’s economic recovery, in a post-nuclear sanctions world, will likely be driven by continued compliance. Iran’s President Rouhani, now in his second term, will continue to navigate the challenge of reintegrating Iran into the global economy while prospective investors are challenged with a strong regulatory and legal environment which is complex to traverse.
Lastly, the tension typifying the Iran and US relationship – military posturing, political rhetoric and decided action – may indirectly be realised through Iranian proxies engaged in varied regional violence against US-backed structures which could lead to an overt relationship escalation.
Some may argue that the relationship will be defined by Iranian restraint while US political behaviour will dictate the evolution of the relationship. Others may suggest that Iran’s behaviour and the direction of its space and ballistic missile program will force the evolution of the relationship. No matter the scenario, the US and Iran relationship of the future remains largely uncertain.