Despite its reputation for having inflexible ideological positions on all foreign policy issues, the Reagan administration actually came to office in January 1981 without a coherent policy for dealing with Iran. At first the new administration was content to let Iran fade from the spotlight of national media attention that it had held during the last 14 months of the Carter administration. The hostage crisis had been resolved, fatefully on the very day Reagan was inaugurated. The administration contributed rhetorically to the Iran-bashing mood of the country, but since Iraq still seemed to have the upper hand in the war that it had begun a few months earlier in September 1980, there was a general perception that Iran was contained and could be ignored.

In fact, the main interest of the Reagan team regarding the Persian Gulf was not Iran or the war, but landlocked Afghanistan, which Soviet troops had entered in December 1979. That intervention verified the Reagan portrait of the Soviet Union as an aggressive, expansionist threat to &ldquop;vital” US interests. The administration heartily endorsed the Carter Doctrine and devoted considerable resources to building up US military infrastructure in the Gulf, notably with the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East, though, the administration’s obsession was Libya. Throughout its first year, Iran remained on the back burner of the administration’s policy concerns.

Developments in late 1981 and throughout 1982 brought the Gulf once again to the forefront. By the summer of 1982 Iran had pushed Iraqi forces out of most of the area occupied at the beginning of the war, and Iranian troops invaded Iraq. Even though Iraq was able to contain the Iranian advance, it was obvious to Baghdad and its “neutral” allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, that there was no realistic hope of defeating Iran militarily. This alarmed the Arab ruling families of the Gulf, who believed that Iran was supporting subversive movements in their countries and saw an Iranian hand in the unsuccessful December 1981 coup attempt against the regime in Bahrain. During this critical period, however, the Reagan administration was preoccupied with developments in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel had invaded Lebanon in June 1982.

Thus it was not until early 1983 that official attention focused on the situation in the Persian Gulf. Over the next two years, US policy tilted from official neutrality to low-profile support of Iraq. State and defense department analysts argued that the conflict threatened the stability of American allies in the region, and they blamed Iranian intransigence for its continuance.

Simultaneously, within US intelligence agencies a view developed that Washington needed to reach an accommodation with Tehran in order to forestall possible Soviet political gains there. This thinking eventually produced a covert policy of selling arms to Iran in return for Tehran’s promised use of its influence to free American hostages held in Lebanon. Once it became public, this policy proved to be both a domestic and diplomatic embarrassment to the administration. Then, less than a year after the first Iran-Contra revelations, the US was directly engaged militarily in the Gulf against Iranian forces, in stark contrast to the covert arms policy. This only served to reinforce the popular perception that the administration had no clear policy objectives.

These broad policy fluctuations — from ignoring Iran to secretly wooing Iran to provocatively confronting Iran — derive from several distinct but overlapping ideological currents within this conservative administration that have influenced the formulation of Iran policy. We can identify three major policy influences by their primary orientation: Soviet, Israeli, and Arab. An examination of these perspectives can provide insight into the difficulties the Reagan administration has had in devising a coherent approach to Iran.

“Losing” Iran

The ideological perspective that has dominated Reagan administration policy toward Iran (and every other state) has been the anti-Soviet one. The stalwarts of the new administration, convinced that detente had led to a loss of American prestige and influence in the Third World, regarded Iran as Exhibit A: revolution against the shah was a strategic disaster that benefited only the Soviet Union. This view was most thoroughly articulated in a 1981 book coauthored by Michael Ledeen, who would play an important role in the administration’s covert arms sales policy in 1985. [1] For Ledeen and like-minded ideologues, the problem was one of how to restore Iran to American influence, a prospect that seemed feasible only because the clerical rulers in Tehran seemed to be as anti-Soviet as they were anti-American.

Despite a general consensus about the nature of Soviet intentions, the question of how to “win back” Iran was one that divided the Soviet-centric policy makers into at least two camps. The first camp basically shared the view of Secretary of Defense (1981-87) Caspar Weinberger that Iran was governed by “fanatics” and that it was unrealistic to expect to deal with such a regime in a rational way. The clear implication was that the US should work to bring about the downfall of the new regime.

A variant belief in Washington, especially up to early 1983 when the (communist) Tudeh Party still operated in Iran legally, held that the Soviet Union already wielded extensive influence among certain radical clergy — President Khamenehi was often cited as an example of a pro-Soviet agent — who would hasten Iran’s drift into the Soviet sphere of influence once Ayatollah Khomeini died. To “restore” Iran to “freedom,” Soviet-centric policy makers supported covert aid to various Iranian monarchist groups committed to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. [2]

The second camp of Soviet-centric officials and advisors believed that Iran’s hostility toward the US was a short-term phenomenon, while its hostility toward the Soviet Union would be more permanent on account of Moscow’s professed atheism and its occupation of Afghanistan. This camp viewed “Islamic fundamentalism” as a weapon that could be used against the Soviet Union. Those who held this perspective believed that some Iranians in power — whom they referred to as “moderates” — were as concerned as Washington about Soviet intentions in the Persian Gulf. It was possible to reach an accommodation with these Iranians, albeit slowly and in concert with a resolution of outstanding issues between Washington and Tehran, based upon a common interest in opposing Soviet influence.

This group included former National Security Advisors Richard Allen, Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter. Sometime in 1984, if not earlier, former CIA director William Casey and Ledeen shifted in their appraisal of Iran from the view of the first camp to the view of this group. This perspective dominated the National Security Council in 1985-86 and was a primary rationale for the policy of secretly selling arms to Iran.

