IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

It is too early to assess the long-term consequences of the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. But for Poland and several other actors, the meeting can already been seen as a success.

Poland, after hosting a NATO summit in 2016 and a UN Climate conference in 2018, has once again shown that it is able to organize large international events.

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The Trump administration has sought to break out of its international isolation on Iran by pressuring nations to go to Warsaw for a summit on peace and security in the Middle East. But the administration has failed to craft an effective multilateral approach towards Iran based on common concerns and a realistic understanding of what is achievable.

Despite White House backtracking from an initial expressed aim to focus on Iran, US officials and regional leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the occasion to unleash rhetorical barbs against Iran—which was not invited. 

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Iran forty years after its Islamic revolution is facing a grave economic crisis and growing popular discontent. It continues to commit acts that deepen its isolation even as it benefits from the mistakes of its adversaries. US sanctions are more punishing than anticipated but will probably not cause Iran to alter policies of greatest concern to Washington, such as regional interventions and ballistic missile development, and are instead strengthening hardline elements as Iran approaches a key political transition. Meanwhile, society has already undergone a cultural counter-revolution that aging ayatollahs cannot reverse.

These were among the insights gleaned from a day-long conference at the Atlantic Council on February 12. Organized in conjunction with the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, it brought together veteran scholars and up and coming experts with recent field experience in Iran. Many of the speakers also wrote blog posts, which were collected on our IranSource site.

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The Trump administration’s policy of containing and weakening the Islamic Republic of Iran may appear to be going well to causal observers of Iranian affairs, and there is some evidence to support such a view.

The United States has withdrawn from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that solely addressed the regime’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons but failed to address its menacing actions towards neighboring countries, continued support of international terrorism, and ongoing efforts to develop ballistic missile technology. The JCPOA also completely failed to address the horrible human rights situation inside Iran itself.

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In his January 10 speech in Cairo, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described America as a “force for good in the Middle East.”

“We need to acknowledge that truth, because if we don't, we make bad choices [that will] have consequences for nations, for millions of people,” he said. “In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid in asserting ourselves when the times—and our partners—demanded it.”

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The Trump administration accurately identified the Iranian threat and has, on some significant issues, acted accordingly—including the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the application of increasingly tough sanctions on Iran, as well as organizing the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw on February 13-14. A reported seventy-nine states will participate in the conference, including the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Jordan, as well as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Iran was not invited to the conference. 

The Poland summit officially centers around three major issues: The challenge of missiles, terror funding, and cyber threats. The common denominator of all three categories is the Iranian threat, which is for all intents and purposes at the center of the conference—though the Trump administration has backtracked its comments about Iran being the center of the debate.

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Iranian-Israeli hostility is actually quite odd. Tehran is well over a thousand miles from Jerusalem. The two countries do not border each other. They have no major bilateral claims toward one another. Whereas large Arab neighbors of Iran, like Iraq or Saudi Arabia, might be considered its natural competitors, Israel cannot. Even fans of the “ancient hatreds” school of Middle East conflict would come up short.

What historical memory there is of Persian-Judaic interactions is largely positive in Jewish eyes: Streets in Israel are named for Cyrus the Great, who allowed the Jews to return to Judea from their Babilonian exile in 538 BCE. Conversely, Judea never rose to compete with Persia for regional prominence, as did Greek or later Arab forces.

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Forty years have passed since disparate groups of revolutionaries—many of them united only in their opposition to the Imperial State of Iran’s alignment with the United States—toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. 

Since then, hundreds of American scholars and practitioners have attempted to understand the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and how to best respond to the challenges it poses. Some have long advocated for engaging the Iranian regime, while others have pushed for a tougher stance against it. US President Donald Trump has argued that a maximum pressure campaign would force the mullahs to negotiate and strike a deal on the entirety of their foreign policy, including their missile and nuclear programs and interventions in a number of theaters throughout the Middle East and South Asia. But the Islamic Republic isn’t likely to change the course of its foreign policy.

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The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah trilateral partnership has been decades in the making. It pre-dates the Syrian civil war, has strengthened as a result of the war and will likely endure in the post-war years.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, shared enmity of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Israel and the United States brought Damascus and Tehran together. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Tehran and Damascus joined forces to found Hezbollah, mainly to enhance their respective deterrence capabilities against Israel and the United States. The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war and Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war since 2012 turned the Lebanese proxy into a strategic partner and earned the Party of God a seat at the grownups’ table. 

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With the advent of another presidential election cycle in the United States, many US and foreign politicians and policy advocates have already begun thinking about recommendations for the next occupant of the White House.

In both domestic and foreign affairs, it will not be sufficient to simply revisit decisions made by President Donald Trump but to come up with a proactive agenda for a new president—or a second Trump administration.

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