The US-Iran Confrontation and Its Implications onGlobal Geopolitics

By Hua Liming 

The US and Iran have one of the most confrontational bilateral relationships in the world and have severed diplomatic relations for as long as four decades. The US described Iran as the “Axis of Evil” and has resorted to all means of antagonism (isolation, sanctions, subversion and encirclement) but war against Iran. Iran referred to the US as the “Great Satan”, and has done everything possible to expand its foothold in an attempt to drive the US out of the Middle East. The US-Iran confrontation that has existed for nearly half a century results from the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and has given rise to intertwined rivalry in the relations of major powers, redistribution of Middle East forces, fluctuating oil prices on the international market and even deployments in US global strategies. There was a short period of rapprochement following the Iran Nuclear Agreement in 2015, but after Trump took office in 2017, the two countries have been at loggerheads again and are on the way to a perilous scenario.

Root Cause of the US-Iran Confrontation

As World War II ended and the Cold War began, Iran became an indispensable part of America’s global strategy. Taking advantage of Iran’s strategic location, the US was able to deter the Soviet Union in the north, oversee the South Asian Subcontinent in the east, send troops to the Arab States in the west, and gain control over strategic routes and oil transit routes in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean in the south. In 1953, for fear that Iran might be infiltrated by Soviet forces, the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a coup d’etat to overthrow the nationalistic Mosaddeq government in favor of strengthening the rule of the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, thus sowing hatred in Iran. In 1955, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan founded the Baghdad Pact (renamed the Central Treaty Organization after Iraq pulled out of the Pact) under the influence of the US, which had since controlled Iran for a quarter of a century. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution led by Khomeini resulted in the toppling of the pro-American Pahlavi regime, the US Embassy takeover, and US diplomats taken hostage, and Khomeini proclaimed his policy to export Islamic revolution. In 1980, as the Carter administration cut diplomatic ties with Iran, the US-Iran antagonism was past the point of no return. In 1980, the Iran-Iraq war broke out. The US provided support for Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to strike against Iran. During eight years of war, supplies kept flowing into Iraq, while Iran was isolated and exhausted its national power as a result of heavy losses in the war. In 1988, the USNavy Missile Cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian flight, killing 269 Iranians. The whole nation was angered and formed an anti-American sentiment.

The 9/11 attacks and the two wars the US started fundamentally changed the US-Iran balance of power. Taking this opportunity, Iran has secured a rise: it has gained control over Iraq and Syria, extended its influence to the heart of the Arab region, and had rapidly built up its nuclear capacity. At the same time, the USfound it increasingly hard to deal with the Middle East. The eight-year Syrian Civil War stems from the wrestle between the US and Iran over Syria.

Forty years of US-Iran confrontation indicates that, to maintain its global hegemony, the US will not allow an anti-American regime to run a strategically important country like Iran, let alone Iran’s ownership of nuclear weapons and its extending sphere of influence in the Middle East. Transforming the Islamic regime of Iran or forcing its submission is the consensus and established policy of Democrats, Republicans and elites in the US. Whoever is elected into the White House will not give up on the policy. Donald Trump is simply a radical player among them. At the same time, anti-Americanism has shaped the Islamic Republic of Iran, and those in power only get to adjust the extent to which Iran confronts the US, not the underlying position.

The US-Iran Tussle on the Nuclear Issue

The Iran nuclear issue boils down to Iran-US relations. Iran has been a “trouble country” in the eyes of the US since 1979;so its nuclear program becomes a trouble. The crux of the Iran nuclear issue cannot be more evident.

Iran began its nuclear technology research with support from the USin the 1950s, when it was a US ally. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran became an anti-American state. For the following 40 years, every US administration has been seeking to overthrow or transform the Islamic regime of Iran. After the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, the US has witnessed the growth of the Iranian power, which challenges America’s strategic interests in the Middle East. To the US, the nuclear issue is merely a pretext for forcing changes in the incumbent Iranian administration.

