U.S. Policy toward Iran: Thoughts for the Next Administration

  • 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.

Amb. (ret.) Ronald E. Neumann

President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, Member of the Board of Directors of the Middle East Policy Council

In the 40 plus years of my diplomatic service Iran has moved in American policy from being one of the “Two Pillars” of stability in the Persian Gulf to something approaching Enemy Number 1. Indeed, Iran has been difficult and at times an enemy. Tonight I want to put that into perspective in terms of how much threat and what kind, to discuss the multiplicity of our interests in the region around Iran, and to suggest that we think about policy from our own interests and not just our fears.

An article in Foreign Affairs began from the premise that there can be no rapprochement between Iran and the United States.1 That article went on to orient America’s entire policy in the region to the containment of Iran, advocating that. “In private, U.S. diplomats should convey the message that the way that European countries react to amendments to the [nuclear agreement] will affect their relations with the United States.” In other words, Iran is such a threat that we must warp our relations with our closest allies based on their willingness to follow our lead. We should segregate Iran from the world economy by restoring sanctions. Basically, the article by three distinguished writers (two of them former senior officials) would place opposition to Iran as the organizing principle for an entire regional policy. I find this excessive to the degree of threat. But it is not out of the mainstream. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter listed coping with Iran as a threat on the order of dealing with Russia, China, and North Korea.2

Iran is a problem. It has held our people hostage, imprisoned Americans on specious charges, contributed to groups that have murdered others, backs terrorists, and calls regularly for the end of Israel, a state to whose defense we are pledged. Iran backs groups such as Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, and has contributed to backing minorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, sometimes with arms.

Now let us pause to get this into some perspective in three areas:

• Where Iran has been a help;

• The size of the threat, and

• At least the possibility that many of its actions derive from fear as much as from aggression.

In some cases Iran has helped. It assisted us in the negotiations to establish a government in Afghanistan and in early stabilization thereafter. Indeed, it was still offering cooperation in 2005 when I was ordered to break off talks with the Iranians in Afghanistan, a decision I argued against. In Iraq it fights some of the same enemies. And it did sign and is, so far, implementing the nuclear agreement with the U.S. and our major Security Council partners.

We share some interests, despite all the areas in which we oppose each other. Defeating the Islamic State is a big one. So is avoiding a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. In each case we also have contending interests but they do not obviate what is common.

Iranian policy from their perspective, from the inside looking out as it were, is worth considering. Iran has no friends on its borders. Partly through its own inept diplomacy it has alienated many, leaving it friends only with Armenia (because both dislike Azerbaijan) and the repressive and beleaguered Assad regime in Syria that is essential for Iran’s connection with its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon. Iraq has been a threat for years and could be again if it ever stabilizes. Iranians have not forgotten evacuating much of Tehran’s population from Iraqi missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq war.

To acknowledge that some actions we may find threatening the Iranian government may see as defensive is neither to excuse, nor to find the actions not to be threats to ourselves and our allies. But it is useful to talk about motivation because it is part of how one analyzes threat. Iran may well have hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf area. The Iranian government has seen itself as the most important country in its neighborhood since its ancient monarchs worked on conquering Greece. It saw itself in much the same way during the time of the Shah.

What exactly is the danger of a nuclear armed Iran? For all the rhetoric I doubt that Iran would ever initiate a nuclear exchange with the U.S. or with Israel simply because retaliation would destroy Iran as a nation and as an ideology. Some believe Iran is an irrational state but they cannot find a single action proving it has ever risked destruction. In sum, its political actions have never been suicidal. But with a nuclear shield for deterrence it could well take other actions against our interest or that could threaten our Arabian Peninsula friends and plunge the Gulf region into war. So, I join in worrying about a nuclear Iran while not thinking the threat is existential.

