Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy toward Iran

This is the executive summary for Chapter 3 of Restoring the Balance. See the book overview and executive summaries for information on other chapters.


THE NEW AMERICAN PRESIDENT, like each of his five predecessors over the past three decades, will be confronted quickly with the need to address profound U.S. concerns about Iran, including its nuclear ambitions, its involvement in terrorism and regional instability, and its repression of its own citizenry. Thanks to events of recent years, Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region’s security dilemmas, and it appears unlikely that any of the Arab world’s crises, from the persistent instability in Iraq and Lebanon to security of the Persian Gulf, can be resolved without Iran’s acquiescence or assistance.

The Obama administration may be tempted to take the easy way out by offering merely new rhetoric and modest refinements to the carrot-and stick approach that has failed its five predecessors. This would be a mistake. Today, to deal effectively with a rising Iran, the United States must embark on a far deeper reevaluation of its strategy and launch a comprehensive diplomatic initiative to attempt to engage its most enduring Middle Eastern foe.

After a consideration of the range of possible policy options, including regime change, military strikes, containment, and engagement, this chapter outlines a model of engagement that acknowledges Iran’s influence while seeking to constrain and redirect it. Specifically, this approach calls for

  • Implementing multitrack, delinked negotiations on each of the most critical issues at stake: the restoration of diplomatic relationships, the nuclear issue, security in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, and broader regional issues.
  • Appointing a special coordinator for Iran policy, situated within the Department of State, who would coordinate the diplomatic effort.
  • Normalizing low-level diplomatic relations so that the U.S. government can gain familiarity with Iranian officials and achieve a better understanding of Iranian political dynamics. American officials are currently forbidden from direct contact with their Iranian counterparts, a stipulation that further degrades the already limited capacity of the U.S. government to interpret Iran.
  • Treating the Iranian state as a unitary actor rather than endeavoring to play its contending factions against one another. Iran’s internal partisan skirmishes often appear ripe for creative diplomacy, but any new approach to Iran must be grounded in the recognition that no movement on the core issues of interest to the United States will be possible without the approval of Iran’s supreme leader.
  • Identifying effective mediators who can serve to build bridges between the administration and the inner circles of the supreme leader and the president of Iran.
  • Revamping the recently established U.S. democracy initiative to mitigate the perception of American interference by focusing on programs that encourage people-to-people exchanges.
  • Understanding that the process of engaging Iran will be protracted, arduous, and subject to shifts in Iran’s internal dynamics and regional context. To achieve and maintain momentum, the incoming administration will have to seize openings, manage crises, and navigate carefully through both the American domestic debate as well as the interests and concerns of U.S. allies.

The proposal calls for swift early steps by the Obama administration to exploit the brief but crucial window of opportunity during the “honeymoon” of a new presidency and before Iran’s own presidential jockeying for elections in June 2009 is in full swing.

The new paradigm of relations does not preclude tension or even conflict. In considering cases of Iran’s repaired relationships with other adversaries, it is clear that rapprochement was not a magic cure-all. For the Islamic Republic, rapprochement may best be understood as a way station between conflict and normal relations. However, a new framework of relations can demonstrate to Tehran that responsibility and restraint offer greater benefits to it than does radicalism. President Obama must appreciate that for the foreseeable future, Iran will remain a problem to be managed. We believe the approach detailed in the chapter provides the best option for dealing with the complexities and contradictions Iran will pose for the United States.