Most of the West does not want Iran to become a nuclear power, but the United States and Israel have been especially opposed, as Iran has been a thorn in their sides ever since the Islamic Revolution.

Iran, however, has expressed the need to have nuclear capabilities both for energy diversification and to counter U.S.-Israel-Saudi influence in the region. Of course, a successful nuclear deal with Iran would require the United States to view Iran differently than it has for the past half-century. Suddenly, Iran would be a powerful state, capable of achieving goals — whether sinister or benign — just like any other country. 

So it’s worth taking a brief look at the history of Iran’s nuclear program and former nuclear agreements to see where we might be headed. 

Let’s start here: The United States essentially financed Iranian society throughout the 1950s and 60s. As such, Iran was poised to become a regional leader … so long as it maintained its loyalty to the United States. During this time America helped to start Iran’s nuclear program; most of Iran’s nuclear program and air force would be funded and supplied by the United States. Those developments and aircraft remain the basis for Iran’s nuclear program and air force today.   

While Iran’s economy was growing during the 50s and 60s, serious societal and governmental problems were being ignored. The Shah of Iran was Mohammed Reza. He was corrupt and governed arbitrarily. Many Western cultural values were publicly embraced, but the government ruled with an iron fist. The state sought to control much of the economy and culture

These realities would boil over in 1978 during what would be known as the Iranian Revolution. Groups of nationalists, Marxists, and Islamic fundamentalists gathered in mass demonstration against the Shah. They successfully overthrew his government and installed supreme leader Khomeini. 

During the demonstrations, the United States embassy would be overrun, and hostages taken by the revolutionaries. The hostages were kept for years as the United States tried to rescue them and negotiate their release. This hostage situation would define the second half of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and American Middle Eastern policies moving forward. 

Thereafter, the United States became hostile toward Iran, both culturally and politically. Congress placed trade embargoes on the nation to ensure that America was no longer selling arms to its military. 

Enter President Ronald Reagan. He needed some way to bring this (now hostile) nation to the bargaining table. His administration came up with the idea to secretly resume arms sales to Iran, and funnel the funds to a violent rebel group in Nicaragua known as the Contras. This was all done without congressional approval, and further complicated U.S.-Iranian relations

Fast-forward a bit to Barack Obama’s time in office. The United States had been hostile toward Iran for years (publicly, at least), and Iran was determined to pursue nuclear independence. President Obama joined with the European Union to negotiate a deal with Iran. This deal was known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA) and would greatly ease most European and American sanctions toward the Islamic Republic. In return, Iran had to restrict uranium enrichment and allow the visitation of agreed upon inspectors.

Experts say the plan largely worked. Iran became relatively less hostile toward America and restrained its nuclear program. Its economy was less isolated, as it could now freely participate in trade with other countries. Iran was no direct ally of the US, but things were looking better. 

That all changed with the beginning of President Trump’s term in office. Anti-Iran rhetoric from Washington ramped up, and eventually, that rhetoric would turn into action, with President Trump unilaterally withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA. Iran reacted predictably. Instead of complying with the demands of the West, it vowed to ignore previous nuclear treaties, and became increasingly hostile once again. 

Not only did President Trump reverse course and place the previously lifted sanctions back on Iran, he added additional, more comprehensive sanctions. These additional sanctions made it virtually impossible for Iran to accept foreign investment or aid or to diversify its economy. 

Naturally, these measures made the government — not to mention the people — of Iran angry toward the United States, which is beginning to feel the unintended consequences of this decision in many ways. Perhaps the most pressing has been the recent Iranian aggression toward America’s ally, Saudi Arabia. Some of that aggression might be unrelated, but some is likely to be legitimate and politically pointed aggression, such as the bombing of Saudi oil fields and the testing of an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz.

As a response, the United States killed Iran’s highest-ranking military official in a drone strike. Not only was this act controversial because there was no declaration of war involved, but it also served to anger the Iranian people further. Worse, it appears to have been totally ineffective, as Iran has shown no sign of capitulating to America’s wishes or changing course. 

In fact, the Iranian regime’s resolve seems to be strengthened. Iranian representatives have expressed an even greater unwillingness to trust American intentions. They have directly cited previous agreements the U.S. has not kept, and is drifting dangerously toward a  potential military partnership with Russia or China. (Iran is already leaning toward those powers in economic and monetary affairs.)

Quite simply, Iran does not trust the intentions or integrity of U.S. officials. American treaties can be signed by one administration, then abruptly dissolved by the next. It makes sense that Iran would not want to bet its economy on the whims of Washington, especially considering the behavior of previous administrations. This makes bargaining more difficult than it should be. The U.S. must either come to the table with real concessions or understand that Iran will have nuclear arms much sooner than Washington desires. 

Recently, Iranian representatives said one key concession could be for Washington to no longer classify the Iranian military as a terrorist organization. Other demands have been suggested, but later dropped. There is the possibility of progress here, but both sides have to be seen as having equally important national interests.

Here’s the reality: Pakistan and India have had nuclear arms for decades and have not used them. North Korea and South Korea also have these capabilities. Israel and Saudi Arabia of course have nuclear arms, too, and are regional rivals to Iran. And it is possible, if not probable, that Iran will gain nuclear capabilities soon. 

What Washington has long been unable to understand is that this course of action from Iran would not be “radical,” but is instead what any nation backed into a proverbial corner might do.

The U.S. could at least slow the process down by agreeing to reasonable terms, and by treating Iran like a nation with agency and self-interest. But, regardless of reasonable attempts to slow the process, it is almost certain that Iran will be a nuclear power in the near future. Instead of denying that reality, it’s time for the U.S. to smooth relations with Iran by declining to act aggressively at every opportunity. That way, when Iran does come on line as a nuclear power, relentless American aggression might not be such a recent and painful memory.

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