Can the US Shift Toward an Effective Iran Policy?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

An article in Middle East Policy contends it is time to look beyond sanctions and the threat of regime change and seek a balance that supports the Iranian people.

Longstanding anxieties over Iran’s nuclear development have been stoked by the claim of a Defense Department official that the Islamic Republic could produce enough weapons-grade material to build a bomb in less than two weeks’ time. Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy, told Congress in late February, “In 2018, when the previous administration decided to leave the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal] it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one bomb’s worth of fissile material. Now it would take about 12 days.” The revelation comes as the Biden administration explores how to revive key aspects of the 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s uranium-enrichment capabilities.

Despite decades of US sanctions designed to force changes to Iran’s behavior, the nuclear issue remains at the heart of the enmity between Washington and Tehran. But a study recently published in Middle East Policy calls for the United States to reconsider its approach to engaging with the Islamic Republic.

JCPOA Conference

Mahmood Monshipouri and Giorgio Davide Boggio of San Francisco State University assert that while the United States has sought to drive out the regime and to alter its foreign-policy conduct since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the achievements of that agenda have been limited. The 40+ years of increasingly harsh sanctions have not only failed to achieve US goals but have disproportionately impacted the people of Iran. The targeted individuals at the top levels of the government have fared far better under US policies, which has also driven Iran closer to Russia and China.

The American actions, Monshipouri and Boggio show, have decreased opportunities for ordinary Iranians. They note that recent economic crises brought about by crippling sanctions increased the Islamic Republic’s youth unemployment to six times that of its non-youth unemployment, while the jobless rate for women is eight times that for men. Unlike previous generations of young, working-class citizens, Iran’s youth and women today do not have the same opportunity to rise to middle- and upper-class status, and “civil society organizations suffer from a financial paralysis that prohibits reformist pressure on the Islamic Republic from student, worker, and women’s organizations.”

These effects on Iranian citizens have undermined Western objectives and hindered the potential of internal political dissent, such as the Green Movement in 2009 and the continuing protests over the death of a young woman who ran afoul of the religious authorities last year. Indeed, Monshipouri and Boggio argue, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s armed forces deeply ingrained in the processes of the state, has arguably emerged as “the major beneficiary of the sanctions…because of its ability to dodge such sanctions…[and] reap large profits in the black market.” Though the authors contend that a more effective sanctions regime “predicated on fully blocking the regime’s assets and those of its advocates” could be more successful, they argue that diplomacy deserves more attention.

Hassan Rouhani

This analysis by Monshipouri and Boggio preceded the recent announcement that Iran is allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expand its verification and monitoring activities at a number of sites, a provision of the nuclear deal that Iran violated in previous years. Observers see the success of this agreement as a positive and necessary step toward renegotiating the JCPOA and potentially expanding diplomacy. In addition, the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has led to differing analyses in the West about whether deeper Chinese involvement in regional politics can help jumpstart progress toward a new version of the nuclear deal.

Though the last round of talks ground to a halt in the fall of 2022, and political will in the United States and Iran is uncertain, the Middle East Policy contributors conclude with the hope of a path forward:

“The language of diplomacy no longer has the luxury of dogmatism. It is to be hoped that, in its place, we may bear witness to a new foreign policy, one of humanitarianism and support for democracy that strikes a sensible balance between supporting Iranian protesters and signing a nuclear deal with Iran.”


Among the major takeaways readers can find in the Monshipouri and Boggio article:

  • The United States has managed its policy Iran through either military threats or sanctions. These approaches have failed to enact regime change or alter Iran’s foreign policy, which the authors identify as major US goals.

  • Sanctions have had a more damaging effect on the people of Iran than the targeted leaders in Tehran.

    • Youth unemployment at six times that of non-youth unemployment (and women’s unemployment at eight times).

    • One of the worst youth-employment markets in the world, in a country with more restrictions on its citizens’ abilities to travel, work, and study abroad than almost any other.

    • The IRGC has found a way to benefit from sanctions by working the black market.

  • The sanctions have pushed Iran into the arms of Russia and China.

    • A growing economic alliance between Iran and China as Iran is largely cut off from engagement with other states.

    • Years of military cooperation with Russia, specifically the recent trend of exchanging Russian “financial assistance for Iranian expertise in fifth-generation warfare,” specifically drones.

  • Diplomacy deserves more attention as an approach to the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons development.

You can read Monshipouri and Boggio’s article, “Sanctions, Deterrence, Regime Change: A New Look at US-Iran Relations,” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley.



  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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