Policy Recommendations for US-Iran Relations in the Trump Era

By: Shiva Darian, Gabriela Billini, and Nicolás Pedreira
AIC Research Fellows


Allies for most of the 20th century, the United States and Iran were radically divided after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah and replaced him with a theocratic government. Throughout the last 38 years, U.S. policy toward Iran has fluctuated between open animosity and cautious mistrust. Former President Obama’s unprecedented approach to U.S.-Iran relations involved increasing pressure on the nation through the implementation of sanctions, while conveying a willingness to negotiate in order to come to a deal on what was perceived as one of the biggest threats to international security.

The Framework for Cooperation Agreement was established after months of negotiations and multiple meetings with the IAEA and the P5+1 (the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany). Finally, in July of 2015, a consensus was reached and unanimously ratified by the UN Security Council as Resolution 2231 (2015). Through diplomacy, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Deal, aimed to establish a somewhat comprehensive resolution to an outstanding issue between the two nations.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald J. Trump sold voters an “America First” foreign policy that promised the United States security and prosperity. Concurrently, Mr. Trump declared that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Since assuming office, President Trump has taken numerous actions hindering Iran’s reintegration into the global community. By signing each version of his travel ban executive orders, the Trump administration explicitly categorized Iran and Iranians as potential threats to U.S. national security. The U.S. has also raised numerous compliance disputes with the JCPOA despite Iran’s provable observation of the deal.

During his speech at the UN, President Trump reinforced his stance on Iran, calling the deal “an embarrassment,” referring to the government as a “rogue state,” and implied that it would continue to take a hard stance against Iranian support for terrorism. Thus far, the administration has stood by this, introducing at least 44 sanctions against Iranian entities since assuming office, with the newest round passed by Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in mid-January. Most significantly, President Trump announced that he will not be waving sanctions against Iran for the final time, giving European signatories a deadline to come to satisfy American demands while continuing to maintain the deal.

Although we disagree with many of the Trump administration’s stated views and actions towards Iran, this paper aims to recommend reasonable measures that can be taken by the U.S. that will benefit American domestic and foreign policy interests, while also keeping an eye towards ameliorating some areas of tension between the U.S. and Iran. We maintain that the “America First” policy can exist in parallel to resolving tensions with Iran in a way that minimizes the likelihood for misunderstandings between the two nations. In this context, our paper seeks to analyze how the current administration can capitalize on existing frameworks by charting new paths of cooperation and ameliorating relations between the United States and Iran. This paper proposes three policy options for the Trump administration to pursue toward Iran: (1) Honoring the Iran Deal, (2) Engagement with Iran through Business, and (3) Cooperating for Regional Stability.

Policy Recommendation 1: Honoring the Iran Deal

President Trump’s ultimatum on the Iran Deal, requesting that Europe unilaterally adjust the international agreement, as well as his recent hiring of Iran hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to key national security positions, have thrown cold water on an agreement that was already struggling to demonstrate success. Prior to this, Iran had argued that continued U.S. non-nuclear sanctions and strong messages against the deal from the new U.S. administration were inciting  concern among businesses interested in investing in Iran for fear of U.S. reprisal. On the American side, the Administration has argued that the deal has done nothing to moderate Iranian behavior outside of the nuclear realm.

In this section we argue that keeping the main precepts of the Iran Deal intact is valuable for U.S. interests and that the most effective course of action for the U.S. involves urging a process for talks with Iran on issues beyond the nuclear one, and setting a course for capitalizing on Iran’s eventual reintegration into the international economy by encouraging some American investments in Iran. Despite the Administration’s dissatisfaction with the JCPOA, we believe that maintaining the deal - or a revised version acceptable to our European allies - will reinforce America’s national security, diplomatic relations, and economic interests.

National Security:
Maintaining the precepts of the JCPOA is essential for regional and global security and the assurance of a non-nuclear Iran. The authors of this paper urge the Administration to prioritize national and global security by adhering to the multilateral Nuclear Deal or at minimum accepting a revised version supported by our European allies. We are not alone in this view; many prominent politicians and national security experts from both sides of the aisle in Washington believe that remaining in the deal is in America’s best national security interests and relieves the U.S. of the need for additional military presence in the region. Further, the IAEA and the remainder of the deal’s signatories are each satisfied with Iran’s continued compliance thus far.

