America’s Iran Follies

How two decades of misjudgments by Washington helped lead Tehran to the nuclear brink.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
American and Iranian flags, with a man removing the Iranian one
American and Iranian flags, with a man removing the Iranian one
A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on July 14, 2015. CARLOS BARRIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

After more than two decades of failed policies—fluctuating wildly between confrontation and cooperation—Washington and the West still find themselves facing down a hostile Iran. And today, though it is in dire shape economically, Tehran may be close to delivering the final rebuff, with experts saying it is just weeks away from achieving nuclear bomb capability.

This week, all but giving up on their fitful attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France drafted a resolution to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, criticizing Iran’s lack of cooperation. It passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday. Iran responded angrily by shutting off a number of IAEA surveillance cameras and making plans to upgrade uranium enrichment, in what IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said could be a “fatal blow” to the deal. And even as protests in the streets aimed at Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are reigniting a decades-old dream of regime change in Tehran, there is likely little hope of that, either.

Yet so broken is the U.S. strategy that all it depends on any longer is hope, some experts say: “Bottom line, we’re drifting, hoping that Iran won’t push the nuclear envelope; Israel won’t do something really big; and Iran and its proxies don’t kill a lot of Americans in Iraq or elsewhere,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East negotiator. “That’s not a strategy.”

After more than two decades of failed policies—fluctuating wildly between confrontation and cooperation—Washington and the West still find themselves facing down a hostile Iran. And today, though it is in dire shape economically, Tehran may be close to delivering the final rebuff, with experts saying it is just weeks away from achieving nuclear bomb capability.

This week, all but giving up on their fitful attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France drafted a resolution to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, criticizing Iran’s lack of cooperation. It passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday. Iran responded angrily by shutting off a number of IAEA surveillance cameras and making plans to upgrade uranium enrichment, in what IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said could be a “fatal blow” to the deal. And even as protests in the streets aimed at Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are reigniting a decades-old dream of regime change in Tehran, there is likely little hope of that, either.

Yet so broken is the U.S. strategy that all it depends on any longer is hope, some experts say: “Bottom line, we’re drifting, hoping that Iran won’t push the nuclear envelope; Israel won’t do something really big; and Iran and its proxies don’t kill a lot of Americans in Iraq or elsewhere,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East negotiator. “That’s not a strategy.”

It didn’t have to be this way, many experts say. The last two decades of U.S.-Iran relations are a catalog of missed opportunities, botched openings, and profound misunderstandings on both sides. Even CIA Director William Burns—a key player in opening up new channels to Tehran in the past—has said so repeatedly in interviews and his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel. The only exception was then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s nuclear pact, which now appears to be on life support despite President Joe Biden’s cautious efforts to revive the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Yet even those efforts have laid bare how conflicted and hesitant the U.S. and Western approach has been. “The Biden team, willfully or not, did not move fast enough to engage the same Iranian administration that had negotiated the JCPOA,” said Hussein Banai, co-author of a highly praised recent report on relations between Iran and the West, Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict. 

“The lackluster approach toward the JCPOA, in turn, empowered the hardline conservatives in Tehran to adopt a narrative on the deal that was all about American bad faith and European complicity in only pressuring Iran on concessions,” said Banai, an international relations scholar at Indiana University. “After the election [in mid-2021] of the new conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian narrative went into overdrive.”

Most Iran observers agree that even in the best of all possible worlds—if then-U.S. President Donald Trump hadn’t reneged on the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed his so-called maximum pressure campaign starting in 2018—U.S.-Iran relations would still be deeply strained.

“Look at Obama’s statement after the signing of the JCPOA. He was very clear that we don’t have any illusions about a better relationship or about Iran being a good actor in the region. And this was the most amenable president we’ve had toward Iran in 45 years,” said John Tirman, executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies and another co-author of Republics of Myth, which is based on years of high-level conferences on Iran-U.S. relations. (In his July 14, 2015, remarks announcing the pact, Obama called Iran a “sworn adversary.”)

