Paper: Constructive relations between US and Iran unlikely under President Trump

All signs point to rocky times ahead for U.S.-Iranian relations, according to a new issue brief by experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Citing constructive relations between the U.S. and Iran as “a faint prospect under the Obama administration,” the authors said the prospect is “even unlikelier under (President Donald) Trump.”

Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

“Trump Policy in the Middle East: Iran” was co-authored by Joe Barnes, a foreign-policy expert and the Baker Institute’s Bonner Means Baker Fellow, and Robert Barron, the former policy assistant to the institute director. The brief explores the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran and analyzes the ways in which it differs from that of the Obama administration. It lists core U.S. interests as they relate to Iran and to limiting Iran’s influence in the region and analyzes the difficulties associated with formulating policies that advance these goals at an acceptable cost.

“The Trump administration will find rolling back Iranian influence a heavy lift and, at times, a dangerous one,” the authors wrote. “The EU and others in the international community (notably Russia and China) will be wary of efforts to further isolate Iran. For their part, Israel and Saudi Arabia surely welcome the Trump administration’s stance. But a perceived carte blanche from Washington might prompt leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel to act in ways that do not conform to U.S. interests; the utterly avoidable (Qatar) crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council is a case in point.”

This brief is the third of a three-part series on America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The first brief analyzed the Trump administration’s approach to the battle against the Islamic State and found that the group and other jihadist movements remain very much alive and pose a major challenge. The second brief explored how the United States — first under President Barack Obama and now under Trump — has struggled to develop a coherent strategy that balances U.S. interests in the Syrian conflict with the military, financial and diplomatic resources necessary to pursue them.

Expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East has worried policymakers in the region and in Washington, the authors said.

“Ironically enough, Iran’s power received a huge boost with the U.S. overthrow of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003,” the authors wrote. “His Sunni-dominated regime — though much weakened after its defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 — had remained a counterweight to Iran. With that regime’s demise, Iran saw a major strategic adversary disappear. Since the U.S. invasion, Iraq’s now Shia-dominated government, though by no means an Iranian client, has come to enjoy a generally amicable relationship with Tehran over time.”

Since 2011, revolutions across the region have created strategic challenges and opportunities for Iran, the authors said. In Syria, a longtime ally, Iran intervened militarily to help save the regime of President Bashar Assad. In Yemen, Iran has provided support to the Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. In Iraq, Iranian military influence has also increased, due to the threat of the Islamic State; the Iraqi government has heavily depended upon the often-Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces to fight the group, the authors said.

“Rolling back Iranian influence will be difficult,” the authors wrote. “We may see additional sanctions on non-nuclear aspects of Iranian behavior, though these would be unlikely to substantially alter Tehran’s regional calculus; a unilateral U.S. decision to exit the agreement in toto might cause a crisis with our European allies,” the authors wrote. “The United States can work at the margins to encourage the Iraqi government toward a more inclusive decision-making process that could accommodate Sunni grievances. And we can seek ways, again at the margins, to lessen the dependence of Iraq on Iran, perhaps through more generous provision of reconstruction assistance. But these are most unlikely to end Iranian influence in Baghdad.”

In their conclusion, the authors wrote, “Mistrust between Washington and Tehran has shaped U.S.-Iranian relations for decades. That mistrust is surely at a higher level under Trump than under Obama. This raises the risk of miscalculation on both sides and the chances of escalation when and where an incident occurs, whether in Syria, the Strait of Hormuz or between Israel and Hezbollah. It will require goodwill and deft diplomacy to avoid such conflict; both are in notoriously short supply in the Middle East.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.