U.S – Iranian Tensions: A Confused American Diplomacy?

U.S – Iranian Tensions: A Confused American Diplomacy?

Noof ALDosari

11 de julio de 2019

U.S and its allies fight against Iran’s nuclear power is mostly a geopolitical issue. Iran’s power in the region though is advancing more than ever without a nuclear power. Still, guarding U.S and its allies’ interests in the region, such as Israel is what they are pursuing. Hence, the discourse of a nuclear Iran is constantly shifting according to power shifts in the Middles East.

In 2012 Kenneth Waltz wrote a famous Foreign Affairs article called: “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”, putting forward his argument by stating that a nuclear Iran will establish a balance of power in the region, and that the way U.S views Mullahs in Iran as irrational and could do anything with nuclear power is based on unfounded fears. On the same year Waltz had an interview with the Diplomat about his article, and been asked this question: How strong of an incentive is this for Israeli and U.S. policymakers to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms? He replied by saying that: Israel is an anomaly (as the only nuclear power in the region). This anomaly will be removed if Iran becomes a nuclear power.

In 2015, Elite Cohen on the other hand wrote an article in the Foreign Affairs called: «Time to Get Tough on Tehran», arguing that Iran is a dangerous state and a nuclear deal is actually the most deficient arm deal in history. Supporting his argument by stating that: “the Islamic Republic is not a conventional state making pragmatic estimates of its national interests but a revolutionary regime. Iran is an exceptionally dangerous state—to its neighbors, to close U.S. allies such as Israel, and to the broader stability of the Middle East…there can be no real peace between Washington and Tehran”.

The two discourses came out from American scholars of political science, and both reflect the divergent views and factionalism within the U.S administration on how to deal with Iran. This matter, unfortunately is persisting within U.S power corridors, and Trump’s speeches are the result of political factionalism on how to deal with Iran. These divergent views are the result of the dilemma of U.S- Iranian relationships which started after the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. U.S –Iranian relationships took a new turn, however, there were always an exceptional relationship of not being friends nor complete enemies.

This entails the role of pragmatism that both states adopt in their foreign policy making which lead them to have a kind of relationship that would allow them to protect their interests in the region and to some extent even collaborate (i.e. Iraq 2003-2011, Afghanistan wars 2001-present). This could be seen in Trita Parsi’s book which is called : Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. Parsi as a Lobbyist and founder of the National Iranian American Council, analyzed the systematic triangular relationship between US, Iran and Israel from a foreign policy perspective.

Parsi makes “ a convincing case that the policies of these three states have been based on their conception of their national interests. Yet he admittedly relies on Charle’s Doran power cycle theory, which contends that geopolitical upheavals affect policy maker’s formulation of foreign policy”[1]. However, his work which is influenced by the realist school didn’t prevent him from viewing leadership religious or conservative misperceptions which were influencing these states’ decisions.

Both parties pragmatism helped to establish a nuclear deal called : The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which been celebrated by international actors in international relations. It was something that Obama was praised for during his tenure as an exceptional and big step not only in US –Iranian foreign policy relationships but also their diplomatic and strategic relationships. Obama during his negotiations with Iran was combining sticks and carrots, though to some politicians, Obama made a “high risk diplomatic gamble that worked”[2].

Nuclear deal. The Globe Post (2017)

However, pragmatism in forging a deal with Iran, fell short in facing the entangled context of inside and outside challenges that both states were facing during their negotiations. This can be seen in Teriat Parsi’s book, which documented the negotiations of this historical agreement:

Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy . The author describes the laborious work of nuclear deal negations between the two parties, the demands and the counter demands. Parsi also talked about the inside and outside political forces that were challenging the deal, and making sure that it won’t survive. The opponent of the deal believed that there is a better deal, that which Parsi referred to as the opponents’ myth. 

