The US can’t stop the rise of Iran, but it can make a truce
In 2018, the Donald Trump administration ripped up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the “Iran nuclear deal,” which had been signed by his predecessor Barack Obama.
The decision to scrap the deal was thoroughly influenced by neoconservative members of his cabinet, including National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who not only saw the opportunity to take a swipe at Trump’s predecessor, but argued that placing crippling unilateral sanctions on Tehran would bring the country to the negotiating table, and if not, bring the regime down altogether.
Thus began a five-year campaign of brutal pressure against Iran, which sought to destroy its economy and attempted to coerce third-party countries away from doing business with it. But the initiative didn’t go according to plan. Rather, the world changed. The flagrant disregard of international law by Washington was a catalyst in the emergence of de-dollarization. The global shake-ups that came next, including the Covid-19 pandemic, US competition with China, and the war in Ukraine, gave Tehran strategic space and leverage it had previously lacked.
Now, Iran has substantially increased its uranium enrichment, has continued to build its drone and missile capabilities, has an enhanced military relationship with Russia, and thanks to Beijing, has been able to normalize its relationship with its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia. In the process of doing so, it has reduced the regional influence of the US and its partner, Israel. US foreign policy on Iran has revolved around exploiting regional tensions in order to justify its own security footprint, but Iran has seemingly been able to begin to supersede a campaign of US containment against it while not being overtly belligerent.
This has set alarm bells off in Washington. The US has been desperate to try and reinforce its relationship with Saudi Arabia, but has reportedly been engaging in secret negotiations with Tehran not to revive the JCPOA, but to keep it away from further uranium enrichment and off the nuclear path, a move which of course will have to come with sanctions relief. While the US, presumably with the support of Israel, has threatened unspecified military action if Tehran goes further, it seems clear that Iran now has all of the cards and that a temporary “truce” must therefore come at the expense of the US containment campaign.
Because of the regional dynamic shifting in its favor, Tehran is highly unlikely to actually go down the path to developing a full-fledged nuclear bomb, given the opportunities it would provide to Washington. Unlike a country like North Korea, Iran doesn’t truly need nukes in order to establish a doctrine of deterrence for its own regime’s survival. It is a large country with a population of over 80 million. While the United States could hypothetically conduct air or missile strikes on key Iranian facilities to try and impede its nuclear program, what the US could not do, especially in this environment, is a full-scale invasion and occupation of the country. It would cost trillions of dollars, and there would be no support for it.
Rather, Iran’s deterrence ability is premised on its drone and missile programs, which have grown in their capabilities over the years despite US sanctions. The country recently claimed to have developed hypersonic missiles, which while some skepticism is warranted, is not completely fictional. Tehran has, after all, in response to the assassination of Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani, shown its ability to destroy US military bases within its range, and therefore demonstrate what it could do to Israel if things turned nasty. In doing so, it is demonstrating that regardless of US sanctions, it is a significant regional player, and will continue to be.
US foreign policy towards adversaries has repeatedly attempted to seek maximum strategic gain, eschewing the idea of compromise, be it China or Russia. But when it comes to Iran, Washington is stumped on what to do without taking the risk of provoking a wider conflict. This is why the Biden administration is leaning towards giving in, knowing that the regional dynamic of the Middle East is shifting away from its favor, and taking punitive action which may provoke war is unwelcome. In other words, Iran is winning. The only question which remains is whether or not the US wants a truce or to keep pressuring Tehran until it snaps? Even if the outcome ends in a sheer stalemate, with no nuclear lines crossed, it’s still a lose-lose situation for Washington in the end as Iran re-establishes itself diplomatically.