When Barack Obama became US president, his principal foreign policy was clear: to maintain the US’s global leadership role while simultaneously scaling back on the interventionist excesses of George W. Bush. And few issues pulled those priorities together as neatly as did the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iranian-Western relations had nosedived during the younger Bush’s presidency, during which the possibility of military action against the Islamic Republic was a recurring theme. Obama had made sitting down to talk with the Iranians a part of his presidential campaign, advocating direct diplomacy, while also maintaining the threat to tighten economic sanctions with international co-operation.
During its first term, the Obama administration took a tough line on Iran, successively ratcheting up the economic sanctions regime already in place. But when Hassan Rouhani was elected Iranian president in 2013, Tehran started to open up to the possibility of a diplomatic resolution.
After 20 months of negotiations, framework agreements, extensions and the most intensive diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed in July 2015.
As has been highlighted before, when the deal was struck, the negotiations depended heavily on what became a frank and respectful working relationship between the lead negotiators, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif. Their evident personal chemistry was further enhanced by the connection between the number two negotiators, Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, who unbeknownst to each other had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the same time.
The development of the working relationship through such intense negotiations shows the importance of having skilled, worldly politicians engaging with one another. While the final key decision-makers may have been Obama and not just Rouhani but the Iranian Supreme Leader himself, each with their own red lines to protect their respective national interests, Kerry and Zarif were arguably the most important players.
A complex, highly technical agreement running to some 159 pages, the deal saw Iran agree to roll back its nuclear programme and acquiesce to a rigorous international inspections regime in exchange for relief from some of the punitive economic sanctions that stymied its economic development for more than three decades.
Once the JCPOA was passed, key milestones were put in place to ensure that all sides were adhering to the agreements. In October 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that its activities as set out in the “Road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program” were completed, and in January 2016, the sanctions previously agreed by world powers over the nuclear programme were lifted.
Despite all these achievements, which once seemed almost impossible, the sense of a breakthrough moment has given way to more frustrated and complex times. Untangling the web of sanctions and unfreezing the billions of dollars of Iranian assets held abroad has been a slow process, though the US also recently sent Iran US$1.7 billion – money, with interest, owed to the Islamic Republic from a failed arms deal agreed before the 1979 revolution.
Iran has also benefited from being reintegrated into global oil and gas markets, and after the nuclear deal was struck, a slew of agreements were signed by European companies and governments keen to invest there.
Despite the early positive noises, over a year on from the diplomatic success of the JCPOA the spectre of mistrust between Iran and the US looms large once again.
For some in the US, there are concerns that Iran has breached the terms of the JCPOA through its missile development programme. On the Iranian side, various sticking points have led many to question the US government’s commitment to fully implementing the promised sanctions relief.
In the banking field in particular, Iranian officials have complained that the US has not given international banks enough of a green light to be confident in doing business with Iran. This makes the numerous deals signed in the post-JCPOA gold rush rather impractical: if international banks are too worried about being punished by the US to do business with Iran, it’ll be difficult to find the financing to make new deals work.
Iran has also filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice over the US Supreme Court-mandated seizure of US$2 billion in Iranian assets, which it will use to compensate the families of victims of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombings. This case alleges Iranian complicity in the bombings which killed 241 US service personnel – a claim Tehran has long denied.
In his much-publicised “New Beginning” speech addressing the Muslim world in Cairo at the beginning of his presidency, Obama made a point of declaring that he was ready to negotiate, and that Iran should have the right to retain nuclear power. Both of these have been honoured; he can rightfully claim the JCPOA as one of his administration’s most significant successes.
The Iranian-American relationship is now as critically important as ever. Iran has become a potentially vital partner for the US; the two have a common aim in preserving and strengthening the current Iraqi political order, and in defeating the so-called Islamic State. The US has come to tacitly accept that Iran is a key regional player – much to the chagrin of longtime American client Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s position in the region has been strengthened not only through the JCPOA, but also through the actions of the US itself. Post-9/11 American interventions removed two of the most worrisome regional threats to Iranian security: first the Taliban government in Afghanistan, then Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. And as the US finds itself increasingly marginalised in efforts to stop or slow the Syrian conflict, Iran’s role there has been boosted by a renewed alliance with Russia and Turkey.
As Donald Trump and his team calibrate the next administration’s approach to the rest of the world, they will need to use all the diplomatic nous they can muster to promote some sort of détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That is a priority not just for US interests there, but also for the sake of the people of the region, and possibly beyond. Whether Trump values what’s been achieved in the last eight years, of course, is another matter altogether.