Even though Trump seems to want to avoid war, the administration’s emphasis on Iran as a threat to the region defines much of current US policy toward a Middle East suffering from numerous other conflicts and humanitarian crises. Any effort to imagine new paths for US policy would have to redefine US relations with Iran and the roles both play in the region. To discuss the current context and future possibilities, Middle East Report reached out to seven scholars and policy analysts for their thoughts on some critical questions.
Negar S. Razavi is visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary.
Dina Esfandiary is fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of Triple-Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China (IB Taurus, 2018).
Nader Entessar is professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Alabama and the co-author of Trump and Iran: From Containment to Confrontation (Lexington, 2020).
Mohammad Homayounvash is the founding director of the Jaffer Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Education at Miami-Dade College and author of Iran and the Nuclear Question (Routledge, 2019).
Ali Fathollah-Nejad is visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and senior lecturer in Middle East and comparative politics at the University of Tübingen.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi is director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and co-author of Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook (Syracuse, 2018).
John Ghazvinian is the interim director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of America and Iran: A History from 1720 to the Present (Knopf, 2020).
To begin the discussion, what are some of the key challenges that need to be addressed before a new US policy toward Iran can emerge?
Negar Razavi: To imagine a new US policy, the United States must first overcome two persistent myths. The first myth is that the United States has the power to substantively alter Iran’s policies. A full-scale war has long been off the table. Even more limited military strikes—such as the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020—have proven ineffective. Meanwhile, by walking away from the JCPOA the United States has lost nearly all of its diplomatic leverage. In the absence of other tools, the Trump administration has relied almost entirely on the cruelties of sanctions, which have not only failed to push the Iranian government to comply with US demands on the nuclear issue, regional security issues or concerns over human rights, but they have further endangered the lives of ordinary Iranians.
The second myth is the exceptionalism of the Islamic Republic as a uniquely dangerous and irrational state power. Treating Iran as a state that operates outside the boundaries and norms of international politics has led the United States to enact unstable, contradictory and ultimately ineffective policies toward Iran. Only by overcoming these deeply embedded myths can the United States embark on the only path that remains: direct diplomatic engagement.
Dina Esfandiary: I agree that any shift in US policy would have to begin with some form of engagement. If Trump’s approach has taught us anything, it is that Iran does not respond well to being cornered—that just makes it lash out. While dialogue will not resolve everything—after all, Iran has objectives that are often at odds with those of the United States—it would be a good starting point to deescalate tensions, constrain Iranian activities in the region and beyond and address other aspects of Iran’s behavior problematic to the United States, such as the development of its missile program. None of these can be addressed in a meaningful and long-term way without directly engaging Iran.
Nader Entessar: I would add that for diplomacy to be successful and for US militarism to be reversed requires a thorough reorientation of US foreign policy away from its emphasis on full spectrum dominance.
Mohammad Homayounvash: Only a conceptual shift that overhauls the typecasting of Iran as a regime and instead treats it as a state can lead to the desecuritization of Iran in US policy and allow the United States to reduce its military footprint in the Middle East and rely more on the tools of diplomacy. We have to bear in mind that the militarization of Iran policy is a well- entrenched paradigm in Washington that mistakenly equates an excessively coercive and kinetic posture with strategic leverage.
Negar Razavi: As we all know, the diplomatic path was successfully initiated by the JCPOA. The nuclear negotiations proved that both countries can reap tangible benefits from diplomacy. Additionally, I share the view of scholars studying Iran’s domestic political landscape, who have argued that an economically stable Iran—that does not feel threatened from the outside—is not only better for US security interests, but also for the longer-term well-being and political agency of the Iranian people and others across the region who have suffered from US-Iran hostilities over the past decade.
With the damage done to diplomacy under Trump, I also recognize that radical change in US policy is not going to happen in the immediate future. As a first step, the United States can reverse the Muslim Ban, which has hurt and separated so many Iranian families, as well as reduce sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians, particularly during this current pandemic. From there, more limited multilateral negotiations that include other regional powers and potentially outside powers (the European Union, China and Russia) on regional issues such as Syria and Yemen may allow for a reopening of diplomatic channels.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: The best way toward developing a new US policy is through abandoning the “authoritarian stability” paradigm that has driven US and European policy toward the entire Middle East for many decades now. It is predicated upon the idea that regional autocracies can best ensure stability and US interests. Thus, allied regimes gain all forms of US support, while the oppressive domestic conditions under those regimes are either willfully ignored, camouflaged or glorified. The United States and autocratic regimes are thus aligned against any popular movement fighting for democratization and social justice.
