US Foreign Policy

America’s Missed Opportunity in the Middle East

in Program

This commentary appeared in the September 1, 2004 edition of the London Financial Times.


Both sides in the US political contest are focusing anew on Iran. This is long overdue, as Iran could well be the biggest national security headache for whoever wins the November US presidential election. So far, George W. Bush has said he will use diplomacy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, but he has hinted at a more punitive approach. John Kerry, the Democratic challenger, offers a grand bargain in order to smoke out Iran’s true intentions. But fashioning an effective Iran policy will not be easy.

As a pivotal state in the Middle East, Iran is a natural hegemon in its own neighbourhood, a powerful voice in the Islamic world and a potential middle-ranking power on the global scene if it uses its oil resources, its influence and its human capital wisely. Furthermore, it is a “real” country in a zone of failed or failing states. At the same time, Tehran shows no inclination to compromise on its nuclear programme. Its behaviour in Iraq will be a crucial determinant of whether the political transition there is successful, and Iran still has the means – and apparently the will – to aggravate tensions between Israel and the Arab world.

The Clinton administration used a mix of containment and limited engagement policies, which Mr Bush quickly repudiated in favour of harsher rhetoric. But the Bush administration’s demands for far-reaching change in Iran have achieved nothing. A short-lived flirtation with the Mujahidin-e Khalq opposition and the failure of Iran’s student movement to push meaningful reform have left the US with no partner, no plausible agent of change. Some Bush administration spokesmen have tried to backpedal from the January 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, perhaps because the Iraq experience has taught them what it takes to achieve regime change. Nonetheless, the US military presence in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan constitutes a form of US deterrence. Some Iranians see it this way too, and fear that the US has an aggressive long-term agenda.

All this is a long way from a coherent policy. Indeed, this lack of coherence has been true of US-Iran relations for the past 25 years, although it is a problem that seems particularly acute at present. The US simply finds it hard to focus on what its interests are in Iran. The widespread tendency to equate Iran with either weapons of mass destruction or terrorism damages the prospects for a more comprehensive policy. To achieve even modest American objectives, some form of US engagement seems essential. But that requires clarity about what those objectives are. Here are three issues for both US presidential candidates to ponder.

First, there is the pressure to make the nuclear issue the driver of any new policy towards Iran. That is understandable, given the implications for the region and for the world of Iran crossing the nuclear threshold. But it would be shortsighted to allow a single national security issue to be the primary content of any new interaction with Iran or to launch a nuclear-related policy initiative without establishing what America’s broader strategic interests are. Besides, a confrontational stance could be counterproductive, prompting Iran to hold more tightly to any weapons programmes.

Second, the US must determine whether Iranian involvement in Iraq constitutes a threat or an opportunity. Clearly, the stakes are huge for Iran in Iraq; the question is whether Baghdad and Washington can distinguish between behaviour that is a real security problem and the cultural and political ties that are to be expected between the Shia communities in both countries. Washington’s expectations that Iraq should go along with plans to treat Iran as a regional threat simply may not be good policy for the new government in Baghdad.

The US should be concerned about Iran’s role in Iraq, but it needs to let the Iraqis define what is acceptable and what is not. An alarmist American attitude could further erode Iran-Iraq ties in a way that would be harmful for all concerned. The different power centres among Iraq’s Shia population have different strategies for dealing with Iran, but none wants to provoke a crisis with the more powerful neighbour. The anxieties may go both ways: Iran frets about the ascendancy of Iraqi Shia clerics and probably prefers to avoid chaos in the neighbourhood. The US has a stake not only in an Iraq that espouses pluralistic policies but also in an Iraq that can manage normal relations with its neighbours.

Last, America should wake up to the continual opportunity cost of not developing a more comprehensive policy towards Iran. We have lost sight of the diverse interests that America once had – and could have again – in Iran. A policy that strove towards a more normal relationship, where business and cultural ties could develop even if political differences remained, would engage a wider constituency in both countries and do more to foster peace in the region than some of the more narrowly focused strategies under discussion in policymaking circles.

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