Of the three most powerful countries in the Middle East—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—it is perhaps only Iran who carries the most geopolitical importance for the near future. Iran’s size, natural resources, and strategic geographic position lends the country immense influence. Additionally, Iran often utilizes hard and soft power tactics, militarily intervening in Iraq and Syria, and curating influence among Shia populations in countries like Lebanon. Moreover, Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, its nuclear development program, and its environmental issues increase its significance regionally and globally. Given the United States’ interests and involvement in the Middle East, and its contentious relationship with Iran, the next U.S. President will almost certainly deal with Iran on crucial and historic issues. The question is: how would a President Clinton or a President Trump further relations with Iran?
First, some context should be provided in order to understand the next President’s decisions. The history of Iran and the United States explains today’s tense and acrimonious relationship between the two countries. For most of the 20th century, the US maintained close relations with the oppressive Shahs of Iran, disregarding the needs of the general population. The United States even went so far as using the CIA to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 as his nationalization of the oil industry, among other actions, threatened U.S. political and cultural hegemony in the country. The repeated insertion of U.S. interests into Iranian politics bred resentment towards the West, culminating in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Subsequently, Iran’s gradual steps towards moderate, reform, diplomatic politics, symbolized by the elections of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian Presidency, gave hope for renewed relations between the two countries. Indeed, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini expressed solidarity with the United States after 9/11, and thousands of Iranian citizens held candlelit vigils for the victims. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush’s unfounded “Axis of Evil” speech, which cast Iran as one of America’s villains and tied to Iraq and North Korea, severely inhibited U.S.-Iran relations and fueled the rise of anti-American, conservative populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Today, U.S.-Iranian relations focus on Iran’s nuclear development program and its involvement in the war against ISIS, support for Hezbollah, and interventions in Yemen. Our focus will be on the Join Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, that was signed in July 2015 with the purpose of limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. In exchange, the United States and United Nations would lift the economic sanctions on Iran. The deal, while maligned by Republicans in the U.S., the deal was widely seen as a vital step to a cooling of U.S.-Iranian relations and signifies an opening to future cooperation. The principal subject of that future cooperation would be a partnership in the defeat of ISIL. Furthermore, as indicated by the European Union’s 2016 Iranian policy brief, the U.S. could work with Iran on issues of trade, energy, environment, and drug trafficking. The election of moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and the reformist political desires of Iranian youth reaffirm the possibility for positive, productive relations between the U.S. and Iran.
We now come back to the original question: how would Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton approach Iran? According to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump’s plans for Iran are unclear. He has made repeated contradictory statements on how he views the nuclear deal and provides no picture of what he would do to replace it. His continued insistence on Iran as a “very big problem” threatens the escalation of tensions between the two countries. Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, supports the deal but has been more critical of Iran’s perceived violations of the agreement and their recent mistreatment of captured sailors. While Secretary of State, she ramped up sanctions on Iran, a move widely seen as encouraging the creation of the JCPOA. She has pledged to vigorously enforce the deal. In addition, she has reaffirmed her support for Israel’s sovereignty, an issue historically problematic for relations between the U.S., Iran, and Israel. U.S. citizens’ animosity towards Iran provides an additional barrier to positive collaboration between the two countries. Unfavorable opinions of Iran are incredibly high and continuing security tensions sustain those views.
Hillary Clinton, at the very least, seems to possess the composure and knowledge to avoid past U.S. policy mistakes with Iran. Ultimately, the next President must combine a healthy dose of self-criticism with an awareness of danger of today’s world, and realize that a future with Iran’s natural resources, potential workforce, and regional influence is better than a future without.