While the JCPOA was a vital step away from the brink of war and toward diplomacy, the rapprochement that emerged between Europe and Iran was embedded in the authoritarian stability paradigm. Europe adopted an Iran policy based on economic and political cooperation while remaining silent over the deteriorating human and civil rights situation in Iran. But make no mistake: Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal, de facto violating it, was a major mistake.
The United States and Europe must instead adopt policies that promote long-term stability, such as supporting civil society and economic policies that are designed to produce inclusive growth rather than neoliberal policies that enrich elites and exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities. After all, as the Arab Spring and the recent Iranian uprisings demonstrated, one cannot achieve true stability without people’s political participation and socioeconomic development. Also, rather than using human rights as a weapon against Iran, the United States and Europe could condition political and economic cooperation with all regional states upon improvements in their human rights records.
It is important to see US policy toward Iran in the regional context. What are the issues that need to be addressed to foster security at the regional level?
Mehrzad Boroujerdi: The United States and Iran currently face problems of political paralysis in three fragile countries that they each care about—Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. It is hard to imagine scenarios where one of them forfeits their investments without getting anything in return. The United States could pressure Saudi Arabia to end the Yemen war and acknowledge that Iran needs to have a seat at the negotiating table for resolving many regional events. The United States must de-escalate tensions with Tehran if it seriously wishes to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. At the same time, the leadership in Tehran must realize that the dream of being a Suzerain state across the region is facing domestic opposition inside Iran (due to the hefty price tag) and also faces the formidable opposition of the United States and its allies. Diplomacy, after all, is the often-unsatisfying art of compromise. Defining a new direction in their relationship requires acceptance of certain unpalatable facts.
Negar Razavi: We should note that with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Iran has maintained its diplomatic, economic, and to some extent, even sociocultural relationships with all the other countries in the Persian Gulf region. Iran’s relationships with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have become strained in recent years, though they still remain intact. Meanwhile, Qatar, Oman and Iraq have maintained strong ties with Iran. So really the question should not be how to integrate Iran into the Gulf system but how to facilitate a serious rapprochement between the two most powerful states in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
How to achieve this rapprochement is much more complicated. Potentially (and overly optimistically) we could argue that the recent oil market crash and the COVID-19 pandemic may push Saudi Arabia and Iran to reconsider the high economic, political and human costs of their more violent (often indirect) confrontations in the region. I would argue that the absence of US leadership may actually help reduce tensions, as Saudi and Iran will have to look to other states who have a vested interest in seeing an improvement in Saudi-Iran relations—most immediately, the other countries in the Gulf.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: We should first recognize that the roots of violence and insecurity in the region are both indigenous and exogenous. Any regional security architecture that merely focuses on inter-state détente and does not involve civil society groups or popular movements and their interests is doomed to replicate an authoritarian pact. In the triangular relationships between Iran, the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—currently rife with mutual distrust on multiple fronts—confidence building measures are needed to build the ground on which robust security arrangements, let alone an architecture, could be built.
Confidence building measures might include cooperation in various economic sectors, cross-border resources (such as water management), society-to-society exchanges, the fight against ecological degradation and—of course, as a result of the present COVID-19 crisis—in public health.
To achieve an inclusive security architecture, a paradigm shift would be necessary. Rather than a zero-sum game, states must embrace common security à la “my neighbor’s security is mine, too” and deepen intra-regional cooperation. Also, Iran and some GCC countries must closely listen to each other’s security concerns and overcome what has mostly been a dialog of the deaf.
Mohammad Homayounvash: As others have pointed out, the Persian Gulf’s security malaise is a function of the region’s overall conditions of weak statehood and ineffective governance that were only exacerbated by the ill-fated 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which opened the door for other states to take a cavalier attitude toward the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolable international borders.
What elements are necessary for a regional security architecture that could help reduce violence and insecurity?
