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History and background

The relationship between the United States and Iran deserves a close examination for understanding how colonialism and abuse of power have shaped the history between these two countries and defined their relationship. For many, the time in history that marked the downfall of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. is November 4, 1979. On this day Iranian students invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and held U.S. hostages for 444 days. For this reason, in 1980, the U.S. formally ended the diplomatic relationship with Iran, one hundred and twenty-four years after it formally began in 1856. The two countries have not always been enemies.

In the city of Tabriz, in the Constitution House in the northwest of Iran, there is a bronze bust bearing the writing: “Howard C. Baskerville – Patriot and Maker of History.” Howard Baskerville was an American teacher and missionary who went to Persia (now Iran) in 1907 to teach at the American Memorial School in Tabriz, a city that was historically the epicenter of progressive movements in the country. In 1908, the city became the center of the Persian constitutional revolution movement against the Shahs, who became unpopular because of their autocratic and economically unproductive rule of the country. Not only were they not benefitting the socio-economic conditions of the Persian people; they were also oriented to grant significant concessions to the main colonial powers that were dominating in Persia: namely, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

The constitutional revolution had its roots in a popular movement that arose in 1906, the year before Baskerville arrived in the country. The movement was supported by the clergy, journalists, businessmen, the general bazaar class and many others in society. It was directed at establishing an accountable and responsible government that could help establishing favorable socio-economic conditions for the people, and the assertion of the national sovereignty of Persia. Because of the revolution, the Shah was induced to make important concessions. First and foremost was a parliament, the Majlis, to be elected every two years, composed of elected officials and a cabinet that could function as its administrative-executive organ. The two entities were to write the new Constitution and had exclusive authority over legislative, financial and diplomatic matters. To the Persian people, the Constitution was the source of equality before the law, freedom, security of property, free press, universal education and other fundamental human, civil and political rights. On August 6, 1906, Muzaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar signed the Constitution shortly before dying (in 1907) and being replaced by his despotic son, Muhammad-Ali Shah Qajar. The new Shah denied that the parliament could play any role in matters of state and politics, and quickly rescinded the new Constitution with the help of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. In August 1907, he ratified the Anglo-Soviet agreement of St. Petersburg through which the north of Persia fell under Soviet influence, and the south became Great Britain’s zone of influence leaving a neutral zone in between that would be the object of dispute years later. The British Foreign Minister at that time, Lord Edward Grey, declared, “Persia … was not in reality a viable entity.”[1] In 1908 he bombarded the Majlis, with the military and political support of the colonial powers, and ordered the executions of the government functionaries. The main purpose of the constitutional movement became impossible to achieve: the socioeconomic condition of the Persian people didn’t get any better, and rather than affirming Persia’s national sovereignty, he caused the country to completely fall under foreign occupation. The people of Persia did not surrender, and turmoil developed in the city of Tabriz. In this fight, Baskerville, who supported the Persian revolution by joining the front-line fighting, was shot dead in 1909, making him a national hero. He is mostly remembered for this affirmation: “The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and this is not a big difference.”[2]

The revolution against the autocratic colonial regime succeeded in many cities in Persia and the resistance fighters made their way to Tehran; Muhammad Ali Shah Qajar was forced into exile in the Soviet Union and the Constitution was reinstated in the summer of 1909. At this time, the Majlis appealed to the United States and asked for the recommendation of a person who could reorganize and manage Persia’s finances. This move was motivated by trust and admiration toward the U.S. administration, which suggested lawyer and banker William Morgan Shuster. His presence posed a problem for the Soviet Union and Great Britain because his main intention was to make Persia a sovereign state, free from colonialism. Unfortunately, this attempt failed and both the Constitution and the Majlis did not last long because of the exploitative and imperialistic dominion exercised by the Soviet Union and Great Britain over Persia. The Soviet Union and Great Britain exercised immense pressure on the Majlis, and when the Persian government refused to be subdued, the Soviet Union attacked Tehran and Great Britain moved its troops against the south of the country, causing the Persian government to fall on December 24, 1911.