There are many policy and security experts who initially rejected the JCPOA because they felt that “Iran would not change its ways,” stressing concerns that Iran would not reduce its nuclear capability or that the regime was not to be trusted. Most of those individuals have since shifted their stance on the deal, acknowledging that Iran has maintained its side of the bargain by reducing its nuclear capability. Iran eliminated 98% of its uranium stockpile, destroyed two thirds (13,000) of its centrifuges, halted weapons-grade plutonium production, and terminated uranium enrichment at main sites. This includes both of the main enrichment plants in Natanz and Fordow, the latter of which is buried within a mountain, and speculated to have been attempted to be hidden. The IAEA has implemented precautionary safeguards and inspection plans to monitor Iran’s progress that have been called “unprecedented” by GOP foreign policy experts. This demonstrates the significance of the JCPOA’s implementation; indeed it unequivocally marks the first instance of legitimate, sustained inspections on Iran’s nuclear program.

In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense James Mattis expressed his belief that it is in American national security interest to remain committed to the JCPOA. This is significant not only because of General Mattis’s position within the administration, but also because of his long standing anti-Iran positions. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has consistently stated his beliefs that, despite his concerns with it, staying in the Iran Nuclear Deal is in the best interest of the United States. General Mattis and the former Secretary of State are not the only Republicans to hold such views. Forty seven national security leaders have signed a statement warning Congress and the Trump administration against withdrawing from the deal, stating that exiting would have, “grave long term political and security consequences for the United States.” Signatories of this statement included a number of Republicans, including former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar, and three former Ambassadors to Israel.

The opposition to the Iran Deal within the U.S. and parts of the global community is neither polarized nor unified. It is inaccurate to say that any one type of expert has agreed on what side of this debate to stand. Perhaps the strongest support against the deal has been garnered by former American Ambassador to the U.N. - and now National Security Advisor - John Bolton, who prior to his nomination proposed a plan with the  support of 41 flag officers and national security experts by which the U.S. would use its influence amongst the “key players (such as the U.K., France, Germany, Israel, and Saudi Arabia)” to compile “the nature and details” of Iran’s violations. The U.S. would then declassify all relevant information that demonstrates Iranian breaches of the deal, present the case to the international community, and rally global support by utilizing U.S. embassies and diplomats worldwide.  Prior to his hiring as National Security Advisor, this hardline position had incited minimal international support and was deemed unreasonable by many top American and Israeli officials, who believe that the JCPOA is critical to maintaining their respective national security interests. While the Sunset Clause -referring to the deal’s expiration in 2025- raises serious concerns, this aspect of the deal is one that can be addressed while still adhering to the existing terms of the JCPOA.

Admittedly President Trump’s recent hiring choices of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton put the JCPOA and chances for even limited reconciliation with Iran in a perilous position.  However, it also invites opportunities.  If Europe or Iran was uncertain about Trump’s threats to withdraw from the JCPOA before, or unconvinced about the need to make adjustments that the US would accept, these new hires to national security positions have lit a fire under those interested in maintaining the deal. Reports indicate that our European allies are close to presenting revised terms for the JCPOA as well as a new round of sanctions against Iran. The potential revisions will include greater access to Iranian military bases by inspectors and renegotiation on Iranian missile testing limits, which the U.S. may be able to accept.

While Iran has vocally rejected any potential revisions to the deal while maintaining its commitment to non-proliferation, the fact remains that it has both economic and security reasons to do so -- perhaps more than ever as it watches the Trump administration building a “war cabinet” that includes John Bolton as a continued, ardent supporter of the US’ invasion of Iraq.  In this context, the Trump administration’s hardline position toward the deal may have created an opening and opportunity for all sides to come together to amend the JCPOA in a way that (i) the Trump administration can claim a much desired “win,” (ii) that Iran can continue building economic connections with our European allies, and (iii) by which the world maintains the benefits of safety and security provided by the JCPOA.  

Diplomatic Ties:
Recognizing both the potential threats and opportunities presented by the Trump administration’s hardline approach towards the JCPOA and Iran, these authors urge the current administration to remember that the JCPOA is not a bilateral agreement with Iran, but rather a multilateral agreement between the U.S., Iran, and many of America’s most important allies. Exiting the Nuclear Deal entirely would mean undermining key American allies and the IAEA’s legitimacy as an inspecting agent, thus tarnishing the U.S.’s international diplomatic image. It also sets a dangerous precedent, making other nations less likely to engage in similar negotiations out of fear that the U.S. will not honor a potential agreement.

