Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a session at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, on Dec. 10, 2017. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday that Iran could restore its relations with Saudi Arabia should the kingdom end its "friendship" with Israel. (Xinhua Photo)
by Xinhua writer Zuo Chang
CAIRO, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) -- Iran, long regarded as a thorn in the eye of the United States, has witnessed probably the hardest-fought wrestle with the superpower in 2017, during which their relations hit yet another historic low amid incessant mutual accusations and threats.
It all started with the inauguration of Donald Trump, a former real estate magnate who had no public office experience, as the new U.S. president in January. Since then, the tensions between Tehran and Washington have flared up over the 2015 nuclear deal and Iran's ballistic missile program. The U.S. infuriated Iran by reimposing some sanctions against the Islamic republic.
In face of Washington's tightening sanctions, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the leader of reformist moderates, vowed more interaction with other parts of the world after his successful re-election for a second term by an overwhelming margin in May.
WRANGLE OVER 2015 NUKE DEAL
In July 2015, after a decade of strenuous negotiations, Iran and the six world powers, namely China, Russia, Britain, France, the United States and Germany, struck the final agreement on Iran's controversial nuclear program, in which the West promises to relieve sanctions on Tehran in exchange for a halt in Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
However, as one of the most significant diplomatic legacies of Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, the hard-won nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been running the gauntlet of Trump on his campaign trail and since he became president.
Criticizing the deal as a pact of "disaster" and "embarrassment" for the U.S., Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap the accord if it is not renegotiated in the interests of his country.
Trump saved his harshest words for the deal at the annual United Nations General Assembly in September, where he blasted it as "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into" since the deal "provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program."
In response, Iran has firmly ruled out the possibility of reviewing the JCPOA, and warned of "high costs" for any violation. Calling the U.S. an "unreliable" state and Trump's anti-Iran remarks "spiteful and ignorant," the Islamic republic also said it would mull exit from the deal if the U.S. insists on stronger sanctions.
The dispute between Washington and Tehran culminated in Trump's decision to decertify the nuclear deal in October.
Although the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the monitor of Iran's commitment to the nuclear deal, has again confirmed the country's adherence to the pact, Trump refused to recertify Iran's compliance, citing, among others, Tehran's rejection to the U.S. demand for UN inspection of its military sites.
"In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies in regards to Iran, then the agreement will be terminated," Trump said, leaving the Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Congress punted the tricky question back to Trump, who has not yet announced any final decision on it. The fate of the nuclear deal continues to hang in the balance.
IRANIAN MISSILE PROGRAM UNDER SPOTLIGHT
Citing its concern about regional and international security, the Trump administration has slapped several rounds of sanctions on entities and individuals involved in Iran's missile program and other non-nuclear activities since the beginning of this year.
Washington also said Iran's missile and rocket launches constitute threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond, as they contravene both the spirit and the letter of the UN resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal.
The mounting pressure from Washington, however, has only made Tehran more staunch in asserting its "inalienable right" to develop "defensive" and "deterrent" capabilities for national security.
Iranian officials said the country's ballistic missile activities fall outside the purview of the UN-backed nuclear deal since none of the missiles is designed to carry nuclear warhead.
In July, the Iranian parliament even adopted a motion to reciprocate U.S. "hostile and malicious" polices, which envisages measures to support Iranian armed and security forces as well as Iranian citizens affected by the U.S. sanctions.
Tehran even unveiled a new long-range ballistic missile, which has a range of 2,000 km, during a military parade in late September. In November, on the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran displayed another 2,000-km-range ballistic missile near the old site.
At the core of the issue of Iran's missile program, nonetheless, lies the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), a branch of the country's armed forces which is believed to be the main executor of its ballistic missile tests.
Washington has, more than once, threatened to blacklist it as a terrorist organization, while Tehran, already cornered by U.S. unrelenting sanctions, has vowed "firm, decisive and crushing" retaliation against the potential "strategic mistake."
SILVER LININGS IN IRAN-U.S. TENSIONS
By ruthlessly lashing at the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and its ballistic missile program, the Trump administration has obviously treated the Islamic republic as its primary antagonist in the Middle East.
Iran has created obstacles in almost every way of Washington's exercising its influence in one of the most complicated regions in the world.
But moderate Rouhani's landslide win against hardliners in Iran's presidential election this year offered hope for the easing of the spiralling tension.
By raising the banner of reforms during his campaign, Rouhani garnered 57 percent of the votes, which reflected Iranians' ardent desire for change, better livelihood and peace with their neighbors and other countries.
Iran's closer economic engagement with European countries after the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal also helped calm down the tensions.
Despite the concern over Iran's missile tests and human rights record, the European Union (EU), a traditional ally of the United States, has validated Tehran's commitment to the nuclear deal on several occasions, while seeking to regain its position as the largest trading partner of the Islamic republic.
Encouraged by the EU support and its close ties with Russia and Turkey, Iran said in September that it intends to stay in the nuclear deal even if the U.S. pulls out.
Russia is also suffering from U.S. sanctions after its takeover of Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014, while Turkey is a NATO member that is at loggerheads with Washington over the 2016 failed coup.
Iran even extended overtures to Saudi Arabia, its Sunni arch rival in the Gulf. Despite lukewarm responses from the Saudis, who severed their diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016 due to the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran has said it is seeking to alleviate tensions and ready for rapprochement with the kingdom.
Trump's astounding declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel early the month, if anything, has also struck a positive note for Iran's endeavors to save the nuclear deal.
Jerusalem, revered as the third holiest site in Islam by Muslims and the holiest site by Jews, is one of a few issues that can rally all Islamic countries, including Iran, against the U.S. despite their differences and disputes.
Meanwhile, Trump has placed Washington on the opposite side of the international community, which largely does not recognize Israel's unilateral move to declare Jerusalem as its capital.
More than two years after the nuclear deal came into effect, Iran is still on a bumpy road to realize its full integration into the world.
Apparently, Iran's tensions with the Trump administration have further complicated its bid to seek economic development and expand its regional influence in the Middle East.
The growing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen has also raised fears about more conflicts between the two regional powers.
The U.S.-Iran wrestle over the nuclear deal and Tehran's missile program has so far shown few signs of easing. The best hope should be that it will not deteriorate into a full-blown crisis that will further shake the already instable and chaotic region.