Though not well-off, Iran invests heavily on nuclear technologies, out of two reasons related to the US: to ensure security, and to seek for the status of a nuclear power. Iran survives by being defiant in face of huge pressure from the US.

After the Iran-Iraq War and the First Gulf War, Iran restarted its nuclear research, but it was not until after 2003 that Iran’s nuclear program drew worldwide attention.

In 2003, the revelation of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapon program invited enormous political pressure from the US. And the US dominated the whole process of this agenda. In September 2003, citing that Iran had violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the US requested referring the Iran nuclear issue to the UN Security Council for discussion and sanctions.

The US tactfully covered up its motive to subvert the Iranian administration and wove the motive into the non-proliferation agenda, a sublime issue and a global responsibility, thus turning the international community against Iran.

On January 16, 2006, at the proposal of the US, delegates from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany gathered in London to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue and launched a six-nation mechanism (P5+1) that is dedicated to discussing sanctions on Iran.

In July 2006, the resolution that the US submitted to the UN Security Council through the P5+1 mechanism was adopted, which demands Iran’s termination of its uranium enrichment activities within a month.

In December 2006, March 2007, March 2008 and in 2010, the US facilitated the adoption of another four resolutions of sanctions on Iran in the same manner.

The process demonstrates that, under the banner of non-proliferation, the US has turned Iran into the “enemy of the world”, and through the P5+1 and the UN, isolated and cracked down on Iran.

Dramatic changes in US-Iran relations took place when Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in 2013. The then US President Obama, who hoped to be a peacemaker and leave behind a diplomatic legacy, shifted the US position towards the Iranian nuclear program. Barack Obama made painstaking efforts and didn’t hesitate to risk the alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia to deliver this goal. For the first time in history, Obama declared that “we are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy” in his speech to the UN General Assembly. The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who went to New York for this General Assembly, reciprocated with gestures to improve relations. The phone call between Obama and Rouhani marked a shift in US-Iran relations from standoff to negotiation. Leveraging the platform provided by P5+1, Obama and Rouhani had 21 months of shrewd bargaining and difficult negotiations. In the end, Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief from the US and the international community. On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 nations and Iran reached the final deal to resolve the Iran nuclear issue—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was endorsed by the UN Security Council in one week by adopting Resolution 2231. On January 1, 2016, the US and the international community lifted their sanctions on Iran.

Donald Trump and the Reverse in US-Iran Relations

After taking office in 2017, Donald Trump overturned the Iran policies of his predecessor Barack Obama, becoming the most hostile US President towards Iran. On May 8, 2018, he announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Starting from August 7, the US has re-imposed sanctions on Iran’s purchase or acquisition of US banknotes, trade in gold or precious metals, the sale, supply or transfer to and from Iran of raw or semi-finished metals, significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranianrials, or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory ofIran denominated in the Iranian rial, the purchase, subscription to, or facilitation of the issuance ofIranian sovereign debt, and Iran’s automotive sector. According to the plan unveiled by Donald Trump, starting from November 4, 2018, the US Government will resume sanctions on Iran’s energy and finance sector, ban Iran’s oil export, and thus cut off Iran’s sources of funds.
As the populism-hailing Donald Trump was swept into the White House and establishment elites were ousted from the political stage in the upside-down US politics of 2016, it is natural for him to negate and undo everything of his predecessor. And the Iran nuclear deal is a key item on his checklist.

In the US, where Iran is deeply demonized, the public opinion towards Iran is characterized by hatred and aversion. Obama’s negotiation and nuclear deal with Iran was not popular with the American public, so Trump abandoned the “worst deal” with negligible effort. Although pulling out of the Iran deal will erode America’s international reputation, this move is instrumental in expanding Trump’s voter base and improving his ratings. While Democrats and the media wouldn’t let go of “Russiagate”, using the Iran nuclear deal could help win more applause and ensure a successful mid-term election for Republicans.

