The idea that the United States and Iran are locked in a "shadow war" has almost imperceptibly evolved into a new conventional wisdom. But this idea is not only conceptually confusing and historically misleading, it poses a serious risk of normalizing hostile interactions and expectations of conflict. The long public debate about the need for a more credible military threat for Iran’s non-compliance in nuclear talks, the escalating use of sanctions as coercive diplomacy, the occasional dramatic revelations about the use of nonconventional force — from targeting killings to cyber attacks — create a perception of a virtual war, and crowd out a more reasoned discussion of U.S. goals and objectives vis-à-vis Iran, and how to achieve them.
The rhetorical use of "war" to describe U.S.-Iranian relations has been harmful, although such imprecise use of the word is not unique to Iran. War is used to describe counterterrorism efforts, and its use in domestic contexts (war on poverty, for example) has trivialized the term. History has also dumbed down the meaning; countries no longer exercise the quaint courtesy of declaring war to warn an adversary about the commencement of hostilities, and evolving international norms prefer the management of conflict to the formalities of war and peace. Most wars are undeclared, and peace agreements are sometimes not irrevocable commitments. Still, labeling U.S.-Iranian relations as in a state of war creates a mindset in both publics and political classes that undermines prospects for any normalization of relations.
To be sure, the Iranians are less conflicted about the use of the term. At the highest level, it is reported, the leadership is convinced the United States has a clear goal of regime change, and that is tantamount to war. Occasional statements that the United States accepts the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and that regime change is not the official policy, have not persuaded the Supreme Leader and his circle. Tehran has fairly steadily used nonconventional means short of full-scale combat to deter U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan most recently, and to aid various non-Iranian forces from Hezbollah to Iraqi insurgents to try to degrade U.S. (or Israeli) military effectiveness and morale more broadly in the region. It has shied away from normal diplomatic engagement.
The Cold War was premised on a peer rivalry, a deep strategic competition about conflicting worldviews that directly shaped prospects for world peace and stability. The U.S.-Iranian dynamic, in contrast, is complicated by many asymmetries and imbalances. Iran is a country of intrinsic regional importance, but not a great global power or a peer rival of the United States. What Iran needs or wants from the United States is vital to its interests if not survival; Washington faces no existential threat should its policies to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons fail. (In contrast, Israeli leaders face a more fundamental threat from Iran, and their reciprocal nonconventional attacks constitute a real "shadow war.") The current nuclear talks posit symmetry of reciprocal steps, but only to build confidence, not to suggest that there are two equally aggrieved parties seeking a settlement. The burden is much more on Iran to restore its standing internationally. Iran is indisputably the weaker party; its defiance and confident assertions do not disguise its underlying insecurity concerning the United States.
Domestic factors also play out differently in the two countries. Iran’s leadership plays to its revolutionary base in using anti-Americanism as a rallying cry. But Iran’s educated middle class is deeply alienated, harbors more favorable views of American culture if not political leadership, and would like to see Iran out of the international penalty box. Reports of intra-elite disputes about how to engage the United States have persisted over the years, yet the Supreme Leader is the ultimate decider, and he is decidedly mistrustful of Washington.
The United States, in contrast, airs its struggles over what to do about Iran more publicly, and the American public has hardened its views about Iran and the acceptability of the use of force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Polls in early 2012 show that Americans still want diplomacy and sanctions to work, but some polls also reveal support for military action should diplomacy fail. The United States lacks strong interest group pressures for diplomatic engagement with Iran; with the exception of a growing voice from moderate Iranian-Americans and part of the foreign policy expert community, there is no vibrant Iran "lobby" as there once was, when the United States had significant commercial, cultural, and security ties to the country.
David Crist, a government military historian and author of The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty Year Conflict with Iran, tells the history of the use of force in this troubled relationship with great flair. He judges that "the two countries have been engaged in a largely unknown quasi-war since the Iranian Revolution in 1979" (p. 6). He relates the military efforts to free the U.S. hostages, support Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, engage Tehran in the Iran-Contra affair, resolve various Lebanese hostage crises, thwart Iranian support for terrorists and insurgents, and send signals and set redlines in naval episodes in the Persian Gulf. Crist’s most valuable contribution is providing insight into how official policy looks to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines deployed to the theater. While their commanders may see their task as avoiding conflict, lower ranking military actors may be internalizing Iran as the enemy, and absent any sign of successful engagement, may accept the framing of U.S.-Iranian relations as relentlessly hostile and conflictual.
The burden is on civilian leaders to shape Americans’ perceptions of U.S. interests and goals relating to Iran, and that has proven to be exceedingly difficult. The history of engagement efforts often seems to be an embarrassing plot from a bad movie: a U.S. president lurks in a basement corridor in New York hoping to bump into his Iranian counterpart, an Iranian leader faxes a grand compromise proposal to a disbelieving White House staff, or abruptly sends an invitation for a meeting in Tehran to a senior U.S. diplomat. The depth of mutual mistrust suggests little room for optimism about the likely course of U.S.-Iranian relations, as least as long as the revolutionary leaders are still in place in Tehran. It is possible that a less insular leadership would be more willing to engage productively with the United States, and that the U.S. political system would be ready to give a successor generation in Iran a chance to prove its bona fides. The United States’ ability to recast its perceptions of Iran and its behavior will depend heavily on avoiding the worst case scenarios vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear activities, and a de-escalation of the sectarian tensions that pit the United States and Iran on opposing sides in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. That is a tall order, and a further militarization of U.S.-Iranian relations is certainly possible. It will take courage and luck to achieve more positive outcomes. In the meantime, planning for a better day should not be left to diplomats and military officials alone. Iran is rich in human talent, and engaging the country’s scientists, medical professionals, cultural figures, and students is a worthy investment. The war talk has created a very one-dimensional view of Iran, and a limited and disturbing view of what’s at stake for the United States. The future of U.S.-Iranian relations will require a sustained effort to build better bridges between the two societies, and to help ensure that the war talk not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ellen Laipson is president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center.