After the country went through a reign of colonial domination, things deteriorated further with the start of WWI: at this point, in fact, Persia turned into a battlefield between British, German, Soviet and Turkish forces. In four years of war, Persia had eight prime ministers, and its geopolitical position changed when the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 caused the Soviet Union to evacuate Persia, leaving the country totally in the hands of the British, who wanted to extend their dominion to the north.

When WWI ended, British Foreign Secretary George Curzon prohibited any discussion of Persia’s claim for compensation at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, denying, in so doing, Persia’s claims to national sovereignty as well. President Woodrow Wilson didn’t do much to prevent it because Persia’s geographical location served Britain’s aims toward Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Burma and Singapore. These ambitions did not materialize, however. The Soviet withdrawal left space for an anti-royal jangalis movement – a rebellion against the monarchist rule of the Qajar central government of Iran – that aimed to establish an Iranian Soviet Socialist Republic in Persia, and managed to gain terrain quickly and successfully. It proposed democratic-reformist reforms, not socialist, but elements of communism were still present in it. Other movements within Persian society were also present and active; this created a fragmented society that challenged the advancement of British interests. In response to this threat, Great Britain suppressed the jangalis and other leftist movements, and established the conditions through which Reza Shah Pahlavi could rise as the new Persian monarch. His authority was used to secularize society and centralize power in his hands. He used the military as a tool to suppress any autonomy movement in the country, and supported British interests in return. Under his reign Persia acquired new urban construction; the foundation of the University of Tehran; an improved education system; the advancement of women’s rights; and the protection of religious minorities. However, the regime established by Reza Shah prevented the Persian people from benefitting from their country’s natural resources because he allowed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) to occupy an entire province in the southwest of Persia and exploit Persia’s oil resources. In fact, Britain owned most of the company shares. In 1932, when the British announced their intention to further reduce Persian shares, Reza Shah announced that he intended to cancel the concessions made to Great Britain. Great Britain reacted with military force and obtained 30 more years of concessions.

The unpopular British presence in the country facilitated the development of ties between Persia – which changed its name to Iran in 1935 –[3] and Nazi Germany. In fact, Germany had a strong presence in Iran due to political and economic interest. This reinforced the bond between the two countries, and allowed Germany to exercise a large ideological influence on Iranian nationalists and become predominant in Iran’s foreign trade between 1939 and 1941.

At the beginning of WWII Iran declared neutrality; however, Germany continued its activities in Iran. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union decided to join the Allies alongside Britain, and both demanded that Reza Shah expel Germany from Iran. Reza Shah did not respond promptly to this request and, as a consequence, the Soviet Union entered Iran alongside Great Britain on August 25, 1941, and the Shah was forced to abdicate. Again, the country was divided into two areas of influence: the Soviet Union in the north, Great Britain in the south. Reza Shah’s successor, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, signed an alliance of non-military assistance with the Allies and Iran declared war on Germany.

After the United States entered WWII in December 1941 its influence on Iran could be restored. Losing the trading partnership with Germany posed economic problems for Iran, which again asked for American help, and Arthur Chester Millspaugh was appointed with the task of helping Iranian finances from 1942 to 1945. However, with Millspaugh, the United States started advancing imperial ambitions in Iran. Together with the Soviet Union and Great Britain, the U.S. signed the Tehran Declaration, following a meeting among U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in Tehran, which was held between November 28 and December 1, 1943. It was intended to guarantee independence and territorial integrity to Iran after the end of the war. In fact, the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain issued a “Declaration of the Three Powers Regarding Iran.” Within it, they thanked the Iranian government for its assistance in the war against Germany and promised to provide Tehran with economic assistance both during and after the war. Most importantly, the U.S., British, and Soviet governments stated that they all shared a “desire for the maintenance of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Iran.”

Subsequently, three major events contributed to enmity in the relationship between Iran and the U.S. The first one occurred in 1953, when the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, announced Iran would nationalize the country’s oil industry. The British found this unacceptable and convinced the United States that getting rid of Mossadegh would favor U.S. national interests. Therefore, through the CIA, the U.S. conducted a coup d’état to forcefully topple the democratically elected government of Iran, and re-established Mohammad Reza Shah as the leader of the country. He became more dictatorial than his father was, and enforced policies that vastly benefitted the U.S.