Indeed, the Islamic Republic of Iran was virtually founded on anti-U.S. sentiment—the preamble to its constitution states that the “motive force” behind the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the “American plot” to back then-Shah Reza Pahlavi’s “despotic regime” and consolidate “Iran’s political, cultural and economic links with World Imperialism.”

“The United States for the last hundred years has been expansionist in its view of its role in the world,” Tirman said. “But that clashes with the longtime Iranian belief that everybody’s out to get them. So you have these two major mindsets that are fundamentally in conflict with each other.”

Still, Tirman and other experts say many major opportunities for genuine entente were missed. These date back to the aftermath of 9/11, when the United States under then-President George W. Bush rejected Iranian efforts at cooperation and instead made Tehran part of its “Axis of Evil” with Iraq and North Korea, though those nations had little to do with one another. “The Iranians actually didn’t have much of a nuclear program then,” said James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who was leading talks with Tehran at the time, in an interview this week. “I think the Bush administration, which was making a lot of mistakes at the time, was ideologically unable to deal with an Iran that was reaching out.”


In the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, even Iran, like many countries, sent its sympathies to Washington. Iranian reformers such as then-Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—who had studied in the United States and later became U.N. ambassador and then foreign minister, negotiating the 2015 deal—were looking to reach out. Even the supreme leader, Khamenei—a hard-line ideologue chronically suspicious of America—agreed to soften the regime’s rhetoric and extend condolences, to the surprise of reformers inside Tehran.

At the U.N. that November, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was engaged in talks with foreign ministers from Russia, the United States, and Afghanistan’s six neighbors, including Iran, to explore a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Powell—who died last October at 84—recalled in a 2007 interview that then-Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi delivered a statement expressing his nation’s sorrow over the accidental crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on Nov. 12, which killed all 260 people aboard, saying his prayers were with their families. Afterward, Powell said, “I just walked up to him and thanked him for his expression of condolences. And I asked that he pay my respects back to his leader. It was all pretty spontaneous.” The handshake between Powell and Kharrazi was the highest-level display of comity between the two sides since the two nations severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Things seemed to improve from there. Later that month, at the peace conference in Bonn, Germany, called to decide on the post-Taliban government, Zarif proved to be a key conciliator, U.S. officials said. The Iranians “made a number of constructive suggestions throughout the meeting,” Dobbins, then the chief U.S. negotiator, recalled in an interview a few years later. Zarif provided two that are now heavy with irony. “He said, with a certain twinkle in his eye: ‘I don’t think there’s anything in it that mentions democracy. Don’t you think there could be some commitment to democratization?’ This was before the Bush administration had discovered democracy as a panacea for the Middle East. I said, ‘That’s a good idea,’” Dobbins said in the mid-2000s. “Remember, the Iranians really do think they run a democratic society, in which even the supreme leader is elected, albeit indirectly.” The democracy provision was added. Zarif also proposed that a new Afghan government state it is committed to fighting international terrorism. “As far as I know that was put in too,” Dobbins said.

At the Tokyo donors conference in January 2002, Iran pledged around $550 million worth of assistance to Afghanistan. It was the largest amount offered by any non-OECD country and was about the same amount as that pledged by Washington. But a week after that conference ended, Bush gave his infamous State of the Union speech, lumping Iran in with Iraq and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil.” Iranian reformers were rocked by this, fearing it would validate the skepticism of the hard-liners. Even so, Tehran’s attempts at outreach continued following Bush’s speech, as well as after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Washington Post later reported that only days after the “Axis of Evil” speech, Zarif passed along to then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan a thick file with the photos and travel documents of 290 men. Iran said they were al Qaeda terrorists who were arrested as they tried to flee across the border from Afghanistan.

