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U.S.-Iran 2017: Engagement or Confrontation?

After nearly four decades of estrangement, U.S.-Iran relations have seen substantial progress over the past two years. The historic nuclear agreement, peaceful resolution of the U.S. Navy sailor incident, multilateral cooperation on Syria, the first-ever conversation between the two countries’ Presidents as well direct diplomatic engagement in other venues, all offer a promise of a potential constructive U.S.-Iran engagement. This is while Iran undeniably remains a major strategic challenge for the United States in the region and important differences remain on both sides. Despite whatever perspective one takes, U.S.-Iran relations remain an area of high policy and public concern for the coming administration in both countries.

This coming year offers a possibility to build upon this tenuous framework of engagement or once again — as done under the Bush administration and that of Ahmadinejad’s — ruin the foundations of what could be a promising bridge toward peace and stability for the United States, Iran and the wider region. The Trump administration is taking office at a unique time where it has an opportunity to significantly build on his campaign’s promise of domestic economic growth through commercial engagement with Iran while maintaining its reservations against the government of the Islamic Regime. This can be achieved through conducting U.S.-Iran relations through economic and people-to-people engagement.

For many observers the economic interest in Iran is somewhat overlooked, but not by all. It is critical that as President-elect Trump takes office, he and his team don’t overlook the EU’s strong interest in economic engagement with Iran, a relatively large market of 80 million with a young population that sits in one of the most strategic hot spots in the world. Of course, “working with Iran” does not mean that the two countries are or should be “friends”. Rather, this could signal the mutual understanding that a coercive relationship between the two countries will prove more harmful to economic interests and regional stability than beneficial.

Importantly, the Iranian regime, under the government of moderate President Hassan Rouhani — who will be up for re-election in June 2017 — has demonstrated interest in global engagement and working to demilitarize Iran’s image on the international stage. On the sidelines of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly in September, Javad Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister and Sorena Sattari, one of the country’s Vice Presidents, both emphasized Iran’s need to foster global economic engagement, use its large pool of young, highly educated human capital and diversify its economy away from hydrocarbon dependency toward trade, entrepreneurial opportunities and empowering the private sector.

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