While some opponents of the JCPOA argue that continuing with the deal contradicts American policy to support its key ally in the Middle East, Israel (and indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been quite vocal in his opposition of the deal), there are numerous supporters of the JCPOA within the Israeli government. Sixty-seven former senior members of Israel’s military published an open letter to Netanyahu in 2015, urging him to accept the nuclear deal. Israeli Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot (commander of the IDF), has acknowledged the risks involved with the JCPOA, but has referred to the deal as a “turning point” in the direction Iran has been headed.

Despite John Bolton’s appointment and the perceived shift U.S.-Iran policy is taking, prominent Israeli former military chiefs have continued to oppose nixing the deal with Iran. Those who support the deal, even reluctantly, recognize that Iran was two to three months away from producing a nuclear bomb, and that the JCPOA’s implementation successfully prevented each of the four possible routes to creating a bomb. The former director of Israel’s General Security Service has called the “threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon” as “more remote than it has been in decades”.

Some of America’s Arab allies have also expressed support of the deal. When considering their nations’ interests, many prominent government officials have openly supported the JCPOA. Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, said, “This was the best option among other options--to come up with a solution...through dialogue...We are confident that all the efforts that have been exerted make this region very secure, very stable.” This statement was not only issued on Qatar’s behalf, but on behalf of all  Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states’ foreign ministers, which includes Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps most significantly, America’s European allies who are co-signatories to the deal have expressed their ongoing support for it and their strong opposition toward a potential U.S. exit. In the wake of Iran’s clear compliance with the deal, American withdrawal would undoubtedly isolate the U.S. from the global community (indeed, more so than it will for Iran). One of Germany’s foreign ministers has stated that the agreement has “prevented a nuclear arms race,” and France’s Ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, has explicitly stood against reopening the deal. Breaking the agreement will leave the U.S. unable to rally support to restart negotiations in order to implement a modified deal, and so the only viable option for the Trump administration is to allow for the EU to mediate in hopes of coming to a compromise.

As it stands, the U.S. holds a formidable position in ensuring Iran is being monitored, and without America, the international community would be divided in its efforts to monitor Iran. The EU, however, is beginning to lose trust in the Trump administration. French President Emmanuel Macron is emerging at the forefront of discussions surrounding the Iran Deal, attempting to both adhere to the deal while navigating through the present political environment. There are already talks of contingency plans for European companies in case the US makes an untimely exit on the deal. Exiting the deal completely runs the risk of relieving Iran of compliance checks, ultimately unravelling the deal altogether, with America left to take the blame. For now, Europe has been tasked to find a compromise to appease both American and Iranian officials.

In the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and threats to pull out of NAFTA and other agreements, a move to pull out of yet another international agreement like the JCPOA (one that all other countries agree is working) would be devastating to U.S. credibility, global authority, and its diplomatic efforts for decades to come. Exiting the Iran Deal would cause the United States to lose much of its geopolitical influence and inevitably exacerbate an already volatile situation in the Middle East.

Economic Growth:

Recent American policy toward Iran has been focused on the continuation of non-nuclear sanctions and attempts to stifle Iran’s reintegration into the global economy. In so doing, the U.S. is effectively abstaining from crucial market opportunities in a post-JCPOA world. By contrast, other Western nations have been filling the void by investing in the expansive Iranian market.

Removal or relaxation of sanctions is not something the U.S. is likely to engage in lightly. Most existing U.S. sanctions relate to Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights violations, both of which are serious matters of concern to the U.S. However - as the AIC has put forward in other papers on this subject - we believe it is in America’s interest to conduct direct negotiations with Iran about these issues.

To that end, economic incentives have proven to be an effective mechanism for motivating Iran’s political class in light of its floundering economy. It is indisputable that the promise of lifted sanctions helped bring Iran to the JCPOA negotiating table. Any bilateral negotiations with Iran moving forward should include a few economic carrots that could be beneficial to both countries. In light of President Trump’s promises to revitalize the U.S. economy through his “America First” policy, such negotiations would also benefit America’s economic sector. We outline this policy recommendation more broadly in the next section.