At the time, said Dobbins, even the ultramilitant Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the core of the Iranian regime’s support that Trump later designated a terrorist group—was willing to negotiate with Washington, along with the Quds Force, the IRGC offshore unit later blamed for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. “The IRGC were on board. I met with a Quds Force general who even offered cooperation under U.S. leadership in Afghanistan,” Dobbins said this week. “At that time they were reasonably coherent. It was an integrated policy.”

But Bush and the senior hard-liners in his government, principally Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saw Iran as just another terrorist-harboring state. In May 2003, terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia killed dozens of people on three expatriate housing compounds in Riyadh, including at least seven Americans. In Washington, the Bush administration quickly blamed Tehran for supposedly harboring an alleged culprit, Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian terrorist wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Adel was then third on the U.S. government’s list of most-wanted al Qaeda leaders after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Iranians contended that Adel was under house arrest in Iran, but Washington insisted that he was operating a cell that organized the Riyadh bombings. “There’s no question but that there have been and are today senior al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy,” Rumsfeld said.

Yet no real evidence of Iranian complicity was given. “The United States, due to a confluence of events and personalities, missed a superb opportunity to do what Obama and Bill Burns did years later: open a fruitful dialogue,” Powell’s former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, said in an email this week.

Iran made one final attempt during that period when it faxed, via the then-Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Tim Guldimann, a back-channel proposal for broad-based talks with the United States on most major outstanding issues, including the nuclear program, Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and regime change. The Bush administration ignored the initiative, claiming it wasn’t clear who drafted it. Afterward mounting tensions helped lead to the 2005 election of Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who renounced Iran’s nuclear fuel-development program freeze, which Tehran had announced in November 2004 as a “confidence-building” measure. Ahmadinejad unsealed Iran’s conversion facilities at Isfahan and continued efforts at Natanz, Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant. Meanwhile, as the insurgency rose in Iraq under U.S. occupation, Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials continued to blame Iran for playing a part in attacks on American troops.

And Iran was hardly blameless as relations hardened. Tehran used Washington’s vulnerability during the Iraq insurgency to supply and equip anti-American Shiite militias in Iraq and exert increasing political influence over Baghdad.

As a result, hawkish views toward Iran continued to predominate in Washington. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other senior officials were convinced that any serious opening of negotiations with Iran would only legitimize an Islamist government in Tehran they were certain would fall someday. They also believed that the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would accelerate that process or at least intimidate Tehran into submission. But as I wrote in 2007, “the prospect of U.S.-sponsored regime change [brought] back ugly memories that only vindicate, in Iranian eyes, the Islamist government’s portrayal of America as the Great Satan.”

It also allowed Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners to play to nationalist sentiments inside Iran—and it wasn’t hard to gin them up. Iran’s modern political narrative really began in 1953, when the CIA and Great Britain allegedly aided the ouster of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the shah. “The memory of 1953 in Iran is still very vivid,” Ebrahim Yazdi, a reformist politician, told me in an interview during my 2007 visit to Tehran for Newsweek magazine.

“Many Iranians cannot forget that [the] U.S. and British coup actually suffocated the democratic process in Iran at a very embryonic stage,” he said. But then, U.S. interference continued. “During the 25 years of the shah’s regime, the U.S. was directly involved in what he was doing. And when Iraq attacked Iran [in 1980], the U.S. fully and militarily supported the Saddam regime. They all knew Saddam was the aggressor, and yet they did it.”

Yet in another interview during my visit that year, Gen. Mohsen Rezai, then secretary of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council and a senior IRGC officer, told me that even under Ahmadinejad, Tehran was looking to find a way out of the stalemate with Washington. Bush “has started a cold war with Iran, and if it’s not controlled, it could turn into a warm war,” he said.

