Does the US Really Want Iran to Moderate Its Policies?

by Shireen T. Hunter

Only three months after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the success of the nuclear deal with Iran already appears in doubt. The underlying reason is that those in the United States and Iran who opposed the agreement in the first place remain determined to sabotage it.

For example, no sooner had the agreement been reached than there was the incident of American naval personnel drifting into Iran’s territorial waters. Instead of being warned off, they were arrested. Although Iran swiftly returned the sailors, the incident did not help create an atmosphere of confidence in U.S.-Iranian relations.

Then there were Iran’s ballistic missile tests. Clearly, Iran’s missiles were not part of the JCPOA and Iran has a right to have a deterrent force, especially given that its neighbors are way ahead in their military buildup. However, Iran did not have to conduct these tests so soon after the nuclear agreement. They gave a new lease on life to American opponents of any improvement in ties with Iran. Iran’s hardliners, who have become experts in irritating and enflaming American opponents of the JCPOA, seemed to be in league with the hardline counterparts in the United States.

Denial of the Dollar

So far, however, the biggest damage to the JCPOA has resulted from US unwillingness to lift restrictions on Iran’s use of the dollar in its international interactions. This means that Iran has not been able to gain access to close to $100 billion owed to it by various countries such as India. Further, European banks and businesses have become wary of resuming ties with Iran given that the United States in the past has imposed fines of as much as several billion dollars. The United States has argued that JCPOA does not impose on it an obligation to ensure that Iran can rejoin the global economy. The White House spokesman has said that permission for Iran to use the so-called U-turn, which allows the use of the dollar through other non-American banks, is not part of the JCPOA.

But that’s not so. The United Nations imposed banking restrictions on Iran in 2008. Later, the Obama administration unilaterally imposed further and tighter banking sanctions on Iran as part of what then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called crippling sanctions. Since a major Iranian goal in concluding the JCPOA was to restore banking connections, it is hard to imagine that such a deal is not part of the agreement. Even if this particular aspect is not technically part of the deal, Iranians are learning that the United States is interpreting language in the JCPOA any way it wants. At the very least, the US is not acting according to the spirit of the deal. Since Iran needs sanction relief to restore its economy, such an interpretation, if sustained, could mean the JCPOA’s death.

If the United States reneges on its promises, its reputation would certainly suffer. Of course, a country as powerful as America can be less concerned with such intangibles as having a reputation for being untrustworthy. But for those Iranian politicians who negotiated the deal, American lack of trustworthiness might spell the end of their careers or even something worse. Already, hardline forces have increased their criticism of President Hassan Rouhani’s government, and there is good chance he will not be re-elected next year. With him would go any hopes for improved US-Iranian relations. Some Iranian hardliners have also called for the government to declare the JCPOA null and void.

Similarly, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who went far out on a limb to negotiate the JCPOA, is facing pressures. Those who follow Iran only sporadically through the prism of a few specific matters, such as support for terrorism and Hezbullah, may not recall that, even after helping America depose the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, President George W. called Iran part of an “axis of evil.” Iranian conservatives attacked President Mohammad Khatami for having conducted a “concessionary” foreign policy, and the upshot was the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2004. Ahmadinejad then sent Javad Zarif, who was involved in the US-Iranian dealings over Afghanistan, into early retirement from government work. If the JCPOA fails to live up to its promise, the fate of those involved in it could be worse.

America’s Goals

Given its actions after the signing of the JCPOA, it’s not entirely clear whether the United States really wants Iran to moderate its policies and work constructively for broader regional peace and stability. If this were America’s goal, it is hard to understand why for almost 30 years it has undercut Iran’s moderates, from Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Khatami and now possibly Rouhani. Washington imposed its first sanctions, beyond those connected to the 1979 hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq War, in 1996 just after Iran had expressed willingness to reengage American oil companies by offering a deal to Conoco. Later in 2003, when Iran offered to talk with the US about all outstanding differences, it was not even accorded the courtesy of a response.

This record suggests that the United States wants to keep Iranian politics unstable until regime change or possibly even the country’s dismemberment takes place. Meanwhile, having an Iran to kick around has some advantages for America and, indeed, for some European countries such as France and Britain as well. For instance, all of these countries are important arms purveyors to Arab states around the Persian Gulf. If the so-called Iranian threat were to disappear or be significantly diminished, these Arab states’ need for close ties to the West would likewise diminish. Keeping Iran as a threat also provides an excuse to prevent its economic development, a strategy recommended by former senior US officials such as Dennis Ross. This policy would amount to a modern version of the “strangling of Persia.” This is how the American advisor to the Iranian government in 1911, Morgan Shuster, characterized the geopolitical squeeze by Britain and Russia that actively prevented reform and development in Iran, even down to the building of railroads.

Paradoxically, however, the United States continues to ask Iran to help resolve conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. But why should Iran do so if America will not uphold its end of the JCPOA bargain, or any bargain for that matter? After Iran helped the United States in Afghanistan, it was virtually excluded from involvement in all Afghan issues directly affecting Iran’s security. Meanwhile, Pakistan, which created and nurtured the Taliban, is calling the shots there. Moreover, the US believes that “help” means that Iran should accept the positions of America and its allies in toto. In other words, by “cooperation” America really means “capitulation.” But Iran cannot be sure that even capitulation will satisfy the United States and its regional allies. Ironically, by weakening Iranian moderates, the US government has been making it more difficult for Iran to make the changes that America desires. Had the US responded positively to both the Rafsanjani and Khatami governments, many of the changes that it wants Iran to make, including on human rights, might have already materialized.