The second event took place more than twenty years later. Up to 1977, many Iranians harbored deep anti-U.S. and anti-Shah sentiments, and became predisposed to revolution. The leader of the uprising was Ayatollah Khomeini, a conservative cleric who championed Iranian independence and led the country to the toppling of the Shah. During this revolution, on November 4, 1979, the Iranian revolutionaries entered the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held hostage 52 American diplomats for 444 days, until January 19, 1981, when the Algiers Accords were signed. This event caused U.S.-Iran relationship to totally break down, and diplomatic relations with Iran were severed in April 1980. Moreover, the American government froze $12 billion of Iranian assets, the vast majority of which remain frozen to this day.

Immediately following the hostage crisis, the U.S. supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. The ensuing eight years of war exacerbated the tensions between the two countries. During the war, Iraqi chemical weapons were used against Iranians, causing the death of thousands of military personnel and civilians. The U.S. engaged its own military directly against Iranian targets and prevented Iran from getting loans from international financial institutions. In July 1988, as the Iran‐Iraq war continued, the U.S. navy stationed in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian passenger plane (the Iran Air Flight 655) flying over Iranian airspace, killing 290 Iranian civilians, 66 of whom were children. A few years after the end of the war between Iran and Iraq, an opportunity to redefine positively the relationship between the U.S. and Iran opened with the presidential electoral victory of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Khatami opted for conciliation with the West in general, and the U.S. in particular. Remarkably, he offered cooperation and help to the U.S in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks to the Twin Towers in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C, and thousands of Iranians took to the streets in solidarity with the U.S. Notwithstanding Iranian help, President George W. Bush listed Iran as a state on the “axis of evil” on the occasion of his infamous speech in 2002, when he declared that Iran threatened the peace of the world, along with Iraq and North Korea. Bush branding Iran as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ was the third event that negatively affected the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. As Sarah Witmer points out: “The truth that Iran had limited relations with North Korea and very poor relations with Iraq, and no connection to Osama bin Laden or to the 9/11 was irrelevant to Bush and his agenda.”[4]

The last two major events were accompanied by the imposition of economic sanctions against Iran, which increased in recent years in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have had little impact on the ruling establishment, but have had a massive impact for the Iranian people. In fact, Iran’s economy has been crushed by the sanctions, which have badly affected the economic, scientific and military sectors for more three decades. Economic sanctions not only limited commercial relations between the U.S. and Iran, but also imposed penalties and severe restrictions on U.S. and non‐U.S. companies that wanted to invest on Iran’s gas industry. Also, the U.S. has implemented a complete embargo on U.S. citizens’ abilities to deal with Iran. The imposition of economic sanctions was accompanied by the U.S. refusal to recognize the post-revolution Iranian government and further enforcement of policies that, throughout the years, have encouraged and supported separatist movements, thus compromising the stability of the country while putting its territorial integrity in jeopardy.

Another factor that has created distance between Tehran and Washington is Iran’s financial support (together with Syria) to Hezbollah, a Shi’a paramilitary organization that emerged in Lebanon to fight Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and blames it, and by extension Iran, for several bombings during the Lebanese Civil War that resulted in American casualties (i.e. the 1983 U.S. Embassy Bombing in Beirut where 17 American soldiers, marines and CIA personnel died; the Beirut barracks bombing where 241 American servicemen were killed).[5]

Finally, to fuel this complicated history of enmity from both sides, nuclear allegations against Iran have now become a focal point of Iran’s relationship not only with the U.S., but also with many of its allies.

Iran’s nuclear history 
and position within the international community

It is not proven that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. However, in its quest for sovereignty, the pursuit of certain civilian nuclear capabilities is within Iran’s rights. The country has sought for many years a nuclear energy program, similar to one that the Shah of Iran established in the 1950s. Under the Shah, Iran started to develop a limited nuclear program, and received cooperation by western countries. The United States, in particular, sold Iran a 5-megawatt research nuclear reactor in 1957 as part of the Atoms for Peace program,[6] and Iran enjoyed a period of nuclear cooperation with the United States from the 1950s until the 1970s.