Policy Recommendation 2: Engaging Through Business

As unlikely as it may seem given the current political environment, President Trump’s administration should consider increasing some commercial ties with the Islamic Republic. If anything has been demonstrated about this administration, it is its ability to surprise policy experts, change direction rapidly, and pursue policies previously considered untenable. There are two main American priorities that would be gained from increasing commercial ties: (1) Increased linkage (and ultimately, leverage) on Iran beyond the U.S.’ currently limited abilities, and (2) The promotion of American business and President Trump’s “America First” agenda.

In a pivotal paper by Levitsky and Way published in 2006, researchers demonstrated that leverage by one country over another increases with the degree of linkage between the two nations. “Leverage” is defined as the degree by which a democratic nation can influence policies in another country, and “linkage” is described as the number of ties between two nations, which can include economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational connections, as well as diplomatic and financial interactions between two nations. These linkages can manifest in many ways; from trade agreements between companies, to actual peace negotiations.

Levitsky and Way also detail that leverage without linkage has been deemed insufficient to promote democratization. Essentially, the greater the number of bonds between democratic and authoritarian countries, the greater the influence and input the democratic nation has on the other country’s domestic, international, and structural choices. Applying this principle and creating economic or political “links” with Iran will not only be in line with American economic interests, but working closely with Iran will ultimately make Iranian interests more apparent to U.S. policymakers. Moreover, increased economic power resulting from financial investments will increase American “leverage”, influence, and negotiating power.

When applying Linkage and Leverage theory to U.S.-Iran relations, it is clear that the threat of new sanctions will bear greater weight if the U.S. already has existing investments within Iranian markets. According to the theory, with each established connection between the two nations, Iran’s likelihood to cooperate with the U.S. increases because of its desire to protect existing industry growth. The leverage gained by the U.S. can be used to address areas of policy concern, including Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights violations.

In addition to the political benefits reaped by improving linkage, and therefore leverage, increasing business investment with Iran will also promote the Trump Administration’s “America First” agenda. One example where American business has already benefited by involving itself with Iran is the Boeing deal. The agreement between Boeing and Iran Airways promoted American industry by creating 18,000 American jobs in order to fulfill an order for 80 passenger planes. This $16.6 billion deal is just one example of the potential economic benefits the U.S. can reap from further economic engagement.

Such deals also promote U.S. business over foreign ones, which are eager to enter Iran. Airbus, for example, has indicated that it is more than willing to expand its own deals, making three deliveries thus far to fulfill the estimated $27 billion deal. Iran has also begun to turn towards ATR (the Airbus Franco-Italian affiliate) and Russia for jets and other small aircrafts. It is worth noting that the airline industry is just one of twelve sectors that Iran seeks to modernize and expand, and other countries are eager to support Iran in this goal.

The 2017 report from the United Nations Conference on Trade Development demonstrates that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Iran has significantly increased in the last year, compensating for the plummet taken throughout the duration of the JCPOA negotiations. FDI inflows have not only recovered, but surpassed that of the “Pre-Crisis” annual average (2005-2007). Since the implementation of the JCPOA, Iran’s primary trade partners are now the United Arab Emirates and China, accounting for 23.6% and 22.3% of Iran’s trade respectively.

Despite the Trump administration’s harsh response to the Nuclear Deal, the rest of the global community has cautiously supported Iran’s reintegration. Trade between America’s closest allies in the EU and Iran is nowhere near what it was during the Pre-Crisis era; however, in 2016, the EU’s exports to Iran have increased by 27.8%, and imports have increased by 346.5%, with France as the biggest European importer of Iranian goods. These trends have continued since President Trump took office, with EU-Iranian trade topping ~€9.9 billion in the first six months of 2017.

An “America First” agenda should encourage some entry of American business into the Iranian market in exchange for movement by Iran on matters outside the nuclear issue. The Trump administration has signaled an “America First” business policy by calling for a strong reduction in trade deficits - even signaling openness to a trade war to effectuate the goal.  This would be a significant opportunity to demonstrate that commitment. The Trump administration should engage Iran in direct talks regarding human rights violations and ballistic missile testing, offering economic carrots such as reconsideration of some aspects of the current unilateral sanctions regime, in exchange for improved behavior.

There is a lucrative market in Iran that is available for investment by American businesses. The Trump administration can allow for such deals to occur - and encourage President Trump’s image as a great “deal-maker” - while still maintaining its strong stance on Iran. Below are just a few examples of industries that present lucrative opportunities for investment.


