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Country Report: Iran, the U.S., and the Nuclear Deal

The New Iranian President and Nuclear Deal Developments

Written by Olivia Oseroff


An Introduction and History


Modern U.S.-Iranian relations began in 1953 when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency facilitated a coup d’ etat in Iran and overthrew the Mohammed Mossadeq government. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became prime minister, sympathetic to Western ideals, values, and culture. In 1954, Great Britain and the U.S. urged prime minister Pahlavi to sign the Consortium Agreement of 1954. The Consortium would allow Western oil companies to control Iranian influence in the global oil market for the next 25 years (until 1979) by giving the U.S., Great Britain, and France 40% ownership in Iranian oil companies. In 1960, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran established the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to re-establish their dominance in the global oil market. Throughout the following decade, profits for the group grew exponentially, and its vast oil reserves made Iran an even more desirable ally to the U.S.


In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Iran to promote U.S. security interests, asking Iran to oppose Soviet interests in Iraq. In exchange, Nixon promised to supply Iran with non-nuclear weapons. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the Arab oil embargo against the U.S. came into effect, oil prices rose to allow Iran to leverage for more weapons than initially intended. After President Richard Nixon took the U.S. off the Gold Standard, a conversion rate at which a country’s currency is converted into gold, there was an exponential decline in the value of the U.S. dollar and global inflation. Nixon’s move significantly affected the global oil market, which drove OPEC to invoke the embargo on the U.S. The ban pushed the world into a deeper recession, triggering the 1973 Arab Oil Crisis. The Arab-Israeli War and the Arab oil embargo were the beginning of the end for U.S.-Iranian relations in the subsequent decades. In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power after Iran’s pro-western Shah left in civil unrest. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last Shah, began his rule with pro-Western ideals. His monarchy grew more authoritarian over time with the consolidation of Iran’s two-party system into a one-party system, the jailing of dissenters who publicly disagreed with his policies, and counts of corruption, among other things that angered the majority-Muslim country. The revolution triggered a domino effect beginning with the conception of Hezbollah, a militant group with allegiance to Khomeini, and continued with decades of armed conflict and war.


A series of historic events followed, including the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the Beirut Barracks Bombing, the Iran Contra Affair, and the Persian Gulf War, leading to declining U.S.-Iranian relations further. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, President George Bush declared Iran a part of the ‘axis of evil’ in his 2002 State of the Union address.


The U.S. and Iran in Recent Years


The U.S. invaded Iraq with clear intentions to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction or WMDs, free Iraqis from oppression, and preserve oil essential to the global economy. Still, Iran had asserted influence in the conflict by backing Shiite militias in Iraq, so along with combating Hussein’s dictatorship, the invasion of Iraq became a fight against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East just as much as a fight against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.


Following the 2003 war in Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iran’s influence in the Middle East grew by proxy throughout the region to prevent direct conflict with Iranian forces. In the new Iraq, Iran distributed influence into the Iraqi political system and militias sympathetic to Iranian influence on the ground. Their “forward defense” strategy states it is better strategically to fight conflict on the foreign ground rather than one’s territory.


In 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent the first letter from an Iranian president to the U.S. in 1979. The letter sought to lighten nuclear tensions while explaining away their uranium enrichment program. At the same time, alongside the letter, the U.S. Congress approved the Iran Freedom Support Act to fund Iranian society and promote democracy. In the following year, tensions in the United Nations General Assembly arose. Ahmedinejad encourages the closure of their nuclear program but will “disregard” any resolutions intending to shoot down the Iranian uranium enrichment program he claims to develop civilian programs.


The Nuclear Peace Deal


In July of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed upon by Iran, P5 + 1, and the European Union. The P5 + 1 are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. Per the agreement, Iran would be required to shut down their nuclear program in exchange and allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into their nuclear facilities in return for lifting economic sanctions worth approximately $100 billion.


