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Which Path to Persia?

Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran

Analysis paper number 20, June 2009

Published by The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.


  • Kenneth M. Pollack
  • Daniel L. Byman
  • Martin Indyk
  • Suzanne Maloney
  • Michael E. O’Hanlon
  • Bruce Riedel


The Trouble with Tehran

U.S. Policy Options toward Iran

What should the United States do about Iran? The question is easily asked, but for nearly 30 years, Washington has had difficulty coming up with a good answer. The Islamic Republic presents a particularly confounding series of challenges for the United States. Many Iranian leaders regard the United States as their greatest enemy for ideological, nationalistic, and/or security reasons, while a great many average Iranians evince the most pro-American feelings of any in the Muslim world. Unlike other states that may also fear or loathe the United States, Iran’s leaders have consistently acted on these beliefs, working assiduously to undermine American interests and influence throughout the Middle East, albeit with greater or lesser degrees of success at different times. Moreover, Iranian foreign policy is frequently driven by internal political considerations that are both difficult to discern by the outside world and even harder to influence. More than once, Iran has followed a course that to outsiders appeared self-defeating but galvanized the Iranian people to make far-reaching sacrifices in the name of seemingly quixotic goals.

Despite these frustrating realities, the United States is not in a position to simply ignore Iran either. Iran is an important country in a critical part of the world. Although Tehran’s role in creating problems in the Middle East is often exaggerated, it has unquestionably taken advantage of the growing instability there (itself partly a result of American missteps) to make important gains, often at Washington’s expense. Meanwhile, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, properly understood, warned that Tehran was likely to acquire the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons at some point in the next decade.

An Undistinguished Record

Perhaps not surprisingly, the track record of U.S. policies toward Iran is not particularly impressive. Since 1979 Washington has tried everything from undeclared warfare to unilateral concessions. These policies have done better at limiting Iranian mischief making than their critics will admit but have largely failed to convince Tehran to drop its support for terrorist groups, its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, or its wider efforts to overturn the regional status quo.

For its part, the Bush 43 Administration had no explicit policy toward Tehran for its first two to three years. The administration simply did not know what to do about Iran and relegated it to the “too hard box,” which led to crosswise tactical decisions—like accepting Iranian cooperation against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida early on but musing indiscreetly about bringing regime change to Tehran after Kabul and Baghdad. Only in 2003-2004, after the surprising progress of Iran’s nuclear program was revealed, did Washington adopt a deliberate approach to Tehran. In part because of the inherent difficulties in dealing with Iran, and in part because of the deep divisions within the Bush 43 Administration, the resulting policy attempted to straddle at least two very different approaches: attempting to mobilize international pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program while retaining, at least rhetorically, the threat to pursue regime change (if not military action)— and being unwilling to take further actions in the diplomatic sphere that were seen as “soft” on Tehran or otherwise inconsistent with regime change.

The U.S. officials charged with implementing the Bush Administration’s policy of diplomatic pressure on Iran played a weak hand surprisingly well. Despite the constraints placed on them—particularly their inability to offer significant positive incentives to Iran or to other key international actors to secure their cooperation—they devised novel financial sanctions that caused real pain in Tehran and convinced reluctant foreign governments to apply ever greater pressure, including four UN Security Council resolutions enacted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Despite these accomplishments, the Bush Administration’s approach was wearing thin before the president left office. Although battered, Tehran has so far withstood the international pressure and has made steady progress toward acquiring a nuclear capability. Throughout the region, Iran’s star is seen as waxing while that of the United States wanes. Consequently, there is an emerging consensus within the American foreign policy establishment that the Obama Administration will have to adopt a new policy toward Iran, and possibly a more ambitious one, which can succeed where its predecessors’ have failed.

The political, think-tank, and academic communities have not been reticent about proposing new Iran policies, but the overall result has been somewhat disappointing. No one has been able to devise an approach toward Iran that would have a high likelihood of achieving American objectives at a reasonable price. Moreover, the options that have been proposed often seek to accomplish very different goals depending on what the respective advocate believes the United States should be seeking to accomplish. The result has been a cacophony that has confused far more than it has clarified at a time when the American people and their new president desperately need a clear-eyed explication of the various options available so that they can make an informed choice regarding which course to follow.

President Barack Obama has already taken up this gauntlet. Since coming to office, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly stated that they would like to begin a process of direct dialogue with Tehran. Still, the president has emphasized that such engagement will be part of a wider strategy of carrots and sticks aimed at encouraging Tehran to modify its behavior. In particular, the president has made clear that he hopes to build an international consensus to impose much harsher sanctions on Tehran should the Iranian leadership refuse Washington’s newly extended hand of friendship. Whether this approach can do better than its predecessors remains very much up in the air. At the very least, it should be thoroughly examined and tested to determine how best to implement it, and to try to ascertain the likelihood of its success. Moreover, because its prospects are uncertain and American policies toward Iran have a bad habit of falling short of their mark, it is also important to consider alternatives, contingencies, follow-ons, and fallbacks from the administration’s chosen approach.

A Very Hard Target

The problem of formulating an effective new U.S. policy toward Iran starts in Tehran. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, much of the Iranian leadership has harbored considerable antipathy toward the United States. Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini himself saw the world as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, with Iran standing as the champion of good (and of Islam, synonymous concepts in his mind) and the United States as the champion of everything evil. This set of beliefs lay at the core of his thinking and became a foundational element in the philosophy and claims to legitimacy of the regime. While there is no question that some Iranian leaders and most of the Iranian people would like better relations with the United States, this core belief continues to inspire other, often more powerful, Iranian actors and institutions. In particular, Iran’s president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is by all accounts a devout adherent to Khomeini’s conception, including his philosophical suspicion and loathing of the United States. Even among those Iranian leaders who have long since moved beyond the imam’s ideology, many still see the United States as a more traditional rival in southwest Asia, where a great many Iranians believe that their nation should, by nature or divine right, hold some form of dominion. Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, may or may not share his predecessor’s hatred of America, but his words and deeds indicate that he is deeply suspicious, even fearful, of the United States.


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