Pragmatism showed that Israel would at some point  be pro Iran like the secret dealings of contra-Iran and when they encouraged US for making business with the Islamic Republic .However,  “The end of the Cold War and the toppling of Saddam Hussein meant that Israel, or at least the Israeli right, needed an enemy in the form of Iran and did not want, per the title of Parsi’s book, to lose that enemy. And like another opponent of the JCPOA, the Saudi regime, the Israeli government wanted to keep Iran, as a potential competitor for regional influence, isolated and sanctioned no matter what it did on nuclear matters or anything else”[3].

Moreover, factional politics, especially within the U.S administration, was and is still holding divergent political perspectives, and political approaches on how to master a plan other than the JCPOA and that would be more effective in deterring the region from a ‘nuclear Iran’. Therefore American factionalism is not united under one type of pragmatism in dealing with Iran.

Thus, pragmatism does not always help to close the gap between US or Iran’s inside and outside forces. In addition the current international context is going through an intensified struggle between Iran as a rising regional power vis-vis the decline of US imperial power. Hence, the complex and intensified political relationships between the two states’ divergent views on the region established a kind of political struggle in which both are in disagreement on defining the new middle east. Thus, U.S is not comfortable with the idea of ‘ a nuclear Iran’.

Iran is challenging US international hegemony and nuclear proliferation policies, which in US perspective will encourage other states in the Middle East to follow its lead. This means that Iran as a regional power will challenge US geopolitical interests in the region.

This discomfort is shown in U.S foreign policy toward Iran, especially U.S withdrawal from the nuclear deal (JCPOA), which lead to intensify the situation between U.S and Iran today. It also reminded us again of the importance of diplomacy and geopolitics in foreign policy making. And whether or not the diplomatic relationship between U.S and Iran is defining the geopolitics of the Gulf region.

US and Iran: A Problem of Diplomacy?

First of all, diplomacy in simple terms: “is the process whereby nations conduct business with each other, and diplomats, like lawyers, represent their clients – the governments and leaders of the countries they serve – in pursuing their interests. But this is only a basic description”. However, “in reality, much of diplomacy involves relatively mundane meetings on matters of little importance and of no interest to the leadership. In these meetings, diplomats have a great deal of power, and many of the mundane matters can turn out to be far more important than they appear[4].

Since, the fall of the Shah, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, together with the hostage crisis in American Embassy in Iran 1979, diplomatic relationships between Iran and the US deteriorated and reached a dead end. Cutting their diplomatic ties by removing embassies and diplomatic representative offices US and Iran made their unique channel of diplomatic relationships that is different from any conventional diplomatic relationships.

This discomfort is shown in U.S foreign policy toward Iran, especially U.S withdrawal from the nuclear deal (JCPOA), which lead to intensify the situation between U.S and Iran today. It also reminded us again of the importance of diplomacy and geopolitics in foreign policy making. And whether or not the diplomatic relationship between U.S and Iran is defining the geopolitics of the Gulf region.

Iran and US relationships became to be tangled with different issues that challenge their interest in the Middle East. Channels of communication between the two is controlled by geopolitics and its problems. Hence, because at some point they shared interests in the region, they had to develop a kind of collaboration or consensus, while at other times their conflicting interests develop into in a political struggle in which it always drove the region in intensified and critical situation.  

Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that: “without basic geopolitical stability, any effort to achieve the necessary global cooperation will falter”[5]. So, are diplomatic tensions between U.S and Iran responsible for geopolitical instability? Or is it the geopolitical power relationships and interests responsible for diplomatic tensions between Iran and US? To cut it short, both!

Despite US role in the nuclear deal and the long process of negotiations with Iran; US is still swinging between with or against nuclear Iran. US tactics of swinging between two decisions is the result of US and Israel factional government uncertainty of how to deal with Iran. Although US swinging between two decisions made both parties capable of buying some time and some interests in the region, diplomatic relations between both parties and nuclear deal and its measures were constantly in danger for going back to zero point again.

The historical nuclear deal agreement during Obama’s presidency is looked upon regionally and internationally as a triumph of diplomacy between both parties. However, factional government, remerged again by its Leader Trump and destroyed the agreement and normal diplomatic relationships between US and Iran.

