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US-Iran Relations after Soleimani

Jan 17, 2020
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

soleimani funeral iran.jpg

On Jan. 8, Iran launched 16 missiles at U.S. military installations in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, a general highly respected by Iranians. No human casualties were reported. It is expected that the latest round of tensions between the two parties will soon cool down.

However, the killing of Soleimani will add a new element of hatred to U.S.-Iran relations, with long-term implications. While other parties, including China, can play a role in bridging gap between the countries, it is always true that those who locked the door will have to unlock it.

It should be appreciated that Iran has demonstrated restraint in the wake of the carefully planned killing of Soleimani. Despite domestic demand for tough revenge, Iran conducted limited retaliation. Its supreme leader had expressed very clearly that any retaliation would be conducted solely by Iran’s military, which had implicitly discouraged potential uncontrolled retaliation from anti-American organizations civilian organizations or quasi-military forces. Iran also appears to have intentionally avoided American casualties in its strike. For whatever reasons, that restraint should be appreciated, as it paves the way for de-escalation.

It is expected that tensions will be further reduced in coming months or even years, albeit with some exchanges of harsh rhetoric about retaliation. Neither side wants a sizable direct military confrontation. Iranians are well aware that a war with the U.S. would not only threaten the survival of their political system but also bring disaster to their nation. Americans also clearly understand that another war in the Middle East will further drain their economic resources and undermine their efforts to restructure their global strategy.

However, despite the cooling-down, the problems between the U.S. and Iran will remain unresolved, and hatred will make future rapprochement between the two more difficult. It is evident that today’s tensions are grounded in deep-seated hostilities.

Though it has been more than 40 years, Americans keep the traumatic memory of the hostage crisis fresh in their minds. They well remember the incident in which young Iranian revolutionaries captured 52 American diplomats and held them for 444 days.

Every few years, the crisis is mentioned either in the media or by politicians. In 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, a picture of someone looking like him holding a hostage appeared in the U.S. media. The 2012 film “Argo,” a story based on the hostage crisis, won several Oscars. In 2014, a diplomat nominated as Iran’s ambassador to the UN was accused of being complicit in the crisis. And recently, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested there were 52 Iranian targets, an oblique reference to the 52 taken hostage.

Iranians’ memory of the U.S. is equally bitter, if not more. Iranians will talk about the U.S. toppling its government in 1953 with Operation Ajax, which marked the starting-point of modern Iran-U.S. relations. Iranians also blame the U.S. for supporting the king during the revolution, for supporting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s killing of Iranians with chemical weapons and for shooting down an Iranian civilian aircraft, killing 290 people, mostly Iranians. They also question U.S. sanctions, which have brought immense humanitarian problems.

The killing of Soleimani, who was regarded as a hero by Iranians, could only add to the hatred many ordinary Iranians feel toward the U.S. political establishment.

Chances are high that Iran-U.S. relations will enter a new stage of cold disengagement post-Soleimani. Iran, frustrated and short of meaningful countermeasures, will have to keep a low profile for some time to come. It is at least possible that Iran will go to the negotiating table with the U.S., as a high-level retired U.S. official visiting the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SII) said in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

According to this U.S. expert, President Trump seriously wants renegotiation. He said Trump didn’t expect that negotiations would produce any particular outcome, but by reopening them the administration would be able to boast of success in reversing the signature legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and in the efficacy of the maximum-pressure approach. Trump thinks this could enhance his standing in the coming election campaign.

This argument reflects the one-sided approach of the Trump administration and Trump’s personal business mentality. Maximum pressure might work in business negotiations, but in international relations, nation states talk about sovereignty, national dignity, political legitimacy and humiliation as well — none of which is easy bargaining material. It is at least possible that Iran will move toward new engagement with the U.S. on matters including the nuclear issue — though it might be waiting for opportunities to reverse the situation.

The demands of the U.S. are far beyond what any sovereign nation state would normally accept. Its demands include permanent limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and restrictions on its missile programs and regional policies. All these demands pose serious harms to Iran’s sovereignty.

Second, Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal seriously undermined the prestige of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and renegotiation for Iran has been regarded largely as politically wrong. And after Soleimani became a martyr, renegotiation looks like the kneeling down of the nation.

China has long been expected to bridge the gap between the two since it has normal, if not good, relations with all major members of the international community, including the U.S. and Iran. China can and will be willing to do something to mend the situation. It consistently supports political settlement of international disputes, including the Iran nuclear issue. China could also work to find opportunities to change the situation.

But those who locked the door will have to unlock it. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, combined with new demands and sanctions, have pushed the limits of tolerance. In addition to international efforts, the U.S. will have to take meaningful measures — even if only benign gestures — for example, removing some of the sanctions. Unfortunately, in his latest move, Trump launched new sanctions rather than reducing punishing measures. That is actually not the way games should be played, and no reasonable person or state would go to the table under such a cloud in international relations.

All in all, the latest tensions might calm down, but the story of hostility is still developing with new hatreds. The U.S. is a global power; Iran is a nation with a population with 80 million. Hostility will benefit no one — not the U.S., not Iran and not the world. The two will have to find opportunities to reverse the current trend, and in the longer-term, steps will have to be taken to diminish the hate.

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