U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Missed Opportunities and Paths Forward

October 21, 2008


In the opening weeks of 2007, the turbulent politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran appeared to be reaching a tipping point.1 For the first time since his surprise victory in Iran’s 2005 presidential election, radical hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad found himself on the ropes at home and on the defensive across the region, thanks to a stinging defeat in the country’s December 2006 elections and the unanimous United Nations Security Council decision to sanction Iran over its nuclear program. Together with new American efforts to ratchet up pressure on Tehran—including the dispatch of two battle carriers to the Persian Gulf, the seizure of Iranian agents in Iraq, and a campaign to constrict Tehran’s access to the international economy—U.S. policy finally seemed to be having an impact on Iran. Regime insiders stepped up criticism of Ahmadinejad’s provocative approach, and mounting public frustration with the president’s policies began to spill into the streets and onto university campuses.

American officials were careful to avoid triumphalism, but their rhetoric revealed a heady sense that the tide had turned and that, finally, a coordinated American campaign to pressure Tehran was beginning to succeed. “There was a period of time over the autumn [of 2006] when a lot of people in the press and academic experts, even some people in government, were saying the Iranians seem to be doing very well,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the George W. Bush administration’s point person on Iran, said in February 2007. “And yet what happened over the last six or seven weeks?” he continued. “[A]ll of a sudden in the middle of February the Iranians are not doing so well, the Iranians are now questioning their own strategy, and I think that is what is interesting and hopeful about this diplomatic process.”2 Over the ensuing months, Washington continued to turn up the heat on Tehran through a second set of UN sanctions and new U.S. measures to restrict the regime’s access to the international financial system. The United States also touted its stepped-up security dialogue with Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf and newfound efforts to promote peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as further efforts to isolate Iran.

Fast forward, and what Burns and others saw as a turning point seems to have been a mirage. The Bush administration’s carefully crafted strategy for countering Tehran is in a profound state of disarray. International support for escalating sanctions has softened considerably, in no small part thanks to the release of an American National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) asserting that Tehran had shelved its efforts to design a nuclear weapon in 2003.3 Ahmadinejad gloated that the report signified “a clear surrender” by Washington,4 and U.S. expectations of a united front across the region in opposition to Iran have foundered. The leading Arab states are working assiduously to co-opt Tehran, whereas the peace process is in disarray. Once again, Iran seems to be “doing very well,” to borrow Burns’ formulation: expanding its capacity to enrich uranium at a furious pace5 and remaining as deeply engaged as ever in Iraq and the other regional zones of conflict.

On a broad level, the failure of the Bush approach to achieve its aims reflects the complexity and intractability of the threat posed by Iran, which has frustrated American officials from both sides of the political aisle for nearly 30 years. However, the failure is also the product of several years of disastrous diplomacy toward Iran and the broader Middle East, informed by a set of mistaken assumptions by the Bush administration. Understanding where we have miscalculated—and more importantly why we have miscalculated— is important to ensuring that we avoid repeating or perpetuating flawed policies. Whoever succeeds President Bush in January 2009 will have to contend with Iran, both as a legitimate threat to American interests and also as an opportunity for creative statesmanship. With a clear appreciation for the factors that have stymied U.S. policy to date, the next U.S. administration should be prepared to outline a new way forward on Iran.