Trump’s sever economic sanctions on Iran, may not have consequences only on Iran as it may affect the Middle East geopolitical stability which may include both China and Russia. Because this agreement “is not just between Iran and the US, it is an agreement that involves China, Russia, and Europe. It’s a possibility, a potential (this is why I call it a process), if it works, those relationships also begin to be altered..”[6]

Trump administration failed in all levels when it comes to its diplomatic relationships between Iran and US. Aside from Trump way of exchanging threats on Twitter between him and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarief, Trump escalation reached its height by intimidating Iran though raising against it different types of accusations. The last one was about accusing Iran for being the sole responsible of twin oil tankers attack in Gulf of Oman in June.

While, Iranian political representatives such as the Iranian president Rouhani described US move of intensifying the economic sanctions against Iran by stating that the White House officials: “do not know what they are doing”[7]. By this statement Rouhani is mocking the Trump Administration as being confused in its diplomatic and foreign policies toward Iran.

American diplomacy comes with muscles:

The Trump administration says it is pursuing “a “maximum pressure” strategy to force Iran to renegotiate its nuclear accord, roll back its influence over regional militias and scale back its missile programme”[8].  On the other hand, Iran stated that it won’t come to negotiations under US intensified sanctions… and that it will raise its uranium enrichment  which means breaching the nuclear deal.

US Sanctions: symbolizes US failed diplomacy

Before the Iranian –US tensions, Iran took responsibility and serious steps in its diplomatic relationships with U.S. However, US contradicted the principles and the very meaning of diplomacy by showing its muscles. This is something that Brzezinski warned against when dealing with Iran:

“while I think we are engaged in the right course of trying to somehow or other redress the problem posed by Iran, we have to be very careful not to create a situation in which the Iranians feel they are being destroyed by the sanctions, and they lash out and start a conflict….. the question is how far does one go with these sanctions?  …is containing Iran is preferable to starting a war in which ‘We’ the United States will be the principle payers of costs. It is not an accident that Russia is not anxious to get involved not for the matter the Chinese. They have been looking at us over the last twenty years, shooting ourselves in the foot, declining as a major power, waging wars were not prepared to win or capable of wining or to set too highest goals”[9].  

Trump’s diplomacy is about squeezing Iran ..if possible lash out in its name and then accuse it! Can this be regarded as a sign for American self- destruction, losing its diplomatic means .. therefore, losing its seat as a super power! As Russian and China, together with EU, represented by Germany started to act against the economic sanctions on Iran. This is showed through Iran’s intensified diplomatic relationships with these countries who may be able to roll back Trump’s reckless behavior. 

[1] Zia-Ebrahimi, R. (2011). Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. Iranian Studies, 44(5), 782-784.

[2] Ignatius, D. (2015, September 15). How the Iran deal became the most strategic success of Obama’s presidency. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-obama-bet-that-paid-off/2015/09/15/e46b80f6-5be6-11e5-8e9e-dce8a2a2a679_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6d76c317e35a


[4] Diplomacy as a Work of Art. (2019, April 25). https://geopoliticalfutures.com/diplomacy-work-art/

[5] Brzezinski, Z. (2013). Strategic vision: America and the crisis of global power. New York: Basic Books.

[6] Posted By Tim HainsOn Date August 18, 2. (n.d.). Zbigniew Brzezinski: Iran Deal Designed As A «Process» To Allow Iran «To Rejoin The Int’l Community And Become A Force Of Good». https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/08/18/zbigniew_brzezinski_iran_deal_designed_as_a_process_to_allow_iran_to_rejoin_the_intl_community_and_become_a_force_of_good.html 

[7] Sheppard, D. (2019, June 25). Iran’s Rouhani mocks latest US sanctions as ‘confused’. https://www.ft.com/content/d7f17fe4-9718-11e9-8cfb-30c211dcd229

[8] Ibid.

[9] OldLandNewLand. (2013, June 02). Zbigniew Brzezinski on Iran & Israel. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ozytIagz-8

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