This cooperation obviously ended with the 1979 Revolution and the end of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries during the hostage crisis. Because of a strong Iranian domestic opposition, foreign pressure, and bomb damage during the Iraq-Iran war, the country was compelled to end its nuclear program. The U.S. cut its supply of highly enriched uranium, but a few years later, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was willing to assist Iran to advance its nuclear program, an attempt that was stopped by the U.S. In the late 1980s, however, Iran managed to obtain practical help from France (in 1985) and Argentina (1987-1993) and obtained the delivery of enriched uranium. Also in the 1990s, Russia became a major partner with Iran, and provided the country with technical information and experts.

In September 2002, an Iranian dissident group revealed the existence of two previously undisclosed nuclear facilities in Iran, a discovery that led the IAEA to express concerns over Iran’s lack of transparency. The international community, and the U.S. in particular, became suspicious of Iranian nuclear ambitions, and feared that Tehran could establish a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The IAEA undertook intensive investigations, and found that Iran had pursued a secret nuclear program for several decades,[7] but no evidence related to a nuclear bomb was found. Following this discovery, Iran was requested to enter negotiations with the IAEA, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in order to regulate its nuclear program. The outcome of the negotiations was that Iran suspended its uranium enrichment process; however, it resumed it in August 2005.

In March 2006, the IAEA referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council, citing “serious concern” at the lack of clarity in its dealings with Iran. In the aftermath of the referral, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement stressing the importance of Iran re-establishing its suspension of its uranium enrichment process and requesting a report from the IAEA on Iranian compliance within thirty days. One month later, the IAEA Director General, Mohammed El Baradei, reported to the Security Council, noting that Iran had failed to show full transparency and active cooperation. While the Agency acknowledged that Iran had continued to respect the IAEA Safeguards Agreement, it also noted that Iran had decided to cease implementation of the IAEA Additional Protocol, and emphasised the need for confidence-building measures on the part of Iran.

As the United Nations Security Council members negotiated an appropriate response to the IAEA report, the EU took steps to resolve the dispute. On June 6, 2006, Javier Solana, then High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy,[8] presented Iranian leaders with a package of political and economic incentives aimed at convincing Iran to cease uranium enrichment, but established the cessation of all uranium enrichment processes as a pre-condition for the pursuit of formal negotiations. Iran refused to give a prompt reply, and was therefore referred back to the Security Council, which, on July 31, 2006, passed a resolution demanding suspension of “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.”[9] In addition, the Security Council requested a report on Iranian compliance from the Director General of the IAEA by August 31, 2006. The resolution carried an implied threat of sanctions or other “appropriate measures” under Article 41 of the United Nations Charter that didn’t involve the use of force. One month later, Iran had still not suspended its enrichment program, and in fact there remained “outstanding issues” with Iran’s dealings with the IAEA. In September 2006, talks between the EU and Iran resumed.[10]

Iran has always declared that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes and is in compliance with the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), although the IAEA Board of Governors concluded its non-compliance with the NPT’s Safeguards Agreement multiple times – i.e. 2003, 2005, and 2006. However, the Agency has never found evidence of any diversion of nuclear material for a non-peaceful use of its nuclear program, and most experts and the IAEA itself recognize that non-compliance with the Safeguards Agreement does not imply that Iran is in breach of the NPT. However, this is not the U.S. position. In fact, the U.S. has always described Iran’s nuclear activities as a direct breach of the NPT and as an attempt directed at fabricating nuclear weapons, as demonstrated by the September 2009 Congressional Research Service Report. In sustaining its position, the U.S. discounts the June 2007 conclusion of the Foreign Select Committee of the British Parliament: “Although Iran has been found in non-compliance with some aspects of its IAEA safeguards obligations, Iran has not been in breach of its obligations under the terms of the NPT.”[11]

The United States has always made extensive use of the United Nations Security Council to demand that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment activities. Since June 2006, the UN Security Council condemned Iran’s nuclear program by issuing ten resolutions in nine years. With the exception of the first one, all imposed heavy sanctions on Iran, such as an arms embargo, freezing assets, monitoring of Iranian banks, inspection of ships and aircraft, and the imposition of measures that prevented Iran from accessing the international economy through participation in organizations such as the World Trade Organization. In addition to targeting Iran with sanctions, in 2002, the Bush administration allegedly considered using nuclear weapons against underground Iranian nuclear facilities.[12]

In 2003, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom began nuclear negotiations with Iran, after a resolution between the IAEA and Iran fell through. The negotiations secured an agreement, but the election of hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 created a fracture, and the negotiations were officially halted once it became known that he was continuing the development of Iran’s nuclear program. The United States officially entered the nuclear negotiations in 2006, but remained on the periphery and avoided direct contact with the Islamic Republic.

