Iran heavily features in many conflicts between regional and world powers, and it is often central to the great political issues of the day. While Iran may not be directly involved, other countries’ opinions and strategies toward the Shia country shape numerous geopolitical situations and conflicts across the globe.
From Sudan to Saudi freedom of press, EU-American relations, and even Brexit, different countries’ diplomatic strategies toward Iran have far-reaching impacts. One often finds that triangulation on Iran strategy infiltrates far more political posturing and movement than purely news and events directly related to Iran.
Iran has long played an important role on the international stage and has been a major factor in domestic politics within world powers. But, Iran’s outsized impact on world politics has only grown in recent years largely due to the United States decision under the Trump White House to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehension Plan of Action (JPCOA).
Regardless of one’s political persuasion or opinion on the Iran nuclear deal, the United States withdrawal from the treaty and subsequent implementation of sanctions signaled the reshuffling of power and strategy on the world stage.
This analysis will recap some of the latest developments surrounding this geopolitical reconfiguration and look at what impact it has had on Iran, the Middle East region, and the state of alliances across the globe.
The Strait of Hormuz
Tensions between Iran and America have only heated up in recent weeks and months. The Strait of Hormuz has been a flashpoint and the international press has been extensively covering flare-ups between Iran and international shipping boats.
The United States has attempted to use these incidents as a pretext for a stronger military response to Iran, with varied success. Recently, Australia announced it would become the third country along with the United Kingdom and Bahrain to contribute to an American-led mission to guard shipping lanes against Iranian attacks.
However, despite appeals from the American security and state apparatus, its European partners have expressed reluctance to jump aboard a military mission that many believe would further threaten the nuclear deal. The United Kingdom has proven to be America’s most reliable Western partner in responding to Iran, however, this alliance may be a short-lived calculation by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson in an attempt to sweeten a potential trade deal with America post-Brexit.
The European Union has been one of the most vocal defenders of the Iran nuclear deal, and the United States change of heart under Donald Trump has strained ties between multiple historic alliances.
Impact of sanctions
The United States Treasury billed its re-imposition of sanctions on Iran after leaving the Iran nuclear as “the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed on Iran.” Furthermore, the Treasury Department reiterated “the United States is engaged in a campaign of maximum financial pressure on the Iranian regime and intends to enforce aggressively these sanctions that have come back into effect.”
The contrast from the multilateral JPCOA is stark, and it has been controversial both internally within the United States and abroad amongst American partners and signatories to the deal.
But varying reports are emerging that contradict the United States’ loud and proud message that American sanctions are effectively crippling the Iranian economy and lessening the financial power of the top players in Iran.
Reuters recently reported that despite American sanctions dropping Iranian crude exports by 80%, Iran is still exporting a strong $500 million a month in oil products. In fact, Iran’s fuel exports have immensely grown since 2015.
However, Iran dumping more exports on the market does not necessarily point to a strong and healthy economy. In 2015, the Iranian GDP grew over 12% largely in response to the landmark JPCOA. However, the Iranian economy has been contracting ever since the United States pulled out of the treaty.
Due to the design of the sanctions, the average Iranian feeling a hit to their pocketbook with the annual household income decreasing. The recent data uncovered by Reuters indicates that Iranian oil is still flowing into the market, but the Iran government seem to be the benefactors instead of the average family. Whether this leads to mass political unrest that would truly impact the Iranian elite remains to be seen.
Nowhere is Iran’s geopolitical position more strongly felt on foreign soil than in Yemen. The country’s protracted civil war is effectively a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s most important rivalry.
Both countries have shown no indication they intend to pull out of the conflict or look for peaceful resolutions with Saudi Arabia announcing it will increase its troop levels in southern Yemen.
Many have pointed to Trump’s decision to leave the JPCOA as the nail in the coffin that allowed Saudi Arabia to become much more emboldened and aggressive toward Iran and deepened the crisis in Yemen.
Combined with the Syrian Civil War, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s political and religious differences have caused instability and bloodshed across the region. America’s turn away from diplomacy in favor of hawkish policy has shifted the dynamic enough to deepen differences and allow for a revving up of tensions.
The world stage
Internationally, Iran has become one of the issues of the day in more countries in a much more visible manner. Politicians have had to regularly discuss their Iran strategy and Iran has remained in the news cycle more than any other Middle Eastern country in the last several years.
One of the most important changes in this timeframe has been the fracture between the United States and the European Union when it comes to strategy on Iran. While the United States has cozied up to Saudi Arabia and remained tense with Russia and China, its relation to the European Union has been remarkably different ever since President Trump assumed office.
Arguably, President Emmanuel Macron is now the most important state leader within the European Union, and in the eyes of many, the French president has assumed the role of unofficial figurehead for the union. Macron favors multilateralism, but his brand of politics has seemingly fallen out of favor on the world stage in terms of the impact it has had.
France reportedly offered Iran a $15 billion bailout to compensate lost oil sales from American sanctions, and in return, Iran would once again comply with the JPCOA. However, an Iranian bailout is unlikely to go down well in France considering Macron’s own struggles with internal unrest.
And such a bailout would only be temporary, with the European Union still in dire need of a change in American policy toward Iran in order to find a lasting solution. Unfortunately for Macron and the EU, Iranian President Rouhani recently ruled out bilateral discussions with the United States.
While the European Union and signatories to the JPCOA search for solutions, any sort of diplomatic solution to rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and reducing violence in the Middle East is at the whim of an increasingly erratic American foreign policy.