Israel’s Agenda

A second major influence on Reagan administration policy toward Iran has been the views and attitudes of key US decision makers infatuated with Israeli policy and leaders. These included, among many others, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (1981-1982), former Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick (1981-1985) and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle (1981-1987). They share a view that US interests in the Middle East coincide with Israeli interests as determined by the most belligerent political forces in that country. For Israel, the principal enemy remains Arab nationalism.

Non-Arab Iran under the shah was a friend of Israel; the Iran-Iraq war is an opportunity to rebuild contacts, at least clandestinely, with the regime in Tehran. Thus Israel advocated covert sales of military equipment to Iran. Israel-centric policymakers in the US defended the Israeli actions as being in the long-term best interests of the West. Invariably they reinforced the views of the Soviet-centric group who pressed to reestablish relations with Iran in order to thwart perceived Soviet expansionism.

Although the Israel-centric perspective on Iran was more unified than the Soviet-centric one, two different camps began to emerge after 1982, reflecting the breakdown of the Israeli elite consensus that followed the unpopular occupation of Lebanon (1982-1985). Some Israelis became convinced that the principal threat to Israel no longer came from Arab nationalism but from “Islamic fundamentalism.” The second camp redefined Iraq from “radical” to “moderate” in their classification of Arab countries. Iran, in contrast, now embodied an ideology inherently inimical to Israel.

The Israel-centric Americans who embraced this anti-Islamic phobia supported Washington’s tilt toward Iraq. The views of this camp reinforced the views of those Soviet-oriented policymakers who insisted it was impossible to deal with the “fanatics” in Tehran. American journalist Milton Viorst has articulated the views of this second Israel-centric camp quite well in his articles about Iraq in Foreign Affairs (1986) and The New Yorker (1987).

The Arab Angle

The third major influence on Reagan administration policy toward Iran has been Arab-centric. This perspective derives from a conviction that the “moderate” Arab states of the Gulf — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — represent the backbone of US “security interests” in the Persian Gulf region. These states are major oil producers, and their oil production has enabled extensive and profitable dealings with private American businesses, including oil, defense and construction firms. Consequently, these states have a small but influential constituency in the United States.

US officials who put primary emphasis on the attitudes of the ruling families of the “moderate” Arab states are known — often disparagingly — as “Arabists.” They can be found throughout the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies, and especially in the State Department. The most influential “Arabists,” for example Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and Southwest Asian Affairs Richard Murphy and his predecessor Harold Saunders, are resigned, as are the “moderate” Arab leaders themselves, to Israel’s centrality in US Middle East policy. Most “Arabists” also share the broader anti-Soviet perspective and see Libya, Syria, and South Yemen as Soviet client states.

The “Arabists” generally share the view of the “moderate” Arab leaders that an Iraqi defeat in the Gulf War would threaten the political status quo in the six Arab states of the Persian Gulf and embolden Iran to interfere in the Gulf even more extensively and directly than it already is allegedly doing. Since they believe an Iraqi victory is impossible, the “Arabists” advocate a policy of containing Iran and thereby pressuring Iranian leaders to agree eventually to a ceasefire. Ironically, the Reagan administration “Arabists” find support for these views from some major liberal (and pro-Israel) Democratic members of Congress. The October 1987 report prepared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee argued for this approach. [3]

While the “Arabists” are unified in their perception of the threat posed by Iran, there is less consensus on how that threat should be contained. One camp supports active measures, including the use of military force, in order to convince Iran to cease efforts to export its revolution. The other camp believes that direct confrontation is uneccessarily provocative and urges instead a policy of patiently waiting for “reality” to moderate Iran’s policies in the Gulf.

Throughout most of the Reagan administration, the “Arabists’” policy options have been overridden by the dominant Soviet-centric and Israel-centric views. The progress of Operation Staunch, the 1984 effort initiated by the State Department to curb the flow of weapons to Iran from third countries illustrates the limited influence of the “Arabists.” Despite this highly public effort, several US allies, including France, Portugal, Spain and Turkey as well as Israel, sold arms to Iran between 1984 and 1986. Furthermore, Secretary of State George Shultz did no more than verbally protest the National Security Council’s participation in the covert policy of selling arms to Iran during 1985 and 1986.

The different currents described above could co-exist simultaneously prior to 1987 because the Reagan administration did not feel an imperative to formulate a strategic policy vis-à-vis Iran. On the issue that mattered, all three perspectives and the shades of differences within them were in agreement: keep Moscow out. As long as the regime in Iran was perceived as contributing to that goal, then various opinions on how to deal with Iran were acceptable.

The need for a broader administration-wide consensus on Iran developed quickly in 1987 for two reasons. First, the Iran-Contra scandal discredited the main proponents of that deal, the anti-Arab Israel-centric perspective. Second, the Soviet Union’s agreement to reflag Kuwaiti tankers temporarily brought together the different camps and perspectives. In these circumstances, the “Arabists” were able to become involved directly in formulating a policy of containment of Iran. This influence is unlikely to extend to an equivalent “Arabist” role in determining policy in the Israel/Palestine arena. It is also unlikely that the Israel-centered policy circle has abandoned its goal of wooing Iran back into a pro-United States and anti-Arab alliance.



[1] Debacle: The American Failure in Iran (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1981).
[2] For details see Bob Woodward, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), pp. 111-112.
[3] Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Staff Report, War in the Persian Gulf: The US Takes Sides, October 1987.

How to cite this article:

Eric Hooglund "Reagan’s Iran," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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