The Dark Road Ahead: The Future of U.S.-Iranian Relations

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By Quentin Choy

July 30, 2021

One of my most popular posts “How We Got Here: An Illustrated Timeline of U.S.-Iranian Relations” went over the last couple of decades of U.S.-Iranian relations. The illustrated timeline showed the events that deteriorated relations to the poor point at which they now stand.

In this post, I’ll discuss what I believe the future will look like for U.S.-Iranian relations based off of current political and diplomatic trends.

Continued U.S. Escalation Through Rhetoric and Sanctions

The U.S. and Iran have engaged with one another in a tit-for-tat fashion over the last few decades, with the C.I.A. coup in 1953 and subsequent Iranian Revolution in 1979 serving as catalysts toward disaster. The kidnapping of American hostages in the Tehran embassy will always serve as a hot point between the two nations as well.

The return of American hostages from Iran.

Following attempts to restrict Iranian access to nuclear weapons through the Iran nuclear deal, the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018 with then-president Donald Trump citing that the deal wouldn’t sufficiently ensure that Iran would not gain access to nuclear weapons.

The United States has placed sanctions on Iran for decades, and those sanctions continue on to the present day.

As of now, most signs point to continued uses of sanctions on Iranian officials. Seemingly, the United States does not want to reach peace with Iran, as it actively tries to maintain an adversarial relationship with them.

Donald Trump signing an executive order on Iran sanctions.

The U.S. also seemingly doesn’t want to return to the Iran nuclear deal all that much, as Secretary of State Blinken warned that “we are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely,” in reference to negotiations to the Iran deal (JCPOA).

After the U.S. withdrew from the Iran deal, Iran began to proceed in enriching uranium as the deal was off. The United States then cited Iran’s uranium enrichment as Iran violating the deal, even though it was the U.S. who withdrew first.

Iran nuclear negotiations.

Following the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in 2020, it truly seemed like the U.S. and Iran would engage in actual war, leading to antiwar protests in the United States.

It seems that both parties in the United States prefer a state of hostility against Iran rather than one of peace, which is terribly disheartening.

Continued Escalation Through Armed Conflict

Diplomatically, it seems that both nations are actively trying to worsen relations with the other. Following the election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in 2021, one of his first statements to international media was that he would not meet with President Joe Biden.

Ebrahim Raisi.

In the U.S., the American government continues to sever channels of communication that could lead to peace.

Several senators wrote a letter to President Biden requesting that he deny a visa to Raisi. This would prevent Raisi from attending the opening of the U.N. general assembly in New York, which serves as the world’s largest diplomatic body aiming toward peace.

If those in American government want to prevent Iran’s new president from even reaching the world’s primary forum for diplomacy, they likely don’t want diplomatic peace with Iran at all.

United Nations General Assembly.

With continued support in Iraq against an ascendant Iran, it seems like the U.S. wants to engage with the nation, preventing it from gaining influence across the Middle East.

Iran has a population of 82.91 million, over twice the amount of Saudi Arabia’s 34.27 million. With many other Gulf states having small populations, and with Iraq, Yemen, and Syria in ruin, Iran is easily the most populous country in the region, poised to be dominant.

Tehran, Iran.

Despite partial withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. likely won’t be able to leave the Middle East alone. I’m afraid the that U.S. won’t be able to distance itself from its perceived role as the “world’s police” and will continue wasting tremendous amounts of resources in the region.

If attempts to “democratize” Iraq and Afghanistan were futile, imagine the futility of trying to prevent the rise of an ascendant Iran! This is what the Iran nuclear deal was about all along.

Iraqi troops.

I believe that Iran’s rise is inevitable, and that there is nothing the U.S. can do to stop it. I would focus on trying to salvage any sort of relationship with Iran despite a rocky past.

There’s no way the U.S. can stop the so-called “rises” of multiple nations around the world. How can the rise of China, the rise of Russia, and the rise of Iran all be dealt with simultaneously by a declining America?

