US Foreign Policy

Engaging Iran: Strategic Goal or Means to an End?

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By Ellen Laipson – When President Khatami was elected in 1997, the Clinton Administration, in its second term, saw an opportunity to change the tone of US-Iran relations, and hoped to change the content and the outcomes as well. But the failure to achieve a breakthrough in the late 1990s must take into account a number of factors, or bumps in the road to a more productive relationship. First is the depth of mutual mistrust. The Khatami presidency commenced nearly twenty years after the revolution and the deep estrangement between the two countries. The lack of contact and knowledge at the leadership level was a severe impediment to policy formulation and to prospects for any diplomatic overtures, from either party.

The Iranian experience of President Clinton in his first term was largely negative: the dual containment strategy, two presidential executive orders, which imposed new prohibitions on US oil companies and investors on any activity in the Iranian energy sector, and a steady drumbeat of rhetorical criticism for Iran’s behavior in the region and towards its own people. So the Iranian side did not see President Clinton as a benign actor, and, therefore, may not have been predisposed to engage with Washington when US policy shifted. The legacy of dual containment was not quite as bad as the later “axis of evil,” but it was still a powerful force in shaping Iranian attitudes and perceptions of Washington’s intentions. Iranian officials were largely persuaded that Washington was set on regime change, and modest, incremental shifts in public discourse were not likely to persuade them that regime change was no longer the US policy goal. So the steps the Clinton Administration was willing to take were not sufficient to alter the mindset or the incentives in Tehran.

If we look at the memoirs of the Clinton Administration officials, it is not clear if the senior players thought that U.S. success in the Arab-Israeli arena depended on resolving this abnormal situation vis-à-vis Iran. Iran was a chronic problem, but not necessarily a show-stopper for achieving progress on the Palestine issue. This linkage has become stronger over time, with Iran’s ties to nonstate actors in Lebanon and Gaza, but at the time, Iran was seen as a separate, and more enduring challenge, not necessarily a front-burner concern or a priority in Clinton’s overall foreign policy agenda.

In her memoirs, Madeleine Albright posits it in an interesting way. She said we could have had a breakthrough if we abandoned our nonproliferation and terrorism policy and if we ignored reform. This suggests that the Clinton team was not interested in a change in US-Iran relations at any cost; the content of Iran’s behavior was the focus, not the desire to have more normal relations for their own sake.

Yet the Clinton administration tried for several years to get a new process started. Almost everything that the United States tried had a downside, and was thwarted in one way or another by Iran. If the US openly supported the reformers, it ran the risk of hurting them in their own society. If Washington coordinated closely with the Europeans, who at that time were proposing various incentive packages, Iranians perceived weakness and was emboldened to resist calls for behavior change. When the US tried to work with civil society, to keep some modest ties open to various academic, cultural and sports communities, which could help create broader constituencies in Iran for more normal relations, there was also a risk of harming those participants once they returned home. They could be seen as a security risk, or as somehow part of an American plot, even when American officials worked hard to show a sincere interest in society to society contact.

Inside government, there was considerable information about Iran’s various misdeeds, from nefarious terrorism-related activities, to defense modernization with implications for US deployments in the region, to oppressive conditions for Iran’s minorities and political oppositionists. The intelligence community tried to understand, at the same time, the reform phenomenon, and to differentiate between the long-term prospects for reform and short-term events. It was hard to distinguish between bumps in the road and where the road was headed. The short-term bumps were politically costly to the Administration, with Congress and with various domestic constituencies, so the potential political rewards of making progress were not always as compelling as the cost of trying.

Analysts believed that the reform movement reflected deep and widespread feeling in Iranian society, which was dissatisfied with the reign of the mullahs and wanted a more open social environment and more competent and less corrupt government. But Khatami’s election gave a misleading impression that the reform camp was on the rise: Khatami was indisputably part of the reform movement, but once elected, he separated himself from the reform camp and served as President of all Iranians. The new cohort of reform-oriented parliamentarians found themselves without a leader, and they were not skilled at promoting their legislative agenda in a legislative body where their political competition was far more experienced. The reformers had little to show during Khatami’s first term. Other organs of government continued to harass reformers and assert primacy in contests of power over judicial reform, press freedom, and other items on the reformist agenda.

Clinton Administration officials wanted to help the reformers, and saw them as more likely promoters of good relations with Washington than the more conservative or traditional power centers. But the US side realized that it had to proceed carefully; President Clinton was even willing to linger in a basement hallway in the UN, hoping for a quick handshake with President Khatami, but the Iranian leader did not dare risk the encounter, given the way his rivals in Tehran could undermine him.

The lesson of that experience is that a strategy of engagement has to be directed to the state and not to an individual leader. We do not get to decide who represents that state, and attempting to engage an individual because we do not trust the rest of the leadership cannot lead to lasting success. The US in the late 1990s may have been, in hindsight, both distracted by and confused by the notion that engagement was associated so strongly with the moment of opportunity that President Khatami and the reformers represented. If we could have teased those two things apart, maybe we would have come up with some different results.

Two broad thoughts to conclude: in the case of Iran, it is worth pondering whether engagement is a strategic goal or a means to achieve some specific policy objectives, such as ending Iran’s support for terrorism, its opposition to Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process, and suspending its nuclear activity. The diplomatic rulebook would say that engagement is nearly always a tactic, it is a means to achieve something, a diplomatic option, but it is not an end in and of itself. But the Iran case has some special attributes: the lack of contact over a thirty year period has accrued significant costs to American interests and prestige in the region. A willingness to consider engagement after such a long period of a non-relationship, therefore, takes on an added weight, and engagement can, in this case, be seen as a desired short to medium term end-state, as a necessary first stage of establishing a more normal relationship. When Secretary Clinton traveled to the Middle East in early 2009, she referred to engaging with Iran and more normal relations with Iran in a holistic way, suggesting that engagement is a state of mind as well as an operational tool for US policy.

The efforts to engage with Iran over the years have also been fraught with the conundrum of mirror imaging of strength versus weakness. Act when you’re strong, not when you’re weak. That has turned out to be a recipe for stagnation. Iran today, despite the asymmetry of capability and its many internal problems, feels strong, in the region, and vis a vis American power. The United States, objectively speaking, has been weakened by its Iraq experience and hasn’t recovered yet. So the fact that the Obama Administration, like the Clinton Administration in the late 1990s, is making the first move towards engagement, can easily be interpreted in Tehran as a sign of weakness. This does not augur well for success in the near term.

*Chapter appears in Engaging Iran: Lessons from the Past edited by Patrick Clawson and published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy  

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