Wednesday 02 November 2016

America-Iran relations in a Clinton administration

Some analysts argue that Hillary Clinton is on the same page as Barack Obama when it comes to Iran and Middle East policy. Indeed, Mrs Clinton will honour the nuclear agreement. But this is not the whole story.

So, how is Mrs Clinton different from Mr Obama? And doesn’t honouring the nuclear agreement mean that Iran and the United States will continue with their diplomatic rapprochement? Not necessarily.

When it comes to US policy towards Iran and other Middle Eastern nations, I would argue that three forces of influence should be analysed.

First, there is the US stance on the Iran nuclear agreement. Second, there is the US position towards its regional allies and finally, there is the US position towards Iran’s regional allies and proxies.

Mr Obama significantly shifted Washington’s Middle East policy by pivoting towards Iran and disregarded the concerns of Washington’s long-standing regional allies.

The Obama administration did not completely position itself on the opposite spectrum of Iran when it came to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria. This caused relationships between Iran and the US to improve to the extent to which many diplomatic taboos were broken and high-level officials began speaking to each other on a regular basis. Tensions between the US and Israel increased.

Although Mrs Clinton desires to adhere to the nuclear agreement, the underlying reason behind tensions with Tehran is their opposition on several key regional issues.

What had made Mr Obama and Hassan Rouhani’s increasing diplomatic ties possible in the first place was the relative convergence of policies on the three points: one, Mr Obama’s lenient position on the nuclear agreement, which led to the lifting of four rounds of sanctions against Iran. Two, his increasing tensions with Iran’s regional rivals. Three, his soft stance on Iran’s proxies. Mrs Clinton was never in favour of a nuclear agreement until she became secretary of state. And it was not until she left office that the US and Iran reached a deal. But it is not in Mrs Clinton’s interest to change her stance now.

She also favours American traditional foreign policy towards its old Middle Eastern allies. Mrs Clinton’s relationships with Israel will be more likely to improve, but she will also reassert US support for Gulf states.

Mrs Clinton will undoubtedly take a tougher stance on Iran’s proxies. At a Dartmouth College campaign event last year, she stated: "Iran is the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. They use proxies to sow discord and create insurgencies to destabilise governments".

Regarding Syria, Mrs Clinton has favoured a more hawkish stance as well. In the second debate, she reaffirmed her position of establishing a no-fly zone to begin resolving the Syrian civil war. However, Syria is considered a matter of national security for Iran. Any increased American involvement will ratchet up tensions between Iran’s hardliners and the US.

Iranian leaders are aware of these differences. That is why Mr Rouhani has already called the US election a choice between "bad" and "worse".

Dr Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist, Harvard University scholar and president of the International American Council.


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