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A large crowd of Iranian supporters of Masoud Pezeshkian gather in Tehran; in the foreground, a young woman shouts her endorsement while holding up a campaign sign.
A supporter of reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian at a campaign event in Tehran on June 23, 2024. Vahid Salemi/AP Photo

Diplomacy, sanctions and soft power have failed to deter Iran’s anti-West agenda − could a new Iranian president change that?

Iran’s presidential election on June 28 may provide Tehran an opportunity to press reset on foreign policy issues after years of increasing hawkishness. Indeed, a key campaign issue has been the extent to which the candidates may – or may not – pivot to more engagement with the West.

While the supreme leader – the country’s highest religious and political authority – is the ultimate arbiter on dealing with international powers, Iran’s president has influence in a political system in which there are multiple centers of power.

The presidential vote, which was forced by the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a May 2024 helicopter crash, comes as Iran wrestles with major interrelated domestic, regional and global concerns. The country’s economy continues to suffer from international sanctions, the latest round of which were levied by the U.S. and U.K. in April 2024 after Iran conducted a direct strike on Israel.

Sanctions aren’t the West’s only way to apply pressure on Tehran: Cyber warfare, soft power and military might are also at countries’ disposal. Yet Iran’s activities – such as funding proxy militant groups, circumventing sanctions through China and Russia and advancing its domestic nuclear and missiles programs – have continued unabated in recent years.

As experts on U.S. foreign policy and Iran, we believe this raises an important question: Are the U.S. and its allies’ efforts at deterring Iran having any impact? And could a change in president provide an opportunity for the West to revamp its approach to Iran?

The limits of diplomacy

Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the U.S. and Iran have had no formal diplomatic ties. But that doesn’t mean that there are no diplomatic efforts. In fact, there are unofficial channels, such as the U.S. working through the Swiss government.

But U.S. diplomatic efforts with Iran are complicated at the best of times. They’re prone to disruption when the U.S. or Iran changes leadership and have been made only more difficult as Iran has grown closer with China and Russia.

Two men search through rubble.
Rubble at a destroyed Iran consular building struck by Israeli jets in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 1, 2024. SANA via AP

The result has been an inconsistent diplomatic policy when it comes to how the U.S., and the West more generally, deal with Tehran.

This is a result, in part, of China gaining more influence in the Middle East and deepening its economic and strategic ties with Tehran. Similarly, Russia has strengthened military, political and economic links with Iran.

This has blunted the impact of Western diplomacy; Iran simply doesn’t feel compelled to come to an agreement with the U.S. and its allies on security interests.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear nonproliferation agreement signed in 2015 but abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018, is a prime example. Western leaders have sought to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, but they failed to get cooperation from Iran after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement.

Despite this lack of progress, the U.S. and Iran still have lines of communication. After Israel’s attack on an Iranian Embassy compound in Syria, the U.S. clearly signaled to Tehran it had no involvement in the operation in an apparent attempt to avoid a retaliatory strike on U.S. interests in the region.

Nonetheless, Iran has little incentive to negotiate given the inconsistent, unpredictable policies of U.S. leadership.

Meanwhile, an impending U.S.-Saudi security pact could push Iran further from engagement with the West and closer to China and Russia’s orbit.

The U.S. and Europe ultimately have two goals: to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon and to reduce Iran-sponsored conflict in the Middle East.

But to date, both goals seem elusive, with Iran’s continued, unabated uranium enrichment and its attacks throughout the Middle East regularly taking place.

In the past, Iran gave diplomacy a chance out of fear that not showing some willingness could play into the hands of Western hawks who are pushing for military strikes against Iran.

A new reformist president in Iran could galvanize support for bringing diplomats to the negotiating table. However, it would likely need the supreme leader’s blessing.

In any event, the next president is looking more likely to be a hard-liner aligned with the supreme leader. And while they may feel domestic and international pressure to advocate for a more conciliatory tone, they may just as easily double down on current policy.

Peddling soft power

With confidence in reaching a diplomatic solution waning, the U.S. and its allies have turned to other means to pressure Iran.

Western intelligence agencies have carried out various information campaigns and cyber operations aimed at undermining confidence in Iran’s leaders and their regional strategies.

For example, in 2010 a joint U.S.-Israel cyber operation named Stuxnet compromised the Natanz nuclear material enrichment facility in Iran, degrading and disrupting normal centrifuge operations while signaling to operators they were operating normally.

An exterior of industrial building with a sign in front of it.
A heavy water production facility in Arak, Iran. AP Photo/Fars News Agancy

Such operations continue to this day in response to Iran’s failing to address U.S. security concerns on nuclear proliferation and its anti-West activities in the region.

Tehran likewise engages in cyber warfare. In 2023, a U.S. report warned that Iran is likely to increase its use of aggressive cyber operations to achieve its policy goals. They include the use of state-sponsored proxies to deploy destructive malware and ransomware.

The Iranian presidential election comes amid a backdrop of domestic discontent – and offers the West an opportunity to flex another tactic to pressure Tehran: anti-regime propaganda.

In an effort to reduce support for the existing government and sow discontent among the Iranian public, independent radio and news networks backed by the U.S. and its European allies have targeted the Iranian public with anti-Iranian government messaging and amplified local protests.

Falling back on sanctions

Iran’s presidential candidates have broadly promised sanctions relief, potentially to counter messaging from the West. Such efforts suggest the candidates are sensitive to the sanctions’ disproportionate effects on everyday Iranians, particularly the middle class.

In recent years, the U.S. and Europe have increased sanctions on Iran for a variety of reasons. Iran’s repressive response to the 2022 protests following the death of a young woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, in police custody triggered various sanctions from the European Union. Most recently, in April, the U.S. and U.K. leveraged sanctions to dissuade Iran from escalating the conflict in the Middle East and selling drones to Russia.

Sanctions, such as those leveraged during the U.S.’s maximum pressure campaign during Trump’s presidency, have undeniably placed some pressure on Iran’s financial systems and trade. You can see their influence in the country’s high inflation rates and economic contraction.

But some analysts have argued that the campaign has hardened Iran and undermined diplomatic efforts.

Others hold that sanctions have had no effect, given how Russia and China have provided relief by giving Iran access to their markets.

While sanctions have demonstrably weakened Iran’s economy, their success in achieving the broader strategy of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table – particularly concerning its nuclear program and regional activities – is less clear.

Turning to military means?

Since Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, the U.S. has shown a growing willingness to turn to military responses to counter Iranian-backed groups.

The most notable U.S. and U.K. airstrikes occurred in February, in retaliation for an earlier drone strike by an Iranian-backed group that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan.

To date, Western airstrikes have carried more of a symbolic effect aimed at dampening Iranian-backed provocations. But they demonstrate the U.S. and its allies’ military might.

In recent years, diplomacy, sanctions and soft power have failed to entice Iran’s leaders back to the table. Iran’s new president may well continue down the path of disengagement, but doing so risks inviting the West to sharpen its deterrence response.

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