Tweaking contextually and semantically what Ronald Reagan said about Russia during the Cold War – “Trust, but verify” – Hillary Clinton proclaimed her strategy apropos the nuclear deal with Iran in September 2015 at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC as “Distrust and verify.” Since then, the Iran nuclear deal that was signed on 14 July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 has created a lot of controversy. The timing of the secretly organised airlift of US$400 million worth of cash to Iran that coincided with the release of four US citizens detained in Iran has put the Obama administration and his party in a bind, besides drawing sharp, theatrical criticism from the Republicans. The Iran deal continues to bedevil conjectures about US’ Iran policy under the next president and remains one of the primary bones of contention in the US presidential run-off.
Hillary Clinton evinced a strong posture towards Iran through her choice of words and promised potential action, referring to Iran as a “ruthless, brutal regime.” As part of her agenda to play the rhetorical hardball with Iran, she has premised her Iran strategy on three likely future scenarios: first, Iran violates the tenets of the deal; second, Iran prolongs its adherence to the deal until there is a regional or global distraction for the US, to eventually enrich; and third, Iran seeks to flex its muscles in the region. All the three possibilities appear to be coming from the reductionist assumption that Iran will try to violate the deal.
However, quite in contradiction, Iran has recently alleged non-compliance by the US vis-à-vis the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In July earlier this year, six months after the Iran nuclear deal began taking effect, Iran raised the non-compliance issue in sanctions relief from the US in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The complaint essentially underscored that Iran was yet to fully benefit from the lifting of multilateral and national sanctions, especially in relation to the US’ Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) that lists new eligibility requirements for Iranians travelling to the US. This situation not only upends Ms Clinton’s presumptions on Iran’s behaviour but also creates scope for possible Iranian non-compliance, especially through the recalcitrance that has quintessentially characterised Iranian strategy towards the US post the 1970s strategy. In fact, signs of Iran’s retaliatory posture have already started emerging with Iran launching war drills amidst accusations that the US is violating the nuclear deal.
Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate, representing the party that was instrumental in getting the Iran deal through, which gives her high political mileage to chest-thump on stopping Iran from going nuclear, for now. The moral high ground for the Democrats for having struck the deal and the subsequent euphoria might not be so well deserved after all. For one, the US is already delaying some of the sanctions relief to Iran and second, the lifting of more important sanctions like those on conventional arms and missiles have been delayed by as much by eight years. Essentially, the lifting of some sanctions could well see the Clinton administration through, if she assumes office. This gives Hillary Clinton a timeline-cushion for rhetorical play against Iran without much accountability. Moreover, the deal only limits Iran’s capability to research, develop and enrich uranium for fifteen years.
The Obama administration has been widely perceived to be behind the recent waning of US-Israel ties. An initial bilateral dip that saw no visit by President Obama in his first term to Israel, further plummeted with the Iran deal. Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman compared the Iran nuclear deal to the Munich Agreement of 1938 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would rather sign with the next president a package offered by the Obama Administration.
With ebbed bilateral ties, the onus for restoring warmth in US-Israel ties will be high on Hillary Clinton if she assumes the presidency. Hillary has promised to continue defence sales to Israel, signalling that she is ready to embrace Israel back. She has also announced that she would invite the Israeli Prime Minster to the White House in her very first month as president. However, her road to such efforts are land-mined with the Iran deal. Furthermore, an eventual bump in the US-Israel relationship could surface if and when Israel demands the coveted Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) from the US. Designed to penetrate through 200 feet of earth and 60 feet of concrete before detonating, the MOP is one of the largest non-nuclear weapons in the world today, making it an ideal weapon again Iran’s underground and highly secure nuclear sites like Fordow.
Iran has been at the heart of the US’ Middle East policy since the Cold War, and the Shia majority country has come a long way from being an ally to becoming an avowed enemy of the US. Most US presidents since Nixon have tethered their Asia policy around the Persian Gulf area with Iran as the pivot. The Carter Doctrine stands out in marking the US’ fixation with the Persian Gulf area in history. This obsession with Iran is likely to continue in the event of a likely Hillary Clinton win, albeit in a different manner.
Assistant Professor in International Relations For Asia, Netaji Institute For Asian Studies, Kolkata