In 2006, the New York Times published an article by Javad Zarif, then Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, in which he elucidated the steps made by Iran to meet the requests advanced by the international community by doing the following:

“[To] present the new atomic agency protocol on intrusive inspections to the Parliament for ratification, and to continue to put it in place pending ratification; permit the continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors at conversion and enrichment facilities; introduce legislation to permanently ban the development, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons; cooperate on export controls to prevent unauthorized access to nuclear material; refrain from reprocessing or producing plutonium; limit the enrichment of nuclear materials so that they are suitable for energy production but not for weaponry; immediately convert all enriched uranium to fuel rods, thereby precluding the possibility of further enrichment; limit the enrichment program to meet the contingency fuel requirements of Iran’s power reactors and future light-water reactors; begin putting in place the least contentious aspects of the enrichment program, like research and development, in order to assure the world of our intentions; accept foreign partners, both public and private, in our uranium enrichment program. Iran has recently suggested the establishment of regional consortiums on fuel-cycle development that would be jointly owned and operated by countries possessing the technology and placed under atomic agency safeguards. Other governments, most notably the Russian Federation, have offered thoughtful possibilities for a deal. Iran has declared its eagerness to find a negotiated solution – one that would protect its rights while ensuring that its nuclear program would remain exclusively peaceful. Pressure and threats do not resolve problems. Finding solutions requires political will and a readiness to engage in serious negotiations. Iran is ready. We hope the rest of the world will join us.”[13]

These offers did not divert the UN Security Council and Germany from uncompromisingly requesting that Iran suspend its enrichment program. This uncompromising attitude put forward by the U.S. and its European allies has exacerbated the tension. Iran has always asserted in response that there is no legal basis for it to be constantly referred to the UN Security Council since the IAEA has never proven that previously undeclared activities were conducted for the purpose of building nuclear weapons.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): a small step toward conflict transformation

The elections of President Barack Obama in the U.S. in 2008 and 2012, and President Hassan Rouhani in Iran in 2013 seemed to presage that relations could move forward, but both presidents were put under pressure by the distrust and hatred that people within their respective countries were still holding. In his first year as president, Obama embarked on a tour of the Middle East and North Africa, attempting to stimulate open dialogue. He was also the first American president to officially state his willingness to move forward to overcome the decades of mistrust that had built over the years between the two nations in his Cairo speech on June 4, 2009.[14] Moreover, while addressing the Iranian people, Obama recognized the achievements and historical prestige of the Persian Empire, and its contribution to civilization. He showed respect to the Islamic Republic, and emphasized his commitment to diplomacy. It was in this climate that, one year after Obama was elected President of the United States, his administration began full participation in the nuclear negotiations. At first the negotiations happened secretly and were mediated by Oman, but were interrupted because of very tense relationship that marked the relationship between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the United States. However, when, in 2013, Rouhani succeeded Ahmadinejad and became the new President of Iran, the negotiations that had been interrupted during Ahmadinejad’s presidency resumed, showing more transparency on the Iranian side. They evolved into what would lead to one of Obama’s major achievements of his presidency: the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in partnership with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Councils – namely, China, France, Russia, and the UK – Germany and Iran (P5+1 and Iran).

The most important element in the negotiations was that Obama recognized Iran’s right to uranium enrichment, and accepted two of Iran’s requests: namely, the release of multiple Iranian prisoners and an increased number of visas for Iranian students. Four prisoners were released and the number of Iranian students accepted to study in the U.S. doubled. As Chase McCain explains: “When Obama came to office there were few concrete measures that he could take to amend relations with Iran—there was no war, there was no occupation to end. Shifting rhetoric was one of the few and one of the most effective ways to improve relations with the Islamic Republic.”[15] Moreover, recognizing Iran’s right to develop a nuclear program was a diplomatic move that recognized Iran’s national sovereignty, which it had sought for many years, especially because the pursuit of peaceful nuclear power is a right of all Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories, including Iran.