Attempts to Curtail Iran’s Geopolitical Rise

As Iran makes a diplomatic shift toward China, the U.S. will feel even more threatened than it already does. Seeing two geopolitical rivals allied in ascendance will frighten a declining America and a fractured Europe.

This alliance would likely be what pushes many policymakers over the edge, causing them to frantically condemn Iran and hastily run to media outlets to express concern over the threat such an alliance would pose to American national security.

Any incursion in any country by Iranian-backed militias such as Hezbollah would justify armed invasion. The government would be hyper-vigilant looking for anything they could use to spark a war.

The U.S. would continue to target Iranian-backed militias throughout the Middle East, citing potential threats to the U.S. and its allies.

Israel, a U.S. ally in the region would be ultra-fearful of an Iranian rise, having a population of only around 9 million people. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would train rigorously, preparing for attacks from Iran.

Internal Struggles Within Iran

While Iran may be growing closer to becoming a regional power in the Middle East, it must still deal with internal struggles.

Protests raged throughout Iran’s Khuzestan province over a shortage of water. However, the protests shifted to anti-government protests aimed at reforms to the Iranian theocratic government.

Protesters burned a flag of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. They also chanted things like “we don’t want the Islamic Republic,” “death to Khamenei,” and “may your soul rest in peace Reza Shah.”

These chants all express desires from some Iranians to return to pre-revolutionary Iran. They show support for western culture and an opening of democratic reforms within Iran.

The U.S. expressed support for the protests, directly opposing the Iranian government and worsening relations further.

“Protests in Iran that began with a water shortage — owing to drought and governmental mismanagement and neglect — in the Khuzestan province have now spread across various cities including Tehran, Karaj and Tabriz.  The Iranian people are now putting a spotlight not only on their unmet needs, but also their unfulfilled aspirations for respect for human rights — rights to which individuals the world over are entitled.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price, July 28, 2021
Ned Price.

As more Iranians are arrested for protesting against Iran’s government, the U.S. is likely to use these protests as justification to intervene and “liberate” Iranians from authoritarian theocracy.

Conclusion

Much of future relations between the United States and Iran will be based off of Iran’s status as a rising nation as the U.S. is in decline. Fearful of its ascendance as a regional power in the Middle East despite sanctions and military actions meant to curtail the Iranian rise, the U.S. will be aggressive to prevent its rise.

Iran’s shift toward China will frustrate and frighten U.S. policymakers even more. Despite decades of attempts to prevent Iran’s rise, an alliance with China would undo sanctions and military targeting of Iran by the United States.

Iran will be freed of economic turmoil brought about by U.S. sanctions and will work with China as a new source of economic and regional stability, leaving the U.S. behind and defanged of any influence.

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12 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I am not American and I am widely traveled. Just because you believe something is true doesn’t make it true. You really should learn this.

  2. That is a fantasy world you’ve imagined in your mind whose potential for peace is made even less likely by advocating for a reduction of the US’ power and replacing it with a rise in China’s. China and Iran are totalitarian states, in case you hadn’t noticed. Under their rule people like you – and me – would be ‘disappeared’ because we dare to speak our minds. Under those systems you think are no worse than under the US this self expression is a ‘terrorist threat’ and so in the name of national security we would be gone. And this happens all the time, every day, multiplied by hundreds in Iran and millions in China. Not including the hostile takeover of Hong Kong and the ‘disappearing’ of all those who thought a second system operating in China could be included because it was in writing, about 450 concentration camps have built to deal with the Uyghur ‘problem’ and a genocide is carried out while you’re busy busy busy condemning the mean old US of A… the only military power strong enough to curtail the Chinese territorial expansion and offer real world protection to South Korea and Taiwan in particular and Japan, Indonesia, and Australia generally.

