What should the United States do about Iran? The question is easily asked, but for nearly 30 years, Washington has had difficulty coming up with a good answer. The Islamic Republic presents a particularly confounding series of challenges for the United States. Many Iranian leaders regard the United States as their greatest enemy for ideological, nationalistic, and/or security reasons, while a great many average Iranians evince the most pro-American feelings of any in the Muslim world. Unlike other states that may also fear or loathe the United States, Iran’s leaders have consistently acted on these beliefs, working assiduously to undermine American interests and influence throughout the Middle East, albeit with greater or lesser degrees of success at different times. Moreover, Iranian foreign policy is frequently driven by internal political considerations that are both difficult to discern by the outside world and even harder to influence. More than once, Iran has followed a course that to outsiders appeared self-defeating but galvanized the Iranian people to make far-reaching sacrifices in the name of seemingly quixotic goals.
Despite these frustrating realities, the United States is not in a position to simply ignore Iran, either. Iran is an important country in a critical part of