The 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States recognizes the potential use of nuclear weapons and materials that pose a grave threat to national security by irresponsible states or terrorists. In the last decade and a half, two persistent nuclear proliferators have challenged existing international nonproliferation norms creating a potentially devastating security threat to the United States and many of its allies. This article will only focus on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear threat. First, I will briefly review the attempts made by the United States and its allies to decrease the risk of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran. Then, I will examine the dynamics that improved the likelihood of the Obama administration concluding a successful deal with Iran and the consequences it will have on US-Iran relations.
The Path to the Nuclear Deal with Iran
During his initial presidential campaign in 2007-08, Barack Obama repeatedly declared his intention to improve US-Iran relations, and he followed through after taking office. However, President Obama took a different approach than his predecessors. Previous US-Iran engagements maintained the US-stated intention of changing the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran, seeking global improvement on a host of issues, and kept the threat of military force ever-present. After the experiences in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, Obama moved policies away from forcing unsavory regimes through military power to fall in line with Washington’s policies or interest. As such, Obama sought to assure not only the Iranian people but also its leadership that Washington’s intention was not to alter the nature of the Islamic Republic, but to engage the leadership in Tehran through dialogue and multilateralism. He narrowed the topic to encouraging a behavioral change on the specific issue of nuclear fuel enrichment. The US president’s policy approach to Iran’s nuclear question is the best-applied example of what is now known as the Obama Doctrine.
No matter who was at the helm in Washington and despite Obama’s demarches of goodwill, Iran’s political climate was not receptive to any serious dialogue with the United States throughout the beginning of the Obama administration. At the time, the Iranian regime faced one of the toughest challenges to its legitimacy and its most serious existential threat; Perhaps, as existential as the early days of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. While attempts for dialogue were made, the highly irregular 2009 presidential elections in Iran, the ensuing mass protests, and the reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad slowed down and later reversed some of the initial constructive steps taken to resolve concerns on Iran’s nuclear program. The exceedingly confrontational international approach adopted by Tehran during the second term of Ahmadinejad, along with increasing human rights abuses inside Iran, allowed the United States to gather a hitherto unseen multilateral coalition to bring political and economic pressure on Iran. As a result, all major powers in the United Nations Security Council agreed to impose the toughest, most intrusive economic and political sanctions on Iran while it struggled with harsh economic conditions and social unrest. This resulted in increased popular disenchantment with the regime. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad’s relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei entered into an openly confrontational stage, endangering the very core of the Islamic Republic system established in 1979.