Iran’s inability to tap global financial resources during the sanctions regime has hindered its ability to maintain and modernize its infrastructure. Post-JCPOA, the government is moving quickly to seek investment and remedy failing aspects of its infrastructure nationwide.

Iran’s transportation system, for example, is in serious need of attention and improvement. The World Economic Forum’s 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Iran 76 out of 140 for overall infrastructure quality (other industrialized countries in the region received much higher ratings, such as Saudi Arabia at 31 and the United Arab Emirates at 2). Though the country’s highways and roads are generally paved and in moderately good condition, the country’s railroads have been neglected over the last few decades, with slowed railroad development since the 1979 Revolution.

The government has recently directed some attention to remedying this problem by increasing funds for infrastructure and seeking foreign investment. In 2012, Iran sought $2 billion in Chinese investments to complete construction of the Tehran metro. Now, the government is actively seeking foreign direct investments (FDIs) to realize similar projects. In the coming years, Iran is predicted to create foreign investment opportunities totaling $250 to $300 billion. Though sanctions have limited investment from Western countries in recent years, Iran has turned to partners such as Russia and China. Notably, Iran signed a $2.5 billion deal with Russia for the production of rail wagons.

The Iranian government has also been making plans for large long-term construction projects to improve non-transportation related domestic and regional infrastructure. Iran is focused, for example on increasing its renewable energy capacity due to rising energy demands and obligations as a party to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Under the Paris Agreement, Iran has committed to curbing greenhouse gas emissions by reforming its power industry; plans are already underway for developing solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable power plants to offset Iran’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Many existing projects in water treatment, tourism, and building rehabilitation are also in need of investment. International investors are taking note. In January of last year, Tehran hosted French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and over 100 delegates from many sectors of the French economy at the Iran-France business forum to discuss a wide array of industries, including those of construction, steel, and transportation. At the event, the two countries signed five new business agreements on boosting cooperation.

Iran is currently the second largest automotive developer in the Middle East, with market penetration reaching as far as Cameroon and Venezuela. Despite setbacks from sanctions, the auto industry has been growing. The past decade has shown a six fold increase in production, fueled by both domestic and foreign demand. Today, the industry produces around 1 million cars each year.

Following the JCPOA’s signing, Iran has expanded its efforts and is partnering with many international manufacturers. Although China is a significant partner responsible for importing nearly 100,000 vehicles annually, Iran also has deep ties with major automotive companies all over the world. Since implementation of the JCPOA foreign investment has been increasing as Iranian car manufacturers are partnering with international manufacturers like Volvo, Citroen, and Daimler. Analysts also believe Iran’s auto parts industry is ripe for growth. Iran is currently in critical need of passenger buses, aiming to acquire 4,000 buses annually, and is only fulfilling half of this need in collaboration with Daewoo Bus corp.

Fin-tech and Start-Ups:

Sanctions inevitably closed down all of Iran’s international financial institutions. As a result of the JCPOA, however, the banking sector within Iran has recently seen an influx of international investors, most notably from China and Austria. Theoretically, the current sanctions against Iran do not prevent financial institutions from engaging with Iran, and a number of EU actors have already joined in. As the nation passes more laws increasing transparency within the sector, investment in Iran’s banking industry becomes safer and more lucrative.

Iran’s banks have also shifted their accounting systems to standardized methods based on International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). Thus far, due to the threat of sanctions, no major international bank has signed a deal to handle any major Iran-related business. However, the measures Iran is taking to reform their banking system and to comply with international standards presents an opportunity for investors with some tolerance for risk.

Iran’s telecommunications industry is amongst its most lucrative markets. As the nation with the second largest population in the Middle East, and especially with its high youth population, the continued establishment of 3G and 4G network services have been widely implemented. Iran’s telecommunications sector is mostly state-owned; however, there are numerous collaborations with various countries like South Korea, Sweden, and Germany and the current telecommunication situation in Iran offers opportunities for expansion.

The massive startup culture in Iran and the increasingly tech-savvy population, for example, ensure a reliable market for telecommunication investors. The percentage of households that have an internet connection have risen from 21% in 2013, to 62% in 2017. Smartphone ownership has also increased exponentially, going from ~2 million owners in 2014 to over 40 million in 2016. These trends have not gone unnoticed by the international community, with European and Asian companies buying stakes in major Iranian startups.

