Ted Martin has a keen interest in Iranian affairs and has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of  any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Iran, sanctions, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) / United Nations (UN) Resolution 2231(2015)[1].

Date Originally Written:  March 27, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  May 8, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Military.  He has also studied Iran and Hezbollah since 2000.  This article is written as advice to a U.S. decision maker.

Background:  Despite the negotiation of the JCPOA, Iran is still a U.S. foreign policy concern.  Iran occupies a strategic position, able to block the export of oil through the Persian Gulf at the narrow Strait of Hormuz, and able to strike the Arab countries that produce that oil.  Iran has long had aspirations of regional hegemony and employed destabilizing proxy forces to further its ends in the region.  Iran’s continued belligerent behavior and the recent U.S. election of President Donald Trump beg a re-assessment of U.S. options.

Significance:  The JCPOA was negotiated by the previous administration under President Barack Obama and has been subject to harsh criticism by the new administration under President Trump.  Iran has recently engaged in provocative behavior by conducting new ballistic missile tests[2].  Although these new ballistic missile tests do not violate the JCPOA, these actions suggest Iran may test the limits of the JCPOA and the Trump administration[2].  As a counter-point to any hard-line the Trump administration may take against Iran, many European companies are already renewing business and banking contacts with the regime[3].  There is little interest in canceling the JCPOA in Europe, and without European support, it would be nearly impossible to re-impose effective sanctions[8].

Option #1:  The U.S. treats Iran as a pariah and continues to work to isolate Iran from the international system.  This assumes that isolation, as a punishment that negatively impacts the Iranian people, will serve to pull Iran back into the fold of acceptable behavior.

Risk:  Iran developed ties with other states on the margins such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China that helped to sustain it during 30 years of sanctions[4][5].  Iran has become proficient at working behind the scenes and using proxies and can mitigate some of the impacts of sanctions and continue its attempts to influence its neighbors[6].  It is unlikely that Europe will willingly join in another round of sanctions if the U.S. decides to renew them[8].  The U.S.’s likely only remaining option would be military action with few international partners.

Gain:  With Option #1, the U.S. will continue to keep local allies in the region who despise Iran such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states happy[7].  The enduring threat of sanctions and the forced isolation of Iran by the U.S. will maintain the balance of power in the region cultivated over the last twenty years and is an important consideration.  A shunned Iran may make U.S. allies in the region stronger.

Option #2:  The U.S. allows Iran to continue to integrate into the international system.  This assumes that the closer Iran comes to the rest of the world, the less likely it will be to lash out and the more vulnerable it will be to economic or diplomatic pressure.

Risk:  Iran gains legitimacy by being allowed to rejoin the economic and political systems of the world.  Iran would also gain the ability to access items needed for its nuclear program on the international market.  Iran has blustered about closing the Gulf to oil transit before.  However, Iran has never done so, even during its war with Iraq, as such a move would hurt its own oil exports[7].  Closing the Persian Gulf at the straits of Hormuz is still a risk, even if mitigated by Iran’s increased dependence on the world.  Saudi Arabia would oppose Option #2 in the strongest possible terms, and it may seriously damage U.S. formal relations with them[9].

Gain:  Iran in the international community would find itself the beneficiary of access to the international banking system to enable oil exports and other civil export and import rules that would benefit its civil and military population.  As a member of the international community, Iran may find it harder to justify proxies such as Hezbollah.  The U.S. has long hoped to influence Iran to become more moderate and this may further that goal.

Other Comments:  The proxy war between Iran and the allies of Saudi Arabia has involved the U.S and is currently raging in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen[6][9].  Both the U.S. and Iran are likely to continue to fight using proxies in other countries, and the potential to involve the U.S. in more regional conflicts is high.  Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a central part of this problem and finding a solution is important.  Iran may also consider keeping the region chaotic to distract the U.S. and Europe to benefit its purposes.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  United Nations. (2015) Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/sc/2231/

[2]  Kenyon, P. (2017 February 3). Did Iran’s ballistic missile test violate a U.N. resolution? National Public Radio. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/03/ 513229839/did-irans-ballistic-missile-test-violate-a-u-n-resolution

[3]  Arnold, M. (2016 April 3). Europe’s banks begin tentative return to Iran. Financial Times. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/75dc8d7e-f830-11e5-803c-d27c7117d132

[4]  Katz, M.N. (2010). Iran primer: Iran and Russia. Public Broadcasting System. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/10/iran-primer-iran-and-russia.html

[5]  Takeyh, R., & Maloney, S. (2011). The self-limiting success of Iran sanctions. International affairs 87 (6) pp. 1297-1312. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2011.01037.x

[6]  Fisher, M. (2016, November 19). How the Iranian-Saudi proxy struggle tore apart the Middle East. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/world/middleeast/iran-saudi-proxy-war.html

[7]  Glaser, C.L. & Kelanic, R.A. (2017 January/February). Getting out of the gulf. Foreign Affairs 96(1).

[8]  Alkhalisi, Z. (2016, November 10). Trump could hit Iran with sanctions — but Europe would scream. CNN Money. Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2016/11/10/news/economy/trump-iran-sanctions/

[9]  Morris, L. & Naylor, H. (2015 July 14). Arab states fear nuclear deal with give Iran a bigger regional role. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/arab-states-fear-dangerous-iranian-nuclear-deal-will-shake-up-region/2015/07/14/96d68ff3-7fce-4bf5-9170-6bcc9dfe46aa_story.html