Iran’s possession of nuclear capacity has broken Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East and is intolerable to Israel. Therefore Israel aims to get rid of Iran’s nuclear program. But to achieve this goal, Israel has to keep the US involved. Obama’s negotiation and nuclear deal with Iran led to souring US-Israel relations. Trump did exactly the opposite by showing hostility to Iran and constant good gestures to Israel, visiting Israel in his first 100 days, and announcing that the US embassy will be moved to Jerusalem.

Trump’s sanctions, though harsh, are to meet the following constraints. 1) American allies and other countries might not cooperate: China is less likely to cooperate since it has entered into a trade war with the US; the US can hardly persuade the European Union (EU) to levy sanctions on Iran again, and the EU will protect its firms through regulations introduced in 1996; Russia, Turkey and India are unwilling too. 2) Compared with the period of oil embargo on Iran in 2012, the global oil market can quickly fill in the gap left by reduced Iranian oil supply. 3) The US Government’s inability to monitor Iran’s crude oil export,etc. All these will deal a heavy blow to the effectiveness of the sanctions.

Impacts of US-Iran Confrontation on Global Geopolitics

I. The Middle East has been Reshaped.

When the US and the Soviet Union were competing for sphere of influence during the Cold War, the Middle East was a primary area of their overt and covert contention. The five Arab-Israeli wars were seemingly dominated by Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, but behind the scenes were American and Soviet influences. In the Cold War, Iran’s Pahlavi regime undertook double roles, as an American outpost to encircle the Soviet Union and as a surrogate, together with Saudi Arabia, for American interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

As the pro-American Iranian regime was replaced by an anti-American regime in 1979, the American sphere of influence was pushed back from the Soviet Union-Iran border to the south coast of the Persian Gulf. This was the heaviest blow to US global strategy in the later years of the Cold War.
In the 1980s, Iran’s Islamic regime was crippled in the Iran-Iraq War. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the first Gulf War broke out. Iran has been struggling in face of frequent US sanctions.

After the Cold War, the US enjoyed a ten-year hegemony over the Middle East until the 9/11 attacks. After the two wars, Iran gained a rare period of strategic opportunity: it controlled the post-war Iraq and the west of Afghanistan, formed alliance with the Assad regime of Syria, and could reach the heart of Arab states and the border of Israel through Hezbollah. At the same time, its nuclear R&D capability was greatly improved, getting near the nuclear threshold.

Geopolitics in the Middle East was changed by Iran’s rise. The Middle East was no longer divided by the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, but the US-Iran rivalry, which led to political reshuffling and realignment in the region, and forced various forces to choose sides. Iran became the archenemy of Israel and Arab states. Palestinian-Israeli conflicts were downplayed and marginalized. Replacing it was the new confrontation,with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah on the one side, and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other. The Syrian War that broke out during the 2011 Arab Spring actually represented America’s joint efforts with Middle East followers to undermine Iran’s strategy. Russian intervention in 2015 brought on board the US-Russia tussle, then the Syrian War became a proxy war. All the ensuing incidents, including the Yemen War and the crisis in which Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic ties with Qatar, were all relate to Iran.

The Iran-Saudi feud is in nature the confrontation between pro-American and anti-American Middle East countries, rather than the Sunni-Shiite tensions portrayed by American media. The latter represents how the US deliberately misled Arab states into going against Iran.

II. The US and EU have been divided over the Iran Nuclear Issue.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall signifies fundamental shifts in the foundation of the transatlantic alliance. The European Union emerged on the international stage as an independent entity. Though still an American ally, the EU was no longer reconciled to be a myrmidon. In fact, except for anti-terrorism, anti-proliferation, and NATO’s eastern expansion, the common interests of the US and EU have been shrinking since after the end of the Cold War, while their differences and frictions have been on the rise. The US-EU ties soured after Trump took office , with the Iran nuclear issue as a hallmark.