Policy Recommendation 3: Cooperating for Regional Stability

The Iran-Saudi Arabia Proxy Conflict has expanded to engulf much of the Middle East, with the two nations often funding opposing sides in order to attain regional influence. We recommend that the U.S. works to alleviate such regional conflicts and promote stability in the Middle East. By focusing on issues with which both Iran and the U.S. are engaged, the Trump administration may find openings to ameliorate tensions between the two nations.

President Trump can focus on collaborating with Iran on specific, short-term missions and operations in order to more effectively strategize towards their common goals. The current conflict in Syria and the ongoing Yemeni Civil War are two such pressing geographical security issues. By engaging with Iran on these matters, the nations can come to effective solutions while easing both economic and military burdens on America.


The Global Coalition Against Daesh has been operating since 2014 and has 73 partners across the world. Iran is not a partner in this coalition, despite the fact that Iran is one of the states that is most active in attacking the terrorist organization in both Iraq and Syria before their defeat there. It would be in the interest of the Coalition to strategize with Iran. The European signatories of the JCPOA (each of whom have formal diplomatic relations with Iran) may pave the way for the United States to coordinate with Iran on better, more effective tactics to fight Daesh.

As the war against Daesh winds down, the United States still has an opportunity to cooperate with Iran and Syria to challenge the remaining Daesh forces that are still within the territory to reduce the possibility of their traveling to other states with vacuums in the region and into Europe. One option for engagement would be to build limited, but meaningful bilateral information sharing and military operations regarding these Daesh targets. This would allow both states to pursue their mutual security interests via a partnership that would yield more effective results towards the common goal of destroying the force.

Regional cooperation regarding Daesh and other armed militant groups would increase pressure on the states that are back-channel funding them, as well as coordinating a better designed and more uniformed military campaign against them. Strategizing with Iran on the war against Daesh is directly in line with President Trump’s America First foreign and national security policies, including his campaign promise to quickly eradicate the group. Iran’s contributions will save American resources, potentially provide the United States access to crucial intelligence, and hasten the end of the conflict.

Despite a lack of cooperation between the U.S. and Iran thus far, opportunities for engagement exist. Iran has demonstrated, for example, its ability to successfully collaborate with U.S. allies in isolated operations involving the Syrian conflict. In September of 2015, the Russia-led coalition, including Iran, had multiple operations that were conducted in coordination with Jordan and Israel. In September 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey all agreed to establish a series of “De-escalation Zones” in hopes of alleviating the fighting. Iran’s willingness to coordinate with Turkey, in particular, demonstrates the government’s willingness to prioritize fighting Daesh over its stated efforts to maintain an Assad-led regime in Syria. These types of agreements and coordinated efforts demonstrate the type of diplomacy that is in America’s interest.

Iran and the U.S. have conducted separate and simultaneous airstrikes on various targets in Iraq, most significantly in August of 2014. Had the two nations’ efforts and intelligence been combined, those strikes may have been more effective. Such cooperation between the U.S. and Iran is not entirely far-fetched. In 2001 after the attacks of 9/11, Iran offered to aid the U.S. militarily in Afghanistan. Encouraging such back channel military cooperation has upside in long-term goals such as improving trust, encouraging a de-escalation of tensions and minimizing the likelihood of misinterpretations of behavior leading to military engagement. However, such cooperation may also have the added benefit of curbing Iran’s strong influence over the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) in Iraq, and potentially dissolve them altogether, if there is a collective effort to fight Daesh using standing armies.


The Yemeni Civil War has been an escalating issue for the last few years with no end in sight. As the poorest country in the region, much of the reason the conflict has escalated to what it is today is because of regional involvement by Saudi Arabia and Iran. What was once a disagreement of rightful leadership between the Hadi Government and the Supreme Political Council (Houthis) has escalated to a full blown civil and proxy war.  

American interests in this dispute originally lay with protecting our allies in the Middle East, ensuring freedom of navigation within the Red Sea, and deterring aggression. However, as the war has gone on and become “the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII,” humanitarian concerns are now the overriding and primary focus in this conflict. By addressing the civil war in Yemen not as a regional proxy war, but as a humanitarian crisis, the United States can call upon Iran and other state actors to use their diplomatic influence on either side of the struggle to encourage a cease fire and come to a political agreement.