Dina Esfandiary: Firstly, a regional security architecture should be inclusive—that is what other attempts have failed at so far. The only way to lessen tensions is to ensure that every country in the region has a stake in maintaining peace. Like the ASEAN model, it will need to build interdependence between the states involved and include the principle of non-interference, but it will likely not be able to address issues of governance, which are too problematic to tackle as a region. In terms of process, it will need to mirror the OSCE model, which involved negotiations in bundles—issue areas that could be tackled simultaneously. Finally, it will need some of the major external powers to be involved in order to mediate and not act as spoilers.
Nader Entessar: As Dina notes, the best regional security architecture for the region will be a multilateral, cooperative system that does not seek to exclude any regional player. Iran has repeatedly called for the establishment of a regional multilateral security system, but these calls have so far been rebuffed by some regional states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These countries have preferred to remain under a US-led security arrangement whose main purpose is to confront Iran and limit its regional role. This chimera has been buttressed by Washington and as long as the United States sees its relations with Iran through a prism of a zero-sum game, the current insecurity system will persist.
Rather than trying to establish a new security structure overnight, it is best for all parties to take step-by-step minimal cooperative measures for confidence building. These measures could start with nonpolitical areas of common interest, such as pollution control, water management, environmental preservation, drug trafficking and the like. The next phase of the confidence building measures should focus on economic cooperation schemes.
Mohammad Homayounvash: One path towards a new security architecture would be to build from the Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) proposed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2019. Iran has offered a roadmap that includes a Hormuz Community Non-Intervention and Non-Aggression Pact and a network of taskforces to address a wide range of challenges, including arms control and security building measures, the establishment of a zone that is free of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the prevention and resolution of regional conflicts. Unfortunately, as with the 2003 “grand bargain” initiative from the Khatami government, the HOPE proposal has not been taken seriously by US policymakers or by most think tanks and academics, but it offers a chance for Persian Gulf security dynamics to be addressed head-on by the regional stakeholders.
To what degree does historical memory and experiences from the past continue to constrain the range of possibilities in US-Iranian relations?
Nader Entessar: In his novel Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner has a famous line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” that encapsulates US-Iranian relations. The rigidification of historical memory has been one of the most salient variables in US-Iran relations since the Iranian Revolution. The Americans have never forgiven the Iranians who overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah in 1979 and the subsequent events that led to the capture of the US embassy in Tehran and the holding of its employees for 444 days. Of course, Iranians have a much longer historical memory than Americans do. For many Iranians, the 1953 CIA-led coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and Washington’s support for Saddam Hussein during the devastating Iran-Iraq war are two traumas that color Iranian views of the United States. And Washington’s recent policies of unrelenting punishment of Iran have hardened negative historical memories among many Iranians.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi: Iran and the United States have not had regular diplomatic relations since 1980. Over the last four decades a great deal of psychological scar tissue has accumulated on both sides. Hostage crises in Tehran and Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq War, the USS Vincennes shooting down an Iranian civilian plane, the axis of evil speech, nuclear enrichment, missile developments, cyber-attacks and the like have provided ample rhetorical ammunition for each side and have bolstered their narratives of grievance and victimization. Yet, it is not just prodigious memory that has separated these two states. Even if it was possible to cordon off memories, the fact remains that as a rising regional power, Iran has emerged as America’s principal strategic adversary in the Middle East. In other words, the implacable enmity is being driven by a clash of interests.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: There is indeed little doubt that US–Iran relations continue to be poisoned by both sides’ traumatic experiences with each other and concomitant deep mistrust. Yet, it is equally important to point out the fatigue among many Iranians toward their own regime’s revolutionary and anti-American rhetoric, which has in many ways become a futile attempt by Tehran to create a rally-around-the-flag effect and to blame the “usual suspects” for domestic shortcomings for which many Iranians primarily blame their own state. For example, when it comes to Iran’s economic crisis, they view US sanctions as an aggravating factor but not the root cause.
Negar Razavi: In my recent research in Washington I found a US policy community that has slowly come to accept the importance of its history with Iran in shaping their future with the Islamic Republic. But the ways they understand and explain this history continues to be problematic, often helping to reproduce rather than undermine US myths about Iran.
