A New Start in U.S. – Iran Relations?

1 year ago Alger Mag Editor 0


The following article was written after Dr. Mathews and Mr. Nephew visited Columbus, Ohio to speak at the Columbus Council on World Affairs and The Ohio State University. 

Columbus, Ohio – In 2009, former U.S. diplomat Lloyd Rollins from Columbus expressed concern to the The Columbus Dispatch that “the U.S. and Iran are still without diplomatic relations and still quarreling over nuclear sites, weapons programs and human rights.” He expressed sadness over the intractability of U.S.-Iranian disputes. But Rollins was no ordinary retired diplomat; he was also a former hostage in Iran, one of 66 held captive in Iran during the now infamous hostage crisis of 1979-1980.

Since then, Americans have had good reason to distrust Iran and see it as an enemy. Iranians also have had bad experiences with the U.S. government, such as the 1953 coup mounted by U.S. and British intelligence that toppled the popular government of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in order to replace him with the Shah.

Despite these ugly chapters, might the United States and Iran now have an opportunity to change their relationship – an opportunity growing out of the implementation of the multilateral nuclear agreement negotiated by the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China with Iran?

This deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, entered fully into effect on January 16, 2016. At its core, the deal is tactical, with Iran relinquishing – for a time – its ability to pursue a destabilizing nuclear program, and the United States and other nations relinquishing – for a time – their ability to pursue regime-rattling economic sanctions. The deal’s structure reflects the fundamental distrust between the sides, with the IAEA monitoring Iran’s compliance through the most intrusive inspection requirements ever negotiated, and Iran retaining the option to withdraw from the deal if sanctions relief is not fulfilled.

The deal is limited in scope. Only Iran’s nuclear program – not the full range of destabilizing Iranian activities – is covered in the arrangement.  And while other nations party to the agreement have lifted sanctions, only a modest portion of the U.S. sanctions regime has been relieved.  The comprehensive U.S. domestic embargo against trading with Iran remains as do parts of U.S. sanctions that allow our government to punish foreign banks and companies that facilitate illicit Iranian conduct.

Thus far, the deal is working, with international inspectors confirming Iran has faithfully implemented its part and business now starting to go back into the country.

The deal prevents the emergence of another nuclear-armed state in a volatile region and eliminates a possible cause for war between the United States and Iran. Despite its limited scope, the JCPOA also opens the possibility of workmanlike relations on a range of issues of great importance to the United States, from the future of Afghanistan to ending the civil war in Syria. But so long as Iran sponsors terrorism and undermines the human rights of its population, there will be no opportunity for systemic rapprochement with the United States.

Iran is also a country in transition.  Should Iran decide to develop its economy and expand its contacts throughout the world, there will be opportunities to develop a different type of relationship over the long term. Iran’s highly educated young population holds far different views than those presently in charge and has a high regard for the American people even as Iranians despise the past policies and perceived disrespect of the U.S. government towards the Iranian people.

The United States should continue to confront Iran and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond in part so that Iran receives the clear message that, unless it changes its approach, the benefits of the nuclear deal will be limited and fleeting.

We believe the United States keeps its word, so we should want to provide incentives for Iran to do the same. As such, the United States and the other nations who have committed to the agreement should ensure Iran receives the full economic benefit of the nuclear deal; otherwise, Iran’s leaders will be looking for a scapegoat if their policies prevent sanctions relief from being fully utilized. Iran’s leaders must be held accountable to their population if they fail to capture this moment for economic development. Moreover, the US should encourage those in Iran seeking to make a new start at home and with the outside world.

The United States and Iran may not be destined to be friends, but they are not required to be enemies. We have a chance now to make the relationship at least functional. We should seize it.


By: Dr. Jessica Mathews and Mr. Richard Nephew

Jessica Tuchman Mathews is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served as Carnegie’s president for 18 years. Before her appointment in 1997, her career included posts in both the executive and legislative branches of government, in management and research in the nonprofit arena, and in journalism and science policy. She was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 1993 to 1997 as director of the Council’s Washington program.  In 1993, she also served as deputy to the undersecretary of state for global affairs at the State Department. Prior to that, Mathews was founding vice president and director of research of the World Resources Institute.  She also served as director of the Office of Global Issues of the National Security Council, where she worked on issues including nuclear proliferation, conventional arms sales policy, chemical and biological warfare, and human rights. She earned her BS from Radcliffe College and holds a PhD from the California Institute of Technology.

Richard Nephew joined the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy on February 1, 2015, directly from his role as Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State, a position he held since February 2013. Nephew also served as the lead sanctions expert for the U.S. team negotiating with Iran. From May 2011 to January 2013 Nephew served as the Director for Iran on the National Security Staff where he was responsible for managing a period of intense expansion of U.S. sanctions on Iran. Earlier in his career he served in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the State Department and in the Office of Nonproliferation and International Security at the Department of Energy. Nephew holds a Masters in Security Policy Studies and a Bachelors in International Affairs, both from The George Washington University.

(Image Courtesy: U.S. Department of State)