Iran has had the chance to change how it engages with the outside world as a result of the nuclear agreement it signed with world powers a year ago, and also as a key player in the crises that haunt the Middle East. But there’s little sign that Tehran wants to take a new tack in its relations with the West or with its neighbors, and political forces in the U.S. also appear uninterested in prospects for normalization with Iran.
Instead, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems bent on ensuring that the nuclear agreement signed in July 2015 does not lead to a dramatic restructuring of Iran’s relations with the outside world. While the signatories to the agreement, including the United States, were under no illusions that the deal would quickly lead to a broader rapprochement, there was nonetheless hope in some quarters that it could drive positive change.
The decision by Iran’s leaders to commit to intrusive inspections to prove that the country’s nuclear program was in compliance with its obligations as a signatory to the Nonproliferation Treaty held the promise that Iran was ready to take a different approach to its relations with the outside world. Some further opening to the international financial system—and to Western diplomats—was expected to be a natural outcome as sanctions were lifted and economic interactions expanded and deepened. Iran’s diplomats saw opportunities to build on the agreement and improve Iran’s international standing more broadly.
On a few discrete issues, one can see some improvement. While the sanctions issues have turned out to be exceedingly complicated, analysts believe Iran’s economy will grow more than 4 percent in 2016, compared to an annual rate of growth under 2 percent before the agreement. Oil production has expanded, and major contracts with global companies are in negotiation.
This week, too, the British government named career diplomat Nicholas Hopton as its new ambassador to Iran, completing a process begun in August 2015, when the U.K. Embassy in Tehran was reopened after a five-year break.
But the list is longer on the negative side of the ledger. In recent days, Khamenei made fiery remarks about Saudi Arabia, castigating the kingdom for the tragic deaths of Iranian pilgrims at last year’s hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Khamenei made clear that Iran would not send pilgrims this year, disparaging the Saudis’ efforts to improve security.
While the dispute could be seen as contained within the world of Islamic protocols, it has geopolitical repercussions, given the acute tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Middle East’s hot conflicts. The aggressive denigration of Riyadh’s competence to serve as custodian of Islam’s holiest places will provoke a Saudi response, and only deepen the rift that is now seen as the strategic framework of the region’s instability. That means that any narrowing of the gaps between the Sunni Arab states and Iran over Syria’s future, or over defeating the so-called Islamic State, is unlikely.
In the United States, there’s also no sign of any positive momentum building on the nuclear agreement. The State Department’s Iran coordinator might be working diligently to resolve the many technical issues that regularly come up in the deal’s arduous implementation process, but his writ never included any wider goal of engaging Iran on other issues. In late August, the State Department also toughened its travel advisory for Americans who may wish to visit Iran, warning about Iran’s human rights record, its treatment of dual-nationality Iranian-Americans, and the risks to civil aviation crossing Iran’s airspace due to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
In this election year, the public discussion in the U.S. about Iran is also colored more than usual by politics. Those who were skeptical about the merits of the nuclear agreement continue to provide fodder for criticism of the Obama administration’s policy toward Tehran, and have spent the summer ensuring that there is little political space for any new initiatives to build on the nuclear agreement.
Questions have been raised about whether the return of Iranian assets frozen by the U.S. for nearly 40 years was somehow “ransom” for five Americans released from Iran in January of this year. In fact, the return of funds to Iran was the long-delayed result of arbitration that predated the imprisonment of the Iranian-Americans; if anything, the timing suggests that Washington had the leverage in ensuring the prisoners’ release. A second issue raised recently by critics of the nuclear deal focuses on whether there were any secret waivers that would permit Iran to exceed the cap on low-enriched uranium stockpiles, a charge that U.S. officials have vigorously denied.
When the presidential candidates hold their debates later this month, Iran is sure to be discussed, and neither Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton nor her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, will want to sound soft. Both will likely speak harshly and threaten new sanctions in response to Iran’s regional conduct, including Tehran’s occasional maritime provocations, its support for militias that are a source of instability in Syria and Iraq, and its virulently anti-Israel rhetoric. The candidates may avoid spelling out specific steps to revise or reverse the nuclear agreement, but neither will express any encouraging words about eventual rapprochement with Iran.
Perhaps this sour state of affairs is not a cause for deep worry. It was to be expected that Iran’s politicians would need to balance the dramatic compromise with the U.S. and other Western powers with some revalidation of the country’s revolutionary principles. And in an American election year, it has become pretty clear that Iran remains in the adversary category in Washington’s conventional wisdom, with any constituencies advocating for broader rapprochement still modest in scale and impact.
But if the nuclear agreement, a major diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration, is to be a building block for a more normal relationship, Iran’s leaders in particular will need to shift their thinking about how the values of the Islamic Revolution can be reconciled with less confrontational approaches to its neighbors and the Western powers. That would give the American political leaders who would like to help bring Iran into a more productive regional order something to work with.