Decades of distrust and enmity have defined America’s relationship with Iran, making it one of our most difficult foreign policy challenges.
Over the past decade, the U.S. and Iran have made efforts to improve the relationship. For example, President Obama sought new levels of communication, but his effort and several others were overwhelmed by events. Our relationship is marked by lost opportunities and breakthroughs. We have not made much progress in making things better between us – and now the relationship is hostile.
For decades Iran was our partner. In 1953, our CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratically chosen prime minister. With aid and arms, we supported Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was a repressive dictator but was a pro-West anti-communist and thus supported by the United States.
Then the Shah was ousted in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days. We became adversaries.
Now Iran has become an important player in the region. It is evolving, becoming younger and more sophisticated. Its literacy rate has risen dramatically, surpassing 80 percent, well above average for the region. It is oil-rich and occupies a key strategic location. With 80 million people, it is the second-largest country (after Egypt) by population in the Middle East. Its economy is sputtering along. Widespread street protests last year created a sense that the country was in turmoil.
Iran has become a major concern for our foreign policy. It secretly produces nuclear material and has the potential to develop nuclear weapons. It supplies arms and training to terrorists, exports a religious revolution, calls for the destruction of Israel and seeks to extend its influence across the region.
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has tightly aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom see Iran as a formidable malign influence. The Trump administration talks tough about Iran but does not appear to have a clear and comprehensive policy to restrain it.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has called for regime change in Iran. There has been some softening of that call, but Iranians believe, and much of the world agrees, that our strong preference is to topple its government.
The Iranians are in a robust contest with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for influence in the region. Iran’s supreme leader called Israel “a malignant, cancerous tumor” that should be destroyed. Iranians call America the Great Satan and see America as corrupt, ungodly and immoral. President George W. Bush saw Iran as part of the Axis of Evil.
Responding to Iran’s provocations, we have moved to cut trade and investment and ratchet up sanctions. News reports indicate we are secretly trying to sabotage Iran’s missiles and undermine its military.
We want to change Iran’s behavior, but that will only be possible if we have the support of our allies. Many of our allies criticize the one-sidedness of America’s policy in the region and disagree with the U.S. for pulling out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with the U.S., Iran, five other countries and the European Union.
Trump rejected this agreement, which was a check on Iran’s nuclear activities, and a platform for tracking Iran’s behavior. It also provided us with a forum for discussions with Iran.
U.S. policy in the Middle East is focused intently on Iran, and without doubt, it causes many problems for us.
But before tensions escalate further, we should remember that we have talked with our adversaries in the past. We fought a long and bloody war in Vietnam, but it is now our friend. Russia was a formidable foe during the Cold War but neither side ever fired a shot and we even learned to cooperate on arms control and other issues.
So, Iran is an adversary. Its ambitions are not likely to change – certainly, it isn’t about to turn the corner and become an advocate for democracy and a friend to America.
We must try to build on our common interests: for example, reducing the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, ensuring a workable government in Iraq, and promoting general stability in the region.
We should lower the bellicosity of our rhetoric, strengthen our diplomatic and military pressure in the region, and develop among our allies support for our policy.
Iran’s behavior may be challenging, but it is not a justification for war. We must be careful not to slide into war with Iran.
By Lee H. Hamilton