When President Clinton took office in 1993, the United States had no direct diplomatic relations with Iran. Any prospect of improvement was complicated by sanctions dating back to the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and an American public intensely distrustful of the Islamic Republic’s policies. Iran was also the major patron of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which actively opposed the Middle East peace process and engaged in regular clashes with Israeli forces in Lebanon. It no longer held American hostages, however, and it suspended direct anti-American terrorist attacks.

Shortly after the inauguration, the administration announced that its policy toward Tehran would be part of a larger “dual containment” in the Gulf, to limit the threats posed by both Iraq and Iran to U.S. interests and allies. Containment was based on the premise that both Iraq and Iran were hostile powers and that the balance of power in the Gulf was inherently unstable. In the 1980s, the United States had tried to play the two countries off against each other. But Iraq emerged from the 1980-1988 war with Iran as the more powerful country, unchecked by any of its neighbors. The imbalance allowed Baghdad to invade Kuwait in 1990 and claim the oil-rich city-state as its 19th province.

The new containment strategy acknowledged the many substantive differences between the threats from Iran and Iraq; it recommended diverse tactics to deal with each. Iran would be contained by a military deterrent based in the Gulf states, targeted economic sanctions to discourage foreign investment in Iran, and diplomacy to discourage Iranian support for terrorism and pursuit of a nuclear capability. But Clinton left on the table the Bush administration’s offer to engage in direct government-to-government talks without preconditions.

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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.

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