The rising tensions in the middle east over nuclear developments in Iran explained

The relationship between Iran and the United States has been deteriorating since the change in administrations after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, with both sides no longer upholding the landmark 2015 “Iran Deal”. This is the deal whereby the US, Germany, United Nations and four other members of the UN security council (the United Kingdom, Russian Federation, France and China) accepted to lift sanctions that were made after the 1979 Iranian revolution. In return, Iran would pledge to authorize the International Atomic Energy Agency to scrutinize the use of nuclear energy and verify if uranium enrichment does not exceed a quota that would be a limit showing that the program is being used for military purposes. This program was started in 1970 by the United States-backed Shah regime of Iran, just before the 1979 revolution which brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

The US did not support the new regime that displaced a strong ally of theirs’, now closer to the Soviet Union and at a strategic place in the middle east during the cold war (the Gulf of Persia, where a great deal of international commerce transits and military operations take place because of geostrategic points). The US and its’ allies, therefore, condemned the regime, which drove it into an alliance with the first start to recognize its’ legitimacy, the Soviet-Union. The nuclear program was discontinued in the 1980s as Iran did not believe in joining the Eastern-block and becoming a strong ally to Moscow, as the new Islamic republic declared communism in 1980 as “fundamentally incompatible with Islamic ideals”, in reference to Atheism and many other political divergences between the two ideologies. Furthermore, the 1980 Iran-Iraq war between a Soviet-backed secular Saddam Hussein and the Iranians drove a much larger rift between both parties. This prompted Moscow to not further help Iran in acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction, as Tehran now joined the “non-aligned movement” with a strong commitment to its general distrust towards both the Western and Eastern-bloc countries.

The Iran-Iraq war, having left a million dead left Iran exhausted by foreign pressure when in 1988, Germany and the United States started supplying Iraq, their ally due to these renewed commercial relationships that the US Department of Commerce thought would give them leverage over Iraq. This gave Iran an incentive to have a more pragmatic international relations approach, where they would be more silent in terms of supporting pan-Islamic solidarity with Muslim minorities around the world like Russian Chechens and Chinese Hui after 1988. However, Iran’s interests have always aligned, since then, with Russia, because of critical national interests at stake in developments in Central Asia and the Caucasus, particularly concerning energy resources from the Caspian Sea. Those interests also align with those of China because of similar challenges due to the rapid industrialization and problems they face in the global economy and places them aligned geostrategically on several issues.

The US has since then considered Iran as a rogue state alongside North Korea and has viewed these improving yet distant relations with its’ rivals as threatening, with worry the Russian Federation would help them gain Nuclear weapons since they promised in the mid-1990s to help Iran develop research for their nuclear energy program. The EU, similarly, supported the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since its inception in 1970 and shared the same worries concerning nuclear power. The European Union also reminded Iran ratified this treaty assuring the international community that it will use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

In 2003, however, it was discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is conducting secret activities with nuclear materials. Iran’s refusal to cooperate proactively with the IAEA and its resistance to report to the United Nations Security Council led to a diplomatic effort by the European Council and its three members France, Germany and the United Kingdom to resolve this issue through negotiations. They were joined in 2004 by the EU High Representative and thus offering support by all EU members. Even with the support of China, Russia and the United States through these proposals, Iran could not be convinced to follow the requests by the IAEA. As a result, a renewal of heavy sanctions on many vital sectors of the economy were undertaken by Europeans and the United States alike.

The Obama era Iran deal and its’ opposition

This standoff eventually led to the 2015 deal by the Obama administration and the rest of the UNSC members (including Germany), thereby agreeing to retract the previous sanctions, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets. Iran would have to abide strictly to the standards the IAEI wants to enforce concerning uranium 235 enrichment, limiting its’ use to energy production only and also not using this uranium for defence purposes. However, once president Trump took office in January 2017, he immediately back-tracked from the achievement of his predecessor to re-negotiate the deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran. This could be an effort to tarnish Obama’s more positive part of his legacy in terms of International Relations or have been to support some of the most valuable allies of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, both countries, once enemies, with Saudi Arabia being extremely opposed to the Israeli expansion of territory in Palestine, are now warming relations. The Israeli anthem was performed in Saudi Arabia at a government event in early 2019, the first time this has ever happened. This is because both Israel and Saudi Arabia have very hostile relations with Iran, the former having been vowed to be destroyed by the Iranian state with the support of a coalition of Muslim states, and the latter waging a 1400-year-old proxy war over whom exercises the correct doctrine of Islam. These two deep-rooted conflicts do not seem to be coming under any resolution as long as Iran prospers under the Iran deal and rejoins the international community to voice its interests, which is considered to be a threat to Saudi business deals and alliances with Europe.

The European perspective

The EU and European allies are concerned with this escalation of tensions, with Russia condemning the reestablishment of sanctions but also condemning Iran for recently starting to develop nuclear capabilities again like between 2003 and 2015. French President Macron warned forces on both sides to not get carried away. Iran has been forced in the past few days to start rationing, with Iranian oil exports being forced down to 0 by the US-led coalition. Europeans, however, seem to be skeptic towards this effort. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crashed a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels on May 13th to push for a united transatlantic front against Tehran and its nuclear program. In the meantime, he failed to bend attitudes among European leaders who fear that the United States and Iran are inching toward war. Vice-President Pence prompted European allies on February 18th to withdraw from their side of the deal to exercise further pressure on Iran, stating Europe is undermining their efforts.

Pompeo’s last-minute decision to visit the European Union capital, announced as he boarded a plane from the United States, set up a confrontation between the top U.S. diplomat and his European counterparts, who have been scrambling to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal last year. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he feared that unintentional escalation from the United States and Iran could spark a conflict — an unusually bold statement that appeared to assign equal culpability to Washington and Tehran.

With threats in the Persian Gulf to block Saudi, US and allied ships to pass the strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, Iran is blaming the US is trying to make Iran collapse to introduce regime change efforts. But with President Trump willing to re-negotiate the deal given the escalation, could we have new version of the Iran deal develop in the upcoming months? Alternatively, would this be a diplomatic effort where Europe and Russia take a leadership role as they are also the key players?

About the author

Thomas Kennedy is a former intern at IIR studies at McGill University in Honors Political Science and History.