Sipping tea in the garden of his summer villa on the Caspian Sea north of Tehran, Rezai suggested that Iran was eager to find a “face-saving way to end the standoff over its ever-advancing uranium-enrichment program,” I wrote at the time. He endorsed the “timeout”—a pause in both Iranian nuclear development and simultaneous pressure by Washington—proposed by Mohamed ElBaradei, then the IAEA’s director-general. “What it means is for Iran to stay at the [enrichment] level it has reached, with no further progress. By the same token, the U.N. Security Council will not issue another resolution,” said Rezai, who indicated the government increasingly favored the idea. “The Iranian nuclear issue has to be resolved through a new kind of solution like this.”

“If America pursues a different approach than confronting Iran, our dealings will change fundamentally,” said Rezai, who has since been appointed Raisi’s vice president for economic affairs. My conversations at the time with hard-liners and reformers inside Tehran indicated that Tehran was willing to pause work on its nuclear program even under Ahmadinejad—years before serious negotiations began on the Iran deal. They also suggested that Iran could have still been willing to stop short of building a nuclear weapon, depending on the circumstances—that it might be content to become a nuclear “threshold state” like Japan. “Iran would like to have the technology, and that is enough for deterrence,” Mohammad Hossein Adeli, Iran’s moderate former ambassador to the U.K., told me then.

And Tehran did continue to engage in nuclear negotiations, beginning in 2004, led by the Europeans. Without the cooperation of Washington, these achieved little, but by the time of Obama’s second term the United States began to play a more proactive role. After Iran elected a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013, secret negotiations led by Burns and current National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, among others, eventually set the stage for Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic accord with Zarif: the nuclear deal. In return for lifting sanctions imposed by Washington, the U.N., and the European Union, the pact capped Iran’s uranium enrichment for 15 years, ​​required Tehran to ship about 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country and dismantle most its centrifuges, and stipulated the most intrusive inspection regime ever conducted by the IAEA.

Critics of the deal—who persist in their opposition to this day—still insisted that it was too generous and full of holes. Many were aligned with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and insisted that additional U.S. pressure and possibly military action would stop the bomb. Among the critics, of course, was Trump, who pulled out of the pact and piled on additional economic sanctions. None of it worked. The result is that, seven years later, rather than being a year or so from having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb, as it was in 2015, Iran may now be only weeks away. On Monday, IAEA chief Grossi said he believed Tehran was “very, very close” to generating enough fissile material for a bomb.

Yet even now, there may be hope for further negotiation. The ongoing protests in Iran by retirees and ordinary working people are underlining how much Tehran needs to get out from under sanctions. And even the hard-line Raisi—with the approval of the supreme leader—has been willing to negotiate. After more than a year of on-and-off negotiations, European diplomats acting as liaisons to chief U.S. envoy Robert Malley have all but scripted a return to the 2015 agreement.

“The tragic irony is that both sides have a deal—all the brackets in the text [raising additional issues] have been closed,” said Ali Vaez, a former deputy to Malley at the International Crisis Group, where he serves as Iran Project director. He said that of more than 1,500 sanctions—either those that “snapped back” under Trump’s renunciation of the deal or that were newly imposed by the former president—the Biden administration has said it will lift about 1,100 of them. Meanwhile the Iranians, while resuming uranium enrichment, haven’t accelerated it by much, the IAEA says.

But hard-line politics on both sides may continue to stymie a deal. In particular the Biden administration is reluctant to remove Iran’s IRGC from the terrorist list. “This was the trap the Trump administration laid for their successor, and unfortunately the Biden administration has fallen into it,” Vaez said. “Because they are not willing to pay the political price.”

Hopes for regime change in Tehran, meanwhile, continue to dominate much of the discussion in Washington. Yet they may prove just as unrealistic as in the past. Today’s protests are still small compared to the height of the Green Movement, when reformers aligned with former President Mohammad Khatami thronged the streets in 2009. And dissenters to the regime still lack an institutional presence such as vibrant labor unions.

“The Green Movement and reformists always seem to have their backs against the wall, and they don’t appear to have real leverage the way they did briefly under Khatami,” Tirman said. “I don’t see anything changing near-term. The regime has always been able to crack down on that stuff.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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