Iran does support terrorist groups. It does so as part of broader policies. It supports Hezbollah as a regional Shia ally (one of the few in the region), because it gives Iran leverage in regional events and, most recently, because it has been an important ally in fighting in Syria. My point in making this distinction, as in looking at support for other terrorist groups, is in no way to justify but, rather, to point out that Iran uses terrorism as a tactic for broader purposes. When we analyze the problem as only of “terrorism” we lose the capacity to deal with motivation and interests, the very things that we have to change to alter the policy.

All this said, Iran has not, now or ever, called for the destruction of the West or the overthrow of its governments as the Soviet Union did. It has not fielded an ideology anything like that of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Whatever its ties to terrorists and its wild language, Iran has remained a “rational actor” state, pulling back when the state itself was threatened. In short, whatever the danger Iran poses, it is not an existential threat to the United States, either in intentions or in capabilities.

Therefore, I conclude that while there are threats from Iran they are nothing like those we faced from the Soviet Union. And I would remind you that even with the Soviets we found ways to work on common interests. So let us put aside the overheated rhetoric and shape policy from the basis of our own interests.

In doing so it is useful to remember two other points. First, we do not have a free hand in designing policy or start from a clean slate. Secondly, that our approach to Iran is a muddle of contradictory messages, something that is almost certain to continue given our open political system and strong feelings in many quarters

With regard to the starting point for policy, there is a legacy of great suspicion on our side as well as on Iran’s. Iran is a live wire politically. We are still settling legal cases that we referred to a court as part of the hostage return agreement of 1979. And when a case settlement results in payment and, as a law abiding country, we pay, we generate a firestorm of domestic criticism, as we saw recently. We are immersed in court judgments against Iran brought in private suits over terrorism issues. We essentially privatized foreign policy through laws that allowed such suits. Now the U.S. government can neither resolve them diplomatically nor force Iran to pay (since it rejects the principle that a sovereign country can be sued against its will).

Secondly, our policy message is confused. Is our policy based on Iran’s actions? That is, would we be prepared for a friendly relationship if Iran changed those policies and practices which we find dangerous? Or is our policy one of regime change? If the former, some combination of rewards and punishments might bring about Iranian policy change. If the latter, Iran would have no reason to change since it would conclude that concessions would only be met with new U.S. hostility.

Whatever we believe about our policy, it is useful to understand that many in Iran believe it is duplicitous and that we regularly break our commitments. There is a long history here, from the hostages in Lebanon, where Iran believes that President George H.W. Bush’s statement that “goodwill begets goodwill”3 was never followed up on after the hostages were released. In that (as in other instances that this short talk does not allow time to go into) there were two sides to the story. The point is that it creates the basis for misunderstanding.

The result is that today we find it logical that we would remove sanctions connected to the nuclear agreement and retain those connected to terrorism. And Iranians find it illogical that we remove sanctions on commerce and then prevent the commerce from occurring because of banking regulations under terrorism legislation. My point is not to argue against the anti-terrorism policy but, simply, to explain why our policy message is confused.

Iran’s message is equally obscure. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif talk of improving relations with regional states while the head of the al-Quods force suggests that Iran might foment violence in Bahrain. Repeated American efforts to reinforce “moderates” within Iran have only confirmed that we have neither the knowledge nor the skill to operate such a policy.

Now, let me return to the issue of interests. One way to approach the discussion is through the following questions:

• What do we want from Iran?

• What must we protect from Iran?

• What can we live with from Iran?

Each of these questions deserves a long answer but let me suggest some points to start with. First, what do we want from Iran? One thing of paramount importance is the maintenance of freedom of navigation and the free flow of oil in the Gulf. This is too important for our own economic health and that of the world for Iran to have any doubt about our willingness to maintain it.

Second is that Iran not develop nuclear weapons. The nuclear agreement has stopped such development for 15 years. It has not settled the question. Whether Iran is obliged to do more or not is not the issue. Neither is Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program. Some of the worry over Iran’s nuclear program may be excessive but the fact remains that not only we but the major powers of the world and the regional Arab states are firmly of the same view. There are a great many actions Iran could take to allay suspicions about its eventual intentions. So this is a big part of what we want.