For instance, many of the US policy experts and policymakers working on Iran mentioned the 1953 coup and the 1979 hostage crisis as sources of US-Iran tensions. While this political work of acknowledging the past is important, these same individuals often failed to situate these events within broader historical structures and patterns. Instead, they made these events appear as anomalous crises rather than as a reflection of longer-term US policy failures. At the same time, I felt many juxtaposed these two historical events as a means of equating them in moral and political terms, as if to say: “the US did something bad in the past, then Iran did something bad later, so now we’re even.”
But the reality is that 1953 and 1979 are part of a much more painful legacy of US domination of Iran—whether aspirational or realized. One can trace this legacy discursively from the late nineteenth century to the present, showing how American political elites have often viewed the Iranian people and their leaders as inherently inferior, backwards, corrupt and violent when compared to themselves. Since 1979, these Orientalist tropes have reached new heights in the American political imaginary, cementing around the myth of Iran as an “exceptionally dangerous” state enemy. These discourses, in turn, have promoted the equally powerful myth that the United States can and should shape Iran’s behavior from the outside and “punish” its leaders when they resist such pressures.
Meanwhile, many in the policy community fail to acknowledge the harm on ordinary Iranians of long-term US support for the dictatorial Shah through much of the twentieth century or Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. In other words, Washington’s historical memory reduces the deeper historical traumas associated with American hegemony in Iran and the broader region to a few high-profile crises that can be dismissed through a balance sheet of blame.
John Ghazvinian: I actually think that the impact of historical memory can be overstated because it is not history that is constraining the two countries from developing a better relationship. If anything, highlighting past historical ties might be able to set the two countries free from their prison of mutual animosity. I try to make this case in my book. Too often, when we talk about the history of US-Iran relations, we focus on the two “original sins” (1953 and 1979) ignoring that for nearly two centuries they had a warm and positive impression of each other, even a kind of fascination.
The first newspapers published in Philadelphia and Boston in the 1720s were obsessed with Iran. They presented the country as a heroic, admirable counterpart to the “evil” Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The very first independent newspapers published in Iran in the 1860s similarly lionized the United States and urged those who wanted to reform their country to emulate America’s example. In 1912, Americans rallied to the cause of Iran’s constitutional revolution. In 1919, there were pro-American riots on the streets of Tehran. And let us not forget that Mosaddegh himself was a great admirer of the United States and as prime minster had appealed to Eisenhower for help. The list could go on. The point is that we have become too fixated on using history to assign blame, forgetting that history can also remind us of times when relations were less hostile and more respectful—and perhaps point to possibilities for the future.
What sort of alternative visions for US-Iranian relations do Iranians have? We are especially interested in the views of those on the internationalist left or what readers might identify as progressive in the US context.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: Progressive Iranians often find themselves between the rock of US imperialism and militarism and the hard place of Iran’s authoritarian regime. They object to both equally. While they wish for détente and even a normalization of bilateral ties, they also fear a diplomatic arrangement between Washington and Tehran that might help stabilize the regime against domestic forces pushing for democratization.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi: Alas, many on the internationalist left outside of Iran have assumed that opposition to a global superpower like the United States means that they should support the leaders of countries that show animus toward it. In my view, this is a fatal error. The horrible track record of Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Khomeini and Khamenei should snap us out of any sympathy for these cruel leaders. Envisioning an alternative future requires equal distancing from both camps. I believe it is a moral imperative to simultaneously condemn militarism and abject violations of human rights. Many on the Iranian left from the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party to the Feda’i guerilla organization had to learn this lesson the hard way as the Iranian state killed or imprisoned a good number of their cadres and forced others to seek a life in exile. Today, the discourse of most Iranian leftists is much more nuanced than it was at the time of the 1979 revolution. Leveling a withering indictment at the foot of imperialism has been balanced with the need to also challenge violations of human rights committed by native autocrats, particularly those against women as well as ethnic and religious communities.
Nader Entessar: If one can identify a common thread among a significant segment of the Iranian public, especially what we might think of as politically progressive individuals, with respect to an alternative vision for US-Iranian relations, it is a relationship based on mutual respect and noninterference in each other’s affairs. Iranians aspire to interact with the United States on an equal basis and not be treated as pariahs. What they want is a US-Iran relationship that is not only humane but also stripped of the zero-sum mentality that has characterized the relationship between the two countries for more than four decades.