Part of Rouhani’s candidacy was the promise to regain dignity for Iran and the Iranian people. The P5+1’s only uncompromising position in the negotiations was preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The P5, Germany and Iran reached an historic agreement, which required the neutralization of half of Iran’s twenty percent enriched uranium, and the cessation of enrichment above five percent. It prevented any further development of enrichment plants or the heavy-water reactor at Arak; denied the possibility that Iran could develop new enrichment locations, reprocessing or development of a reprocessing facility, new centrifuges; and imposed a reduction by two-thirds of its current centrifuges. The IAEA was selected as the official inspector of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the agreement determined that the IAEA could access Iran’s nuclear supply chain, and all uranium mines and mills. The negotiating parties agreed that these provisions would have moved Iran far from the breakout timeline – that is, the time that it would take for Iran to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon – from two or three months to one year.  In return for these concessions, Iran received sanctions relief – with the exception of trade embargo, and all sanctions related to human rights abuses, terrorism and ballistic missiles. The deal further clarified that the sanctions would be immediately put back in place in case of non-compliance with the JCPOA. With the relief of the sanctions, Iran could develop commercial relationships with China, India, and Russia, and become the eighteenth largest world economy. The 2015 pact effectively halted Iran’s nuclear advances and reopened a lucrative market for European trade.

Steps toward retrogression

As Sarah Witmer writes: “From an optimistic perspective, the JCPOA is a model for peaceful conflict resolution, a symbol of international and cross- cultural cooperation, and the hope-filled culmination of decades of complex, tumultuous history.”[16] However, immediately after the signing of the JCPOA, McCain wrote: “‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[17] While perhaps a hackneyed phrase, George Santayana’s famous quote is an important lesson in diplomacy. […] The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not destined for success no matter what: that is to say, it is vital that the United States government continues to promote positive relations with the Islamic Republic and hold up its end of the agreement. It is possible that, with the election of a Republican president, relations with the Islamic Republic would once again turn sour.”[18] This turned out to be an unfortunate prophecy.

Trump, in his run for presidency, introduced elements of heavy criticism to the deal achieved by Obama. The fact that the IAEA certified, in January 2017, when Trump became the 45th President of the United States, that Iran had met all the nuclear agreement’s preliminary requirements, including taking thousands of centrifuges offline, rendering the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor inoperable, and selling excess low-enriched uranium to Russia, and that, as a response to this major achievement, the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations repealed or suspended all the sanctions, was of no help for avoiding what followed next.

Immediately after his inauguration, Trump asked the European Union to fix what he considered flaws in the deal, namely the fact that it does not address Iran’s missile development, its regional role and the fact that some of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities expire over time. The deal itself would have expired in 2025. However, “Iran’s total enrichment capacity would have been unchanged until 2028. Other restrictions would have remained in place until 2035. The ban on developing any kind of nuclear weapons would have been indefinite, as would the close monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”[19] Trump’s aggressive rhetoric against the JCPOA represented also, indirectly, an antagonist message against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and would be a way to force North Korea into a permanent nuclear and missile disarmament deal. As history has proven so far, Trump’s attitude has not only exacerbated tensions with Iran to their maximum extent, but also convinced North Korea that the only reliable factor the country can rely upon is its own nuclear arsenal. In May 2018, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and reinstated the banking and oil sanctions previously lifted. He applied these sanctions not only to U.S. nationals, but also to foreign nationals. Trump’s decision rescinded a deal that, even though not perfect, had allowed eleven inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities rigorously conducted by the IAEA in three years.

In response to the U.S. unilateral decision, the EU countries, in order to keep the deal alive, launched a barter system, known as INSTEX, to facilitate transactions with Iran outside of the U.S. banking system for food and medicine. Other countries, including some U.S. allies, continued to import Iranian oil under waivers granted by the Trump administration. These waivers would be ended a year later in order to bring Iran’s oil export to zero and totally deprive the country of its principal source of revenue, affecting, in so doing, the lives of millions of Iranian people. On its side, Iran continued to abide by its commitments while also starting to sink back to sentiments of bitterness towards the U.S. that had been so pervasive before the 2015 deal. Moreover, Trump looked for support at the G20 Summit in Tokyo, Japan, in June 2019, for a new more aggressive deal with Iran. Facing this situation, the Islamic Republic formally declared the end of the diplomatic relationship with the United States.