The EU and US pursue divergent interests, hold conflicting opinions and face different troubles in Iran. The EU is heavily reliant on Iran’s oil supply and its market. Since the end of the Cold War, the US and the EU have been on divergent paths in terms of international relations. The huge Muslim communities independent from or even hostile to the mainstream European society weigh on the European policy toward Islamic states, whereas the Jews have always controlled the Middle East policy of the US. The EU doesn’t fall in line with the US policy to overthrow the current Iranian administration, and would hate to lose the Iranian market with an 80-million population.

Europe was fully supportive when US-Iran relations thawed in 2013, and played an important role in the 21-month negotiations between P5+1 and Iran. After the sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016, international businesses and banks from the Europe swarmed into Iran and harvested a large number of orders and contracts. In the next year, when the newly elected President Trump claimed to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, many European politicians and senior officials visited the US for persuasion. In the first half of 2018, leaders of France, Germany and the UK all visited Washington to persuade Trump, but to no avail. On May 8, Trump officially announced the US exit from the Iran nuclear deal. As a countermeasure, the EU enacted an updated Blocking Statute in August and adopted the proposal to set up a “Special Purpose Vehicle” so as to protect EU businesses from the impact of US sanctions by implementing its own Iran policies.

For the first time ever, the US and EU positions are completely opposed to each other on a significant international issue.

III. The China-US Relationship has been Complicated by the Iran Nuclear Issue.

While the US-Iran relationship shifted from friends to foes afterIran’s Islamic regime came into power in 1979, China  maintained and furthered a normal friendly relationship with Iran. America’s vigilance against and doubts about this choice of China has remained one of the constraints on Sino-US relationship.

The Iran nuclear issue emerged in 2003. Both China and the US maintain that the international anti-proliferation system should be upheld and Iran’s nuclear program should be abandoned. However, their opinions often differ when it comes to issues such as sanctions and the use of force on Iran.
As a power in West Asia,with important strategic location and rich oil resource, Iran is highly significant to China. However, China is relatively detached on the Iran nuclear issue, when the US is directly concerned, the EU instrumental in mediation and Russia deeply mired. Regarding the Iran nuclear issue, China is not at the center stage, but has one important vote.

China overtook Germany as Iran’s largest trading partner in 2010, registering a two-way trade volume of 50 billion USD. China’s crude oil import from Iran has kept a steady growth. In 2017, China’s oil import from Iran reached 31.5 million metric tons, making up a quarter of Iran’s total oil export and 7.4% of China’s oil import. China-invested railways, subway lines, power stations, petrochemical, automobile manufacturing and hydropower projects can be found all over Iran.

In the last 40 years of China-US relations, the US has requested China to adopt the same Iran policy, and has been wary that China might exercise its veto power on the Iran nuclear issue. Iran is isolated internationally and highly demonized in the US. Therefore the development of China-Iran relations has always been restrained by the US. 

There has been a major turning point in the US’s China policy. American elites’ anxiety and dissatisfaction towards China’s speed in catching up is manifested in Trump’s China policy. Moves on trade wars, Taiwan, South China Sea, and the Indo-Pacific strategy have been taken and severely challenged the China-US relationship forged in the past 40 years. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, imposed sanctions on Iran, and implemented “long-arm jurisdiction” on countries that trade with Iran. As China is the largest buyer of Iran’s oil, US sanctions on Chinese businesses are unavoidable. The US has made an example of ZTE to Chinese companies and banks by slapping fines on this firm for Iran-related reasons. So the Iran issue will further complicate Sino-US relations.

Nevertheless, 15 years after its emergence, the Iran nuclear issue is no longer what it was. 15 years ago, Iran was the isolated one when the US mobilized international efforts to battle against Iran. This time, the US is the one that is isolated since Trump’s withdrawal from the deal has angered the world.

Trump’s headstrong decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and impose tough sanctions on Iran has led to across-the-board confrontation between the US and Iran, and will result in serious consequences. However, the US can no longer afford another war when it struggles to manage the Middle East after the Afghanistan War and Iraq War. This is a key factor that prevents Trump from going extreme on the Iran nuclear issue. 

Hua Liming is Former Chinese Ambassador to Iran, United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands.