United States Institute of Peace

Containing Iran

OVERVIEW

The Carter administration attempted to develop normal diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic after the revolution. But the White House reluctantly shifted to a policy of containment after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran 10 months later. Containment has remained America’s core strategy toward Iran because every administration since Carter has opted to pay as little attention to Iran as possible without jeopardizing U.S. interests in the Middle East. But several presidents deliberately avoided describing their policies as containment.

Containment endures because it is a minimalist strategy. It is a default position when engagement at any level is blocked and warfare is too costly or unattractive. Containment is predicated on two assumptions: First, the United States is not willing to expend the blood and treasure to remove the Tehran regime by force. Second, Iran is not interested in a peaceful relationship with Washington and, if left to its own devices, would try to overturn the current Middle East order to America’s disadvantage. Containment’s goal is to minimize Tehran’s ability to cause mischief beyond its borders, destabilize the region, and hurt America’s allies. Containment allows the United States to devote far fewer resources than would be needed to overthrow the regime. 

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Editor's Note: The above chapter appeared in The Iran Primer, a book published by the United States Institute of Peace. Learn more about the book and download other chapters here »