  3. What gets under my skin is how easily the US is portrayed by people who should know better to be considered the global Bad Guy. When one listens to those victims, the ones most harmed by regimes that do not share western liberal values, one finds a common thread that so many academics really don’t grasp: the US was, is, and hopefully shall remain THE beacon of hope for all suppressed people not because of this administration or that one, but because it heads up with global military power the ONE system that offers the most hope for personal freedom. This seems to matter not at all to those trained not to think this way. Welcome to the academic world of Western vilification.

    The women whose sons have been shot in the streets of Iran just this past week for demonstrating to get WATER speak louder than ANY supposed academic who thinks the US is the Bad Guy when they call repeatedly for US led sanctions against this theocratic regime. (Listen to Iranian dissident and hunted woman Masih Alinejad who uses social media to give these women a voice they do not have in all the regimes mentioned.

    Millions of Iraqis and Kurds and Yazidi and Iranians and Afghanis hope against hope that the US can be a savior for them… not that academics here seem to think this matters at all when we know just how guilty and terrible awful everything Western is. But to find out what’s true, just read ex North Korean Yeonmi Park’s biography and listen to her ongoing submissions to the UN about how important it is for the US to stand against these totalitarian states like China, how the West is crumbling upon itself with this mewling and revolting self-hatred when foreign policy gets mixed up with armed conflict. What’s lost in this self-flagellating ‘education’ is the honest and fair compare-and-contrast results when the US withdraws its military forces from a foreign conflict or its favored despot is overthrown. Of course, those horrendous results and ongoing conflicts and massive casualties and economic ruin and the creation of millions of refugees and displaced people need not concern any of us because, hey, it’s not really our business anyway and we shouldn’t stick our (military and diplomatic) nose where it has no business being. Let’s ‘build relationships’ instead… that doesn’t involve ‘exporting’ offensive Western values. Good luck with pulling out of the game but believing we can affecting it by spectating and cheering and booing.

    I think there’s a very strong case to be made that by withdrawing military enforcement prior to unconditional surrender and before reconstructing these countries’ national institutions from the ground up, the US is shooting – both itself and the sacrifices made by its citizens and those of its allies – not in the foot but the head. By trying to respect fundamentally incompatible ethnic and religious and tribal and political systems of anti-liberal values, the US opens itself to exactly the kind of one-sided criticism we read here. All of this criticism is carefully and approvingly built on false equivalencies that pretend the US is ‘just-as-bad-as’ whatever regimes it is in armed conflict with.

    First the US is called to intervene as if some kind of world police officer and then blamed for ‘causing harm’ when it tries to impose some kind of enforcement to bring about a later peace. To avoid exactly this criticism, the US politicians cheered on by media makes some kind of half-hearted attempt, loses a few thousand citizens and collect tens of thousand of casualties over a few years, spends ungodly amounts of money ‘rebuilding’ the area (making local leaders rich), ignobly withdraws, and then is vilified for both coming and going as if just-as-bad-as-the-worst-regimes for even trying. It bothers me because it’s not true but this narrative fiction is taught and supported all the time even by people who should know better, who should think better, who should seek beyond the pabulum self-immolating narrative.

    1. The only ones who believe all that bullshit are Americans, Tildeb. Sorry to disappoint you, but whether totalitarian or democratic or anywhere between, most non-Americans see Americans as bullies, and the laughingstock of the world. You cannot even keep your own house in order, what makes you think you know what to do about world problems. Go back to your isolationist days, the world was much happier then.

    2. tildeb,

      I can see your point in some Americans being too critical of America’s past in being a beacon of freedom to the world. The clearest example I can think of is the role of the U.S. in World War II.

      Despite the best intentions America may have, we must still consider the damages of military intervention.

      I admit that I may have been too narrow in my view and could have searched for some voices in support of U.S. intervention. However, I was just writing from what I know. I’ll consider your arguments further in future posts.