In coordination with calls for a ceasefire, the authors urge the Trump administration to reconsider weapon deals to Saudi Arabia that will only exacerbate the Yemeni crisis. President Trump has proposed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia amounting to approximately $110 billion. Although the stated intent of the sale is to stand together against extremism and reassure our allies in the Middle East of our support, these weapon sales are unwarranted and even counterproductive to U.S. goals of ending Yemen’s humanitarian disaster.

More recently in March 2018, the U.S. Department of State has approved a $670 million arms deal with Saudi Arabia, after just hours of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with the Pentagon to discuss the air campaign in Yemen. Indeed, weapons acquired by Saudi Arabia and dropped on Yemen merely perpetuate the cycle of devastation by inciting “greater Iranian support for the Houthis.” Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approach of more aggressive tactics in Yemen in hopes of pressuring Iranian forces to halt their intrusion in other areas in the world has not been successful thus far, and has instead contributed to the magnitude of the chaos and crisis.

Although the U.S. has contributed billions of dollars to aiding and advising its allies in the war, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead on behalf of the Hadi government and experts have determined that the “Saudi objective to achieve a clear military victory now seems increasingly unrealistic,” with many going so far as to project that their agenda will result in an even “greater quagmire.” Moreover, Saudi Arabia has - on numerous occasions - engaged in acts of war that have raised LOAC concerns and were reviewed to assure compliance with international human rights agreements. In order to diminish civilian casualties during the Obama administration, the State Department issued a No-Strike-List to the Saudis, which has been breached on multiple occasions.

The ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen will only elongate the crisis, and with it, the presence of insurgency groups within Yemen, who have fed off of the chaos thus far. The state will remain unstable, and insurgency groups (specifically, Al Qaeda and Daesh) will continue to capitalize on Yemen’s status as a failing state. The humanitarian crisis will also continue. The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 civilians have been killed, and that thousands more are in desperate need of aid. UNICEF estimates that nearly 63,000 Yemeni children died in 2016 as a result of malnutrition, and in total, nearly 17 million people face famine.

While outlining the details of his America First policy, President Trump has made clear his desire for America to stop intervening in such conflicts in order to focus on domestic issues. The uncertainty surrounding a potentially fruitful conclusion in Yemen for now suggests that the logical course of U.S. action is to encourage peace negotiations while simultaneously phasing out weapons sales that would be used in Yemen. During the Munich Security Conference in February, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif proposed one such peace negotiation.

Indeed, engagement with neighbors in order to create a Persian Gulf Security Agreement would not be unprecedented. In 2001, Saudi Arabia and Iran were applauded by the international community for signing a security agreement addressing Iraq, Afghanistan, crime, and drug smuggling. The Trump administration’s support of such negotiations would demonstrate America’s diplomatic strength while maintaining President Trump’s desire for a hands off approach. It gives the Trump administration an opportunity to save resources and assure that catastrophes like the unfortunate death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens are avoided.

Ultimately, changing the conversation from war to human security will provide the U.S. a graceful exit from the conflict and an opening for discussions with Iran in an interest of mutual concern. Republican senator Mike Lee, Democrat Chris Murphy, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, “have introduced a bill that would force Congress to vote for the first time on whether to continue U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen”. In order to reestablish the U.S. as a formidable ‘firm but fair’ hegemonic state, the U.S. must withdraw its support from the Saudi regime on this matter.

UN experts have implored involved parties to think of the basic rights to life of civilians caught in the crossfires of this conflict. Should the U.S. begin the facilitation of cease-fire talks, it will have the full support of the international community, and together, the world can pressure those involved to begin discussing a consensus. Further, collaborating with Iran on this subject of mutual concern could be a starting point for further engagement, or at least an alternative to inciting further flashpoints.


The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to shape the U.S.-Iran relationship in a substantive, transformational way by saving the JCPOA, engaging Iran through US business, and conjoining with Iran for regional stability. President Trump’s election was widely considered to be a shock that reverberated across centers of political power in the United States. Now, his chance to send shocks across the Middle East with a revamped, improved, strategic U.S. policy should not be underestimated.

President Trump’s “America First” policy strongly positions his administration to establish U.S. policy toward Iran that differentiates between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime; genuinely engages the Iranian regime; seeks broader linkage (and leverage) with (and over) Iran; and ensures regional cooperation and economic development in the Middle East through Iranian integration. President Trump’s image as a political outsider serves him well to pursue such a policy. We urge the administration not to waste this unique opportunity.