Iran’s Nuclear Politics after JCPOA

March 26, 2020

Dr. Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, visited the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey on March 4, 2020, to discuss what he has identified as the shift in Iranian foreign policy from “Strategic Patience” to one of “Active Resistance.” The shift is best marked as occurring in May 2019, when, amidst already deteriorating relations between the United States and Iran, four commercial ships were damaged off the coast in the Gulf of Oman, leading to a dramatic worsening of relations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, Dr. Tarzi noted, once likened Iran’s negotiating strategy to that of a wrestler: “a good wrestler at times shows flexibility due to technical reasons but does not forget his opponent or his main goal.” And Iran’s goal has always been to ward off a US-led regime change in Iran, and to improve Iran’s economic vitality. Khamenei put this theory into practice during the negotiations that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He allowed President Hassan Rouhani to pursue “constructive engagement”—with Russians, with the Europeans, Chinese, even the Americans—while putting hardliners (like Qasem Soleimani) in charge of regional foreign policy. Dr. Tarzi characterized this regional policy as an “offensive defense,” the goal of which is to engage the Americans (and Israelis) outside the borders of Iran, mostly via proxies.

When Donald Trump assumed power in the United States, Iran’s policy remained one of “strategic patience”: they would simply “tighten their belts,” Dr. Tarzi said, and wait out the Trump administration. However, after the ratcheting up of tensions in May 2019, this “strategic patience” gave way to one of “active resistance,” which characterizes Iran’s behavior and policy today.

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