U.S. Hostility With Iran Only Serves Hardliners on Both Sides

The countries’ interests overlap in some key ways. Biden can work with that.

A picture of the front pages of Farsi newspapers with headlines featuring the 2020 U.S. presidential election results in Tehran on Nov. 8.
A picture of the front pages of Farsi newspapers with headlines featuring the 2020 U.S. presidential election results in Tehran on Nov. 8. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

In the aftermath of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, U.S. and European think tanks and pundits are flooding the internet with papers about how to fix this or that aspect of U.S. foreign policy after four years of President Donald Trump.

The Atlantic Council and the European Leadership Network, with an assist from the top Iran hand at the European Council on Foreign Relations, just put out a roadmap for Europe to act as a bridge between Iran and the incoming Biden team. The recommendations seek to salvage the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—by returning the United States and Iran to compliance, promoting regional conflict resolution, and reviving people-to-people engagement.

In the longer run, however, U.S.-Iranian relations need a more radical rethink. For about 40 years, they’ve been going in circles, with occasional flickers of détente interrupting longer periods of economic warfare, cyber-attacks, and loss of life from direct and indirect military confrontation. Just last week, Trump reportedly asked for options to bomb Iranian nuclear sites—a reckless escalation that even Mike Pompeo, his hawkish secretary of state, is said to have opposed. The mutual hostility serves hardliners on both sides—and the arms dealers that cater to their respective regional partners—but also hurts U.S. national interests and, most especially, the Iranian people. It also hobbles Iran’s ties with European and Asian democracies.

The first order of business for a Biden administration may well be to freeze Iran’s slow walk out of the JCPOA in return for calibrated sanctions relief. But the Bidenites should be thinking of something much bolder, to be conveyed to Iran through back-channel talks in the region or in Europe.

The United States’ ability to advance its interests in the Middle East has been severely undermined by its lack of a functioning diplomatic relationship with Iran, the largest, most populous, and most scientifically advanced (apart from Israel) country in the region. Estrangement has left successive U.S. administrations reliant on Arab autocrats and an increasingly undemocratic Israel, which has in turn boosted Iran’s influence among Arab Shias and handed Russia and China increasing economic and strategic power.

Twice, U.S. and Iranian interests have actually coincided to a surprising extent—in post-2001 Afghanistan and post-2003 Iraq—but the George W. Bush administration put Iran in its crosshairs as a charter member of the “axis of evil” rather than building on Washington and Tehran’s shared animosity toward the Taliban and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Instead, Iran exploited the power vacuums created by U.S. military interventions and the chaos that followed the 2011 Arab Spring to build new Shia militias in Iraq and to deepen ties with Yemen’s Houthi rebel groups. Despite that success, though, Iran has dramatically underperformed in economic terms compared to countries that 40 years ago were at similar stages of development.

As long as the United States and Iran are at so deeply at odds, Iran will continue to thwart U.S. interests while also failing to achieve its potential—and its government will remain chronically unpopular and insecure.

So what to do? The Biden administration should propose a serious rollback of U.S. sanctions—including over the use of the U.S. dollar—in return for diplomatic relations, a JCPOA 2.0 that indefinitely extends restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, and a nonaggression pact.

Critics will no doubt call such a proposal naïve and unattainable. They may point out that Iran’s leadership needs continued animosity with the United States to survive. But the prospects for a big breakthrough between the two countries are bolstered by the fact that the American people are sick of U.S. military confrontations in the Middle East, and Iranians are fed up with being isolated.

Iran, of course, has long sought a reduction in U.S. forces in the region, which it perceives as part of a provocative containment regime. As Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif put it to American journalists a few years ago: “Have you seen that map with all the US bases around us and said, ‘Why are these Iranians putting their country in the middle of all these bases?’”

Since the 1980s, when the United States escorted Kuwaiti tankers down the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. military has had a large presence on Iran’s flanks. Since 2003, tens of thousands of American troops have been based to Iran’s east and west and the U.S. navy remains a near constant presence near the Strait of Hormuz, the main chokepoint for Iranian and Arab oil exports.

The value of that oil is declining, however, as the world confronts the need to deal with climate change. Iran’s Arab neighbors have learned that the United States, with its rotating administrations, can be a fickle friend, while Iran, as Zarif put it in a recent tweet, will be there “forever.” All of the parties involved, more than ever, need to focus on their own domestic problems and divisions, which have only grown more acute and worrisome thanks to this year’s pandemic and accompanying economic crisis.

It isn’t guaranteed that a grand bargain with Iran will work when it has not in the past. But it is still worth an effort. And even if such overtures only result in a tenuous détente, it would be better than where the world is now.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.  Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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