The United States has formally lifted third-party economic sanctions imposed on Iran over its illegal nuclear programme, a limited breakthrough for a troubled bilateral relationship. The main consequence will be to bring Iran in from the economic cold. Though many countries continued trading with Iran, the US’s financial domination meant getting reinsurance, trade financing and the like became impossible for businesses. Iran became a market that wasn’t worth the risk. The reversal of sanctions means other countries can now freely trade with and invest in Iran. However, Washington has retained a large number of other sanctions including disallowing US firms and entities from doing business with Iran and targeting Iran’s missile programme.
That some sanctions remain is a reminder that while Washington and Tehran have put together a framework to resolve their nuclear differences, the two remain adversaries on a host of other issues. At the top of the list is Iran’s violent opposition to Israel and sponsorship of militant groups — both of which Tehran see as important to its larger geopolitical interests. This is why talk of a US-Iran rapprochement, including working out a wider understanding on how to run the Persian Gulf, is excessive. Iran has ambitions to be the dominant power of the Gulf and a leader of the Islamic world. It does not believe the US’s blessings are important to that goal. If anything, it believes Washington is an obstacle. Tehran’s addiction to actions reminiscent of a rogue state — supporting terrorist groups, sacking foreign embassies, assassinating political dissidents in other countries, breaking international treaty obligations and so on — makes it unpalatable to US interests.
However, even talking about these other differences was not possible so long as the nuclear issue stood between them. Now this is possible. But Tehran and Washington still have a long way to go before they accept how much they need each other. In the long term, Tehran will wait to see if its expectation of an economic boom are fulfilled as its oil production begins to increase. If this does happen, the present nuclear agreement could prove to be the high point of recent Iran-US relations. If it doesn’t, Tehran may have to contemplate the possibility of tacking even closer to the Great Satan.