2020 kicked off with the United States and Iran teetering on the brink of war, then waiting for either side to take the plunge into combat. The death of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an American drone strike in Iraq and the unintentional shooting down of a passenger plane killing 176 by Iran brought the tensions between these two adversaries to the forefront of public attention. These events are just small parts of a dilemma among the two countries spanning years.
In May 2018, President Trump not only withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord but also imposed economic sanctions on Iran. This began a process in which both countries have made gains but also taken substantial losses in each issue at stake. Analysts agree that the modest victories each side secures serves mostly to harm the other side — not bring any concrete gains. Consequently, this tit-for-tat behavior has created a negative-sum situation.
The United States continues to face many obstacles, such as pushback from rebel groups and disavowment of involvement from Tehran, in its initiative to end Iran-backed armed proxies, limit Iran’s nuclear program, and, most ambitiously, restructure the balance of power in the Middle East to reduce Iran’s influence in the region. Despite these efforts, Iran has been able to secure power in the region and disentangle itself from Trump’s economic sanctions when establishing political control.
This twenty month-long saga is an unprecedented lesson in the bounds of zero-sum conflicts. Regarding Iran’s use of armed proxies, American progress is limited and hard to identify. Iran uses these proxies to dominate the Middle East, and the United States’ efforts to dissuade such use have not been effective. In fact, Iran’s use of proxies has increased. Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord because he was under the impression that Iran was in the process of developing a nuclear weapon. However, this was not only debunked by international inspectors, but also by the United States’ own intelligence community.
After the United States withdrew, Iran has been making efforts to reinstate the diplomatic and economic benefits that the original agreement offered. American gains from the withdrawal have yet to make themselves known. In fact, the United States has suffered a number of losses since the withdrawal, such as condemnation by European allies and loss of trade to Iran for American companies. Iran has not agreed to any restrictions on their nuclear program besides those outlined in the 2015 agreement.
The United States has benefited from the fact that Iran has thus far been unable to substantially increase its progress on the nuclear front, but Iran’s regional influence and status rests on more than its nuclear and ballistics programs. The international coalition made up of representatives from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany that drafted and policed the agreement with Iran has been broken up, passing along the burden of upholding a status quo to Washington — all without the legislative backing of the accord.
Trump’s choice to withdraw from the nuclear accord also makes Iran less motivated to succumb to nuclear concessions, even if a new accord presents itself. This also applies to Iran’s allies in the area, who are likely very skeptical of the American plan for the Middle East. Because of American disregard for the accord, Iran is much less likely to make a deal with the United States again since the Americans have lost credibility.
Iran was expertly able to exploit the outrage around the globe that came of America’s withdrawal in order to circumvent certain nuclear restrictions, but overall, Iranian gains were relatively modest. Statements from the Iranian government convey the idea that the task at hand is not simply the development of a nuclear weapon but instead bringing back the diplomatic and economic advantages the deal instituted. However, Iran is not making any progress towards this goal. The economy has suffered a lot under the new sanctions, which has created discontent and unrest amongst the Iranian people.
Iran’s use of proxies has also soured its relationship with European countries it was depending on to convince the United States to refrain from withdrawing. France even attempted to give Iran $15 billion worth of credit in order to convince Iran to adhere to the terms of the nuclear accord, but this deal fragmented after opposition from the United States.
The foremost effect of the death of General Suleimani was the passage in Iraq’s Parliament of a bill demanding that all American troops leave the country. At this point, American troops have yet to begin exiting, and it is still unclear if they will eventually leave. While both the United States and Iraq have yet to act and are quietly keeping troops confined to base, the actions of the United States blatantly disregarded Iraqi sovereignty. This dynamic leaves the fight against the Islamic State, led by the United States, in limbo. Suleimani played a large role in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq, and without his presence, Islamic State is likely to stage a resurgence. This sort of strife allows Sunni extremists to gain power within the region. Furthermore, Iraq’s Persian Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and Yemen are seeking to temper conflict; this has the United States in an awkward limbo with a limited amount of outside support in controlling the power of Iran. Iran took a major loss with the death of General Suleimani, who played an important role in Iran’s mission to influence the Middle East. There is also turmoil between Iraq and Iran after Iran fired missiles at military bases in Iraq that were housing soldiers from the United States. This overstepping into Iraqi soil was not looked upon kindly by Iraq.
The death of Suleimani also led to a new wave of nationalism in Iran, even though just weeks before, anywhere between 330 and 1,500 protesters were killed by Iranian security forces. This was due to the Iranian government, which provided buses, trains, and trucks to transport people to Suleimani’s funeral. Rallies were televised nonstop in an effort to increase turnout, and the funeral attendance was topped only by that of the father of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. However, because the country’s economy continues to fare poorly, these feelings amongst the public are likely to die down quickly. The rial has depreciated, and unemployment remains high. With the United States’ economic sanctions, oil exports have dwindled, and a number of other sectors remain stagnant like auto, food, and medicine.
With all of these issues considered, the major aspects of the Middle Eastern balance of power appear to have remained relatively the same. The influence of both Iran and the United States have been weakened, and neither side has come any closer to achieving their goals. In simplistic terms, the two countries are at a stalemate.
Both the United States and Iran are facing an issue of fading international support after alienating potential allies through their actions. The United States and Iran have shifted dramatically from the standards of the nuclear accord that once was beneficial to both of them. Now, Iran is facing international isolation and crippling sanctions. The little restraint on the development of its nuclear program is not favorable for the United States. The constant retaliatory behavior from Washington and Tehran has raised the stakes for both countries all while making the situation progressively more difficult to de-escalate. The claims of victory from both the United States and Iran do not acknowledge the larger picture of what has become an unwinnable conflict.
Categories: Foreign Affairs