At every turn America’s response to Iran’s cooperative gestures has given more credence to the claims by hardliners there that the US is not willing to compromise with the Islamic government. Delay in full implementation of the JCPOA provides the latest grist to the hardliners’ mill.

The United States has the economic and military power to wait out Iran or to prevail in any confrontation with it. However, such an attitude would not be without cost for America. In the late 1980s, the United States ignored Iran’s overtures only to have to ask for its help when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991. Washington has also asked for Iran’s help, if not openly and directly, in confronting the Islamic State. But if the US continues to repay Iran’s good will with ill will, as it did over the “axis of evil” appellation or by reneging on its JCPOA promises, it should not be surprised if Iran does not respond to calls to help in solving regional problems or in making other concessions.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. I suspect that the U.S. wants to create as much instability in the Iranian regime as possible, and even encourage the hardliners to be able to point again to Iran as a threat. It is, after all, an Israeli policy, and weakening Iran to protect Israel’s nuclear monopoly was the underlying strategy behind the policy to topple the Assad regime, at least as articulated in one of Hillary’s Clinton’s infamous emails released on November 15, 2016. And even during Administration’s lengthy negotiations with Iran leading up to the JPOA, it never ceased in its efforts to damage the regime, whether through targeted assassinations of its scientists, demonization of the regime in the press, removal of the terrorist organization MEK from the State Department terrorist list, introduction of computer viruses to disable Iran’s commercial nuclear program and industry generally, etc.

    Regrettably, I cannot imagine that my country has much if any residual credibility or trustworthiness except as based on its ability to wage hybrid war with devastating consequences to others, but no immediately perceived consequences to itself. However there will be a point when the critical mass will have shifted so far, that America will find itself in trouble and without willing ‘allies’ to help it, or the ability to coerce unwilling ‘allies’ support its misadventures.

    However, expect that Iran will join the SCO within a year, and will conduct its trade in rubles, yuan, rials and rupees- e.g., in its sale of oil to the RICs, and that the Europeans, whose banks are again being threatened, will start to chafe enough to speak of open revolt against U.S. pressure- and when people no longer self-censor but air problems freely and demand change, it is often the beginning of the end for those causing the problems.

  2. Another astute and important article about Iran-US relations! To those of us who follow Iranian developments closely, the lack of consistency and goodwill by some U.S. politicians towards Iran is having a very negative impact on the Iranian domestic scene and may spell the end of the JCPOA. Of course, this is what many pro-Israeli hawks in Congress and in America at large are anxious to bring about. Their hostility towards Iran is not based on any logical premises or on what helps America politically and economically. It is based on an irrational obsession that whatever is bad for Iran is necessarily good for Israel. The same people pushed for the war on Iraq and we have seen the consequences of that disastrous policy.

    America is a global power and has global responsibilities. It still has many interests in the Middle East, and as a great power it should not be in favor of chaos, bloodshed and the disintegration of the states in the Middle East. The advocates of hostility and ultimately war against Iran should realize that Iran is a much more powerful country than either Iraq or Afghanistan and a major conflict with Iran not only will create mayhem in the region but will also have terrible consequences for America and ultimately for Israel.

    The JCOPA agreement has provided a unique opportunity for the United States and Iran to get closer together after 37 years of estrangement and resolve some of the intractable problems in the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. The attempts to undermine this important agreement are wrong and counterproductive and will create a situation in the Middle East that cannot be imagined. The tragedy is that the majority of Iranians are pro-American and would like to have friendly relations with the United States and with the West. Iran needs more democracy, greater respect for human rights and more openness to the West, but these cannot be achieved with the continuation of mutual hostility.

    Iran-US differences could have been resolved in 2003 and even earlier had it not been for the efforts of some neocons to sabotage those efforts. If they succeed to derail the relations this time they will be guilty of the betrayal of America’s best interests.

  3. Mrs Shireen Hunter, thank you for another excellent column!
    One has to imagine what would be like for the US and Israeli governments having NO true or false enemies! Should that be the case, how would or could these 2 governments put the fear of God in to their own subjects’ hearts in order to justify their ever increasing DOD budget and expenditure dedicated to the military industrial complex (MIC)?
    Your question is a valid one and I’m 100% certain that the US & Israel governments are NOT interested in shaking hands or accepting the current regime, regardless of being moderate or not, in Iran simply because the regime in Iran has not been submissive to the never ending and unreasonable demands! Hopefully I’m proven wrong!

  4. I believe that the USA has no choice than to get closer to Iran if it wants to eradicate the ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Sunni islamist extremists.
    The question is: Does the USA want to eradicate or simply contain terrorism? The intrusion of Sunni terrorism in Paris and Brussels has certainly convinced the EU that the only ally that they have in the Middle East who is determined and has the ability to defeat Sunni terrorism is Iran. It is clear that the Sunni Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have their hands tied as they can’t kill other Sunnis ‘brothers’ without getting popular protests endangering their legitimacy.
    If this is true for Europe after Paris and Brussels, the USA refuses to look at Iran as a partner against terrorism as long as it is perceived as threatening Israel’s existence. Paralyzed by that paradigm and unable to confront militarily terrorism, the USA is allowing Al Qaeda and other extremists to grow uncontrolled and nurtured by the Sunni Arab ‘brotherly’ countries.
    Until when?

  5. Ms. Hunter: Ridiculous to put the blame on Iran ‘hardliners’ when in fact Iran has upheld its end of the bargain. Please take a reality check instead of parroting the so-called “liberal” American mindset.

Comments are closed.