A set of new sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States over a missile test has taken ties between the two countries, which saw incremental improvement over a couple of years, back to the pre-Obama era. Bilateral relations were particularly hostile during the presidency of George W. Bush, who had threatened military action over Iran’s nuclear programme. Barack Obama took a different line, moored in political realism. He reached out to the Iranians and finally clinched the nuclear deal last year, a far-sighted diplomatic solution to a complex international crisis. The U.S. and other world powers took years to find a common ground with Iran, which prevented the country from acquiring nuclear weapons in return for removal of international sanctions. The deal, viscerally opposed by Israel, allowed Iran to mend ties with European countries, boost its oil production and trade with other countries, thereby minimising the pain its people had suffered due to economic sanctions. The U.S. and Iran cooperated on the battleground in Iraq against the Islamic State. And domestically, it strengthened the hands of Iranian moderates. This progress stands threatened by President Donald Trump’s hostility towards Iran.
Mr. Trump may not repeal the nuclear deal as it is a multilateral agreement. But by putting immigration curbs on Iranian citizens, imposing new sanctions on Iran and branding the country the “greatest state sponsor of terrorism”, the Trump administration has clearly announced that détente is dead and the policy of containment back. If Mr. Obama’s Iran policy was defined by pragmatism, Mr. Trump appears determined to pursue the agenda of restoring the bipolar balance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the U.S.’s strongest allies in West Asia. This could prove dangerous. Iran, unlike the Iraq of 2003, is a strong regional power whose influence runs from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen. Any meaningful effort to stabilise West Asia calls for Iran’s cooperation, not hostility. Second, the primary reason for destabilisation in West Asia is the ongoing cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Targeting Iran by siding with the Saudis would only prompt Tehran to step up its activities in other countries through the “Shia corridor”. Finally, the world, including the U.S., needs Iran’s cooperation to fight the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq, where Iranian-controlled Shia militias played a key role in liberating cities. If Mr. Trump ignores these realities, he runs the risk of making West Asia even more chaotic than it is.