      Thanks for your comment!
      Quentin

  4. It’s time America realised they are not the policeman o the world and cannot, despite their spending on weaponry and the armed forces, sustain continual war. War begets war. It’s time now to come to peace with Iran. If the Iran deal over fissionable material can be resumed alongside the other Western powers and some sanctions dropped then maybe a lasting peace can be formed. the Iranian people are pro-Democracy and don’t want a war with the West, but thy don’t want the kind of hardline grip on the Country that is likely to happen wihout peace. The Shah made many mistakes but he did try hard to give his people an opening to the West that the clerics didn’t want, an still don’t. Maybe they fear the people would flock round the late Shah’s grandson who lives in the US.and the clerics would lose the power they have.
    Where peace is an option it’s always the best option.
    Hugs

    1. David,

      I think this is true. I also think many Americans have a difficult time in coming to grips that sometimes, peace with conditions that are not ideal IS the ideal result.

      If the U.S. and Iran were to make peace, there wouldn’t be major losses of life or soldiers who “died in vain” like in other conflicts.

      Peace between the U.S. and Iran would be helpful to both nations and to the world,

      Should the U.S. make peace with Iran, this wouldn’t be a loss. No real war actually occurred between the two countries, although diplomatic fallout has gotten close.

      I hope most Americans can see the strength and benefit from ending our role as the world’s police rather than losing lives and money in a futile effort to shape the entire world in our image.

      Thanks!
      Quentin

  5. It is telling that you make not one mention of either the role of Islam in the region, historical grievances, disparate ethnicities, or the disenfranchisement of half the population in Iran. You present Iran as if a monolith and it is not. You present the US as engaged in some kind of foreign interference rather than as an active global peacemaker competing with and against ideas that are antithetical to Western values that brought Iran’s regime into power. You utterly fail to consider the consequences of what a rising role for China (and Russia) means not just to regional stability in political terms but to global stability. Where superpowers come into contact, proxy wars are sure to follow. This is especially true throughout this crossroad region and the Iranian totalitarian regime really is a major player in exporting massive instability throughout the region and beyond. You frame and excuse all of this violence and harm as resting on the doorstep of the US and this is so simplistic as to be dishonest. This region is a historical powder keg for a reason – long, Long, LONG before the US ever showed up in international affairs, and that reason you fail to consider is because it is where West meets East and we are seeing conflicting values hard at work not because of the US but because of all the complications that come from real world Real Politiks.

    1. tildeb,

      While it is true that Iran has exported “massive instability” in the region, the United States has done so as well, which is not necessarily the cause of all instability in the Middle East, but a major cause.

      The destabilization of Iraq and the continued presence in Afghanistan have shaken the region up. Along with joined efforts by the U.S. in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the United States has simply tried to influence the area too much with military intervention.

      You say “where superpowers come into contact, proxy wars are sure to follow,” and I think this is true. However, I don’t think the United States should continue to actively try to maintain a level of influence in the Middle East that is unattainable.

      While the U.S. would like to have the Middle East be governed by those it finds favorable, I think we must come to terms with the fact that not everywhere in the world can be ruled by governments we like and support.

      Yes, Iran is “antithetical to Western values” as you say, but I also mention the protests from Iranians who want a more western Iranian society.

      While you may think I “present the US as engaged in some kind of foreign interference rather than as an active global peacemaker,” I believe that the U.S. does not promote peace, especially in the Middle East.

      While it’s true that the area was historically a powder keg, U.S. presence there is unnecessary due to how far away the region is, and how much closer it is to the powers of China and Russia.

      I don’t think the Middle East is worth fighting over by the U.S. and that it should be left alone while the U.S. focuses elsewhere.

      Thanks!
      Quentin

      1. The only thing I could comment n here is that while I agree the US should not be looking to fight over the Middle East it would do no harm by trying to repair alliances in the area. That might keep Iran out of an axis with China or Russia and move the Iranian people nearer to where they want to be. Given how China is dealing with it”s own Muslim minority I’m sure Iran could see where it’s own best interests lie.
        Hugs.

      2. David,

        I agree that that the U.S. should leave the Middle East and attempt to repair alliances in the region while not getting too involved.

        If the U.S. wanted more geopolitical power, it should focus more closely to home or on the Asia-Pacific region.

        Quentin

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