A third is that Iran cease supporting terrorist actions on the soil of third parties including our Arab Gulf friends, Israel, and neutrals. Formulating our policy in this fashion would separate our opposition to terrorism from Iran’s need for political allies.

A fourth would be clarity about Iran’s policies. Just as our message is mixed, so too is theirs. Fundamental hostility to America is still a major element in ideology and “death to America” is still a popular chant.

There are other things we obviously want, including more help in stabilizing a multi-confessional Iraqi state and reaching a negotiated settlement in Yemen. Achieving each of them may require some compromise with Iranian objectives. Resolving some differences may not be possible. For example, Iran’s objectives in Iraq, aside from defeating ISIS, may never align with ours. At the same time, while these U.S. goals are reasonable objectives none rise to the level of critical U.S. interests.

Under the label of what must we protect, I would include Israel and our Arabian Peninsula friends. Israel needs no explanation. For our Arab allies I would simply observe that it is not possible to work with them in the broad variety of regional and world interests in which we want their cooperation if they are in doubt about our fundamental commitment to their own security. That belief has been the foundation for cooperation since WWII. It is too basic and too central to our own regional security interests to neglect.

It is not our task to get the Arabs to “share the Gulf” as President Obama suggested. Nor do we have an interest in being drawn into the debate over Shia or Sunni preeminence in the region. Our interests reside in finding peaceful ways to handle disputes. The Arabs must be left to find their own relations with Iran, as they have in the past, without sermons from us. What we must do is assure them that their core security is shared and protected.

In setting forth these ideas it follows that there will be areas in which our policies and Iran’s will differ, perhaps seriously. Iran will not give up its alliance with a friendly Syria any more than Turkey will completely subordinate its opposition to certain Kurdish positions in order to work on defeating ISIS. Our challenge will be to find solutions that are just good enough for all parties to find grounds for compromise.

These principles could each be the subject of separate papers, lectures and discussions. Doing so far exceeds this lecture. On the nuclear agreement, we will have to find ways to balance maintaining our side of the agreement with actions in other areas to forestall Iranian actions we deem dangerous. This will be subject to much balancing to make clear that our actions are related to specific Iranian policies and are not, actually, based on regime change. We should expect Iran to test the limits of our resolve. We need to find a path that neither makes the agreement hostage to Iran — a situation where we have to constantly give up other interests to prove our good will — nor allows our pressures to jeopardize an agreement that has pushed the danger of a nuclear armed Iran out for a decade. This will not be easy and each decision will be controversial. One example is that we need to find a way to clarify our banking restrictions so that businesses can easily determine what is possible. Another is the need to maintain opposition to Iranian missile development that test launches with slogans of “death to Israel” painted on the missiles

We should not expect that even the best policy will lead to easy change from Iran. There is far too much history and suspicion on both sides for that to be possible. But this brings me back to the need for clarity about our own policy. Many Iranians fear our intentions are hostile. Many within our own body politic fear that the Obama administration is willing to jeopardize too many other relationships and interests in the search for a better relationship with Iran. What is needed therefore is a much clearer statement of what we are about; what we want, what the limits are to what we want, and what we are determined to maintain. Such a statement will be both disbelieved by many in Iran and disliked by many at home. Credibility — that is, that the message actually describes our policy intentions — will come only over an extended time. Our actions and our words need to reinforce each other and they will need to do so for a considerable period of time. Only when actions and policy goals are clearly and publicly consistent and maintained over time can any policy achieve credibility.


1 Eliot A. Cohen, Eric S. Edelman and Ray Takeyh, “Time to Get Tough on Tehran: Iran Policy After the Deal,” Foreign Policy (January/February 2016).

2 Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Remarks at the World Affairs Council Global Education Gala , Washington D.C., March 29, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/708231/remarks-at-the-world-affairs-council-global-education-gala.

3 Richard H. Haass, “The George H. W. Bush Administration,” in The Iran Primer (U.S. Institute of Peace), http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/george-hw-bush-administration.

  • 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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