U.S. President Barack Obama led the U.S. and the contributing nations to make this deal that the administration hoped prevented Iran from building a nuclear bomb. According to President Obama, JCPOA "…halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program…" According to a report decimated by the Obama administration following the deal's conclusion, "JCPOA is Based on Verification, Not Trust." If Iran had disregarded the sanctions and continued their nuclear development program, it was not apparent or not made known during the remainder of the Obama administration. It was apparent that until newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, Iran had met the agreed-upon standards, and in response, Obama lifted sanctions on oil and unfroze Iranian assets. President Trump claimed the deal did not address Iran's ballistic missile program and its ongoing proxy war in the Middle East. Trump, among others, concluded that while the agreement postponed a nuclear-capable Iran, it did not prohibit it indefinitely.


After the U.S. left the deal, as long as Trump's oil waivers (waivers allowing U.S. allies to import Iranian oil) remained in effect, Iran upheld the standards required of them, but when those waivers expired, so did Iran's minimal cooperation. In 2019, Tehran began acquiring higher-grade uranium and developing components to resume its nuclear program. And in January of 2020, the U.S. killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which obliterated any Iranian cooperation for the deal. Throughout the year, reports found Iran replacing and rebuilding nuclear facilities destroyed over the past years of conflict.


In November of 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated outside Tehran. Iran pointed blame at Israel and announced that IAEA inspectors would have restricted access to nuclear facilities.


During the 2020 presidential election, President Biden vowed to rejoin several of the international institutions he claimed would return the U.S. to its position as a global hegemon. Throughout his presidency, he has continued to work towards making this happen.


The Structure of Iran’s Government and Election Standards

Iran is technically a theocratic republic, but many refer to it as a theocratic constitutional monarchy, which means that the government is best qualified to intercept and lead in the law and letter of Islam. Iran has a Supreme Leader who “sets the tone and direction of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies…is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces…”. The President is the second-highest official in Iran, primarily responsible for public appearances and leading economic policy. The President’s constitutionally enumerated powers include nominating cabinet members and proposing the budget.


In comparison to other democratic processes predominantly practiced in the West, Iranian elections are far from fair. They lack equal representation of the Iranian population and have stringent age restrictions, only allowing Shiite Muslims (excluding all other religious minorities: Sunni Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Baha’is) and candidates between forty and seventy-five years old.


What’s Happening Now?


Ebrahim Raisi, former head of Iran’s judiciary, won the 2021 presidential election with a majority of 62% of the votes in an election with a historically low voter turnout. He is a hard-liner cleric and strict enforcer of Sharia law. Economically, Raisi is against corruption and believes it is a government’s priority to preserve economic prosperity. Many expect Raisi to have more influence than previous presidents from years past. If current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, age 82, dies during Raisi’s presidency, Raisi will likely take that position.


The most critical issue that drives debate in Iranian elections is the state of their economy. Taking part in the JCPOA is crucial to the health of the Iranian economy, avoiding sanctions on their oil industry, among others.


While Raisi supported the 2015 JCPOA due to the economic benefit for Iran, it is unlikely he will accept any offer to negotiate regarding Iran’s nuclear program or regional influence. He aligns closely with the Supreme Leader, opposing Western ideals, power, and economic cooperation with western countries. He is an advocate for building an Iran free of economic or political dependency.


On August 26, 2021, the Iranian parliament approved most of President Raisi’s cabinet, a majority of whom have previously served in other hard-liner administrations. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is Raise’s confirmed Foreign Minister who “aims for an ‘Asia-centric’ foreign policy”; however, on September 2, 2021, Axios reported that Amir-Abdollahian is open to nuclear power talks with the U.S.


What’s Next?


President Raisi promised to revive Iran’s economy and create a “strong” Iranian government through a conservative, hard-liner domestic and foreign policy approach. In an interview with NPR, President Raisi stressed that the U.S. left the deal, the Europeans fell short of their commitments, and demanded the U.S. rejoin the deal and “fulfill [its] commitments.” The Biden administration has made it clear it wants more than the original JCPOA agreed-upon for Iran to end its proxy war in the Middle East. Unless either country is willing to compromise on what seems to look a lot like the original deal, it is unlikely relations will move forward at all.

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