The end of waivers was identified by Iran as a “psychological war”[20] toward the Islamic Republic. Dramatically, Iran decided to stop abiding to the commitments established in the JCPOA and, in July 2019, exceeded the agreed-upon limits to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and then began enriching uranium to a higher concentration. This quantity is still far from the ninety percent purity required for nuclear weapons, but it adds elements of instability, fear and distrust within the international community. It must also be highlighted that the global community has been left without any comprehensive restrictions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and no lever to mitigate Iran’s support for what the U.S. itself considers violent proxy groups in the Middle East. Once again, the United States and Iran seem to be on the brink of war, with an increased possibility that Iran could retaliate against Israel or the United States and vice versa. The 2015 deal repeal has also increased the possibility of an arms race in the Middle East and the fueling of sectarian conflicts in Syria and Yemen. President Trump’s policies toward Iran have been disastrous, indeed.


[1] Malici, Akan and Stephen G. Walker (2017) Role Theory And Role Conflict In U.S.-Iran Relations. Enemies Of Our Making, New York and London: Taylor & Francis, p. 25.

[2] Ibidem., p. 26.

[3] The Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, overthrew the last United States-backed monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and replaced his government with an Islamic Republic during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On February 11, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini changed the official name of Iran into “Islamic Republic of Iran.” “Iran” and “Islamic Republic of Iran” will be used interchangeably in the text.

[4] Witmer, Sarah (2017) The Ghost Of History: US-Iran Relations and The Undermining of the JCPOA, BA Dissertation, Department of Political Science
School of General Studies, Columbia University, p. 24.

[5] Shoamanesh, Sam S. (2009) “History Brief: Timeline of U.S.-Iran realtions until the Obama Administration,” MIT International Review. (Retievable at Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[6] Bodansky, David (2005) (2nd ed.), Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices And Prospects, New York: Springer, p. 481.

[7] Congressional Research Service Report – Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status, 2009, Congressional Research Service. (Retrievable at Accessed on September 12, 2009).

[8] On June 4, 1999 Javier Solana was appointed by the Cologne European Council as the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union, an administrative position. During his term, it was decided that the Secretary-General would also be appointed High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Javier Solana covered both roles for ten years during which he represented the EU abroad when there was an agreed common policy by EU member states. Prior to Solana, Jürgen Trumpf covered both roles from May 1, 1999 until October 18, 1999. After Solana, the two offices became separate, and, from then on, different representatives have covered each role.

[9] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1696, UN Doc S/RES/1696.

[10] Macpherson, Marisa (2006) “Iran, Uranium and the United Nations. The international legal implications of Iran’s nuclear program,” LL.B Dissertation, University of Otago.

[11] (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[12] Norris, Robert S. and Hans M. Kristensen, “U.S. Nuclear Threats: Then and Now,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 62, Issue 5, September 1, 2006.

[13] Zarif, Javad, “We in Iran don’t need this quarrel,” The New York Times, April 5, 2006. (Accessed on September 12, 2019

[14] “The President’s Cairo Speech: A New Beginning” retrievable at (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[15] McCain, Chase, (2015) “The History of US-Iran Relations and its Effect on the JCPOA Negotiations,” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection, 2241, p. 21.

[16] Witmer, Sarah (2017) “The Ghost Of History: US-Iran Relations and The Undermining of the JCPOA,” BA Dissertation, Department of Political Science
School of General Studies, Columbia University, p. 12.

[17] Santayana, George (1954) The Life of Reason. New York: Scribner.

[18] McCain, Chase, “The History of US-Iran Relations and its Effect on the JCPOA Negotiations” (2015). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 2241, p. 29.

[19] Borger, Jiulian, “Trump approach to Iran and North Korea is a gamble for glory,” The Guardian, May 1, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019

[20] Holpuch, Amanda, “Donald Trump says US will no longer abide by Iran deal – as it happened,” The Guardian, May 8, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019