Negar Razavi: Among the Iranians on the left who I read and engage with—whether they live in Tabriz, Tehran, Washington or Los Angeles—most are concerned about the expanding political, social, economic and ecological insecurity at home, as well as state violence and the potential for war. I think if we want to fundamentally reimagine US-Iranian relations we would need to focus on these broader, more global issues rather than on the same tired set of traditional national security interests as defined by elites in both countries. While bilateral negations on national security issues might reduce the immediate threat of war and sanctions, they will not address the core structural problems that generate human insecurity in both countries and beyond. In the meantime, in the absence of diplomacy, societies in both Iran and the United States are forced to deal with immediate concerns rather than engage in more radical forms of solidarity and people-led politics that can seriously tackle these shared structural problems and global challenges.
The COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating impact on Iran and much of the world. How might it impact the future of US-Iran relations?
Nader Entessar: Turkey and Iran have been the top two regional countries hit hardest by COVID-19. The numbers are staggering, especially for Iran, which also has to deal with US-led economic sanctions. The sanctions have denied Iran—through banking and international financial channels—the necessary funds to purchase some needed equipment and medicine. Moreover, the economic impact of COVID-19 could also have a long-term debilitating impact on Iranian society by creating massive permanent unemployment.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Trump administration is willing to depoliticize its response to the COVID-19 crisis in Iran. On the contrary, Washington has hardened its position and added more sanctions during this period of humanitarian disaster. One can only hope that efforts toward global cooperation beyond the United States will be enhanced during these difficult times.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: There is little indication that the COVID-19 crisis has altered strategic thinking in either Washington or Tehran. The crisis has, however, had an impact on Iran’s relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors and highlights the interconnectedness between the two sides of the body of water that maintains people-to-people movements despite geopolitical tensions. For example, the UAE has airlifted aid to Iran. Such critical situations highlight the vulnerabilities of all sides and the commonality of their fate.
Mohammad Homayounvash: In fact, the COVID-19 crisis might serve as the exogenous shock that jolts Iran, the GCC and the United States out of the current paradigm. If the United States accelerates its retrenchment from the Middle East in order to pivot to a more assertive containment of China, GCC states might need to reconsider the path of seeking a regional balance with Iran.
John Ghazvinian: Again, I am reminded of history. In 1892, and again in 1904, Iran was being devastated by a global cholera epidemic. In both instances, American missionaries living in Iran opened the doors of their hospital and went around Tehran looking for patients to treat. Ambulances went all over the city rounding up the sick and taking them to special makeshift clinics on the edge of town. Perhaps all that seems unremarkable. But it is worth pointing out that, at least initially, the missionaries were reluctant. Traditionally, their hospital had been open only to Christians. But it was the American legation in Tehran that pressured them to begin treating all Iranians, regardless of religion. Hundreds of lives were saved in one of the great unsung moments of US involvement with Iran.
Today, by contrast, in a much more interconnected world in which the virus can spread more quickly from one country to another, the United States refuses to ease sanctions on Iran, even during the worst moment of the outbreak and despite the fact that Iran was one of the world’s worst hit countries. It is hard to understand, even for a historian, how we have come so far.
Negar Razavi: By immediately removing sanctions that are hindering Iran’s ability to cope with the pandemic, the United States could begin the slow but difficult journey of re-engaging Iran diplomatically. Similarly, I believe the United States could ease its travel restrictions under the so-called Muslim Ban and release Iranian prisoners in the United States. In turn, the Iranian government could release American and other foreign-born prisoners who are still being unjustly imprisoned in Iran and are at great risk of contracting COVID-19. More broadly, I could see this crisis as an opportunity to increase exchanges (virtually) between medical and public health experts in both countries. The Iranian medical community has been forced to respond to this pandemic with limited resources and without global support and access to advanced technologies. Medical and public health experts in the United States might be able to learn from their experiences and give recognition to the expertise and bravery of the Iranian medical community. Such cooperation would expose Americans to different aspects of Iranian society and the challenges Iranians face on a daily basis. It could possibly help provide a basis for new forms of US-Iranian ties.