Iran is in a very tough neighborhood. To its east is nuclear armed Pakistan which quietly backs the Taliban—both are Sunni and Iran is predominately Shia. To its Northeast is Afghanistan which has a significant U.S. military contingent and a civil war. Next to Afghanistan is secular Turkmenistan with whom Iran gets along despite their issues with gas ownership and its close working relationship with the U.S. Iran has been building better ties with Turkmenistan to counter its ties with the U.S. To its far west is nuclear armed Israel. In between is Sunni Jordan which works closely with Israel along with the U.S.; and, has tense relationships with Iran.
In between, there is a seriously destabilized Shia controlled Iraq. Iran also borders a mercurial Sunni dictatorship in Turkey which has the second-best indigenous military in the ME second only to Israel. Turkey and Iran edgily work together because they do not care for American support for the Kurds. In the Persian Gulf there are multiple U.S. bases along with a French base and a British base (both are nuclear powers).
In short, Iran has its reasons to be able to protect itself. Iran believes that the U.S. is hypocritical in criticizing Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The U.S. has consistently supported opposition groups to Iran including the MEK which has been on the U.S. list in the past as a terrorist organization and sided with Saddam in his war with Iran. The MEK intends to overthrow the regime in Iran and replace it with itself—the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran. It has a complicated history: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/nov/09/mek-iran-revolution-regime-trump-rajavi
It allegedly has a secret training base in Albania and has been carrying out secret operations within Iran with quiet support from the Trump administration. It has little hope of success.
The U.S. aided Saddam in his war with Iran with weapons, and satellite photos of Iranian troop dispositions in 1987. In the same year, the U.S. destroyed two of Iran’s oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and attacked the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf. In 1988 the U.S. shot down an Iranian airliner carrying 290 passengers. Since 1995, the U.S. has done all it could to prevent foreign investments into Iran.
When Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, his withdrawal was arguably illegal under international law. When the JCPOA was signed in 2015, it was endorsed by the UN Security Council, which approved unanimously Resolution 2231 expressing its endorsement. The Resolution was filed in the framework of Chapter VII of UN Charter that deals with peace and stability in the world. According to the Charter, it is mandatory for all members of the UN to abide by the provisions of any Resolution filed under Chapter VII. Thus, not only has the US broken its promises to Iran and violated its commitment to the JCPOA, it is also in violation of its obligations toward the U.N. Security Council.
Add to that the U.S. has levied sanctions against Iran without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. There also it is in violation of its obligations towards that Security Council. To Iran and the other signatories of the Iran Deal, the U.S.’s arguments about the rule of law are hypocritical. None of the existing signatories accept those U.S. sanctions. This is a case of America First–alone. Withdrawing from the deal was one thing, to levy unilateral sanctions isn’t supportable under Security Council rules. The U.S. in addition put sanctions in place against Iran’s Foreign Ministry while claiming it wanted to negotiate. That is a non starter to Iran and the other signatories.
Iran’s economy was already a mess before Obama or Trump took any action. It has become worse thanks to the U.S. sanctions. See the Heritage Foundation’s 2019 report: Iran’s economic freedom score is 51.1, making its economy the 155th freest in the 2019 Index. Its overall score has increased by 0.2 point, with higher scores for judicial effectiveness and investment freedom exceeding declines in labor freedom and business freedom. Iran is ranked 13th among 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, and its overall score is below the regional and world averages. Even if we developed relations with Iran, it has little potential for foreign profitable investment.
Iran supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthi in Yemen. The first has existed since Hezbollah organized in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Israel got rid of the Palestinian presence in southern Lebanon, but got worse on its hands in exchange. Hezbollah is determined if it could along with Hamas to eliminate Israel; but, will never have the capability to do it without fearsome consequences. Hezbollah was instrumental in helping Syria’s government survive with Iranian assistance. Syria is a ruined country. Hezbollah suffered significant casualties in rescuing Syria to the dismay of Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is part of the government there so to call it a terrorist group is a bit of a misnomer. But, it is state supported terrorism. Hamas has its own miserable state in Gaza so it also isn’t like Al Qaeda but it too is state supported terrorism. Iran sees supporting these groups as essential for its own survival and to advance its interests in the ME. Iran is highly unlikely to give up its support for these groups as the U.S. demands. The Houthis control the northern part of Yemen and are in a civil war with the opposition supported by Saudi Arabia. It has become a miserable stalemate.
Iran has developed multiple asymmetric weapons so that it could shut down the Persian Gulf for a spell but at the cost of a likely unwinnable war with the U.S. They are developing ICBMs but the U.S. demand that they cease runs right against Russian and Chinese interests in selling them weapons. Iran can not possibly hope to dominate the Middle East, however. Turkey, Russia, Israel, the U.S., and the Sunni states will make sure of that. The U.A.E. has committed itself to working with Israel and other Sunni Arab states already have been doing that de facto. Some may make that formal as the U.A.E. has. Iran is Shia and the bulk of the ME is Sunni. The numbers are not in Iran’s favor. Iran also can not hope to be an existential threat to the U.S., Israel, or NATO. We should not treat it as if it is.
So, if you’re Iran faced with what it sees as threats to its existence especially from the U.S., what would you do? Probably what they are already doing including enriching uranium.
Secretary of State Pompeo’s demands amount to requiring regime change. Regime change will almost certainly not lead to a more friendly government to Israel and the U.S. It would probably lead to the Revolutionary Guards taking over; and, they are really bad news. The Ayatollahs are a check and balance to that taking place. Iran has a written Constitution of checks and balances in its own fashion. It is better structured than the total top down Saudi system. The RGs opposed the Iran deal arguing that the word of the U.S. could not be trusted, but went along with it. Their argument turned out to be accurate which gives them credibility within Iran.
Now, we have to realize that Iran along with Hamas and Hezbollah would eliminate Israel if they could. Genocidal ambitions. You would think by now Iran would get the message that this goal is unachievable and thus would very grudgingly accept Israel’s existence. Working with Israel would make sense from my view. Israel has so much to offer. But, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah show no signs of doing that. We have to take their aims seriously. Israel certainly does.
So, we must do what we can to help Israel maintain a serious technological/military advantage over these nasty enemies. And, we do. Obama did with the technological and material support needed to aid Israel build a multi layered anti-missile system. Obama also negotiated a multi-year arms deal with Israel–the best deal they’ve had. Trump has added to these efforts. Israel also has serious offensive weapons that could readily turn Iran, Gaza, and Lebanon into smoking, radioactive wastelands for a long time. If Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, they would not be able to have first strike capability against Israel.
I suspect all we can hope to do is to contain Iran. Containment with the long-term view of hoping they will sometime come to their senses; and, accept that Israel is not going to disappear. Maybe we could rejoin the Iran Deal but I doubt that Trump will do that. And, I’m not sure Biden, if he wins, would be able to do that. Iran just doesn’t trust the U.S. for good reasons. And we shouldn’t trust them either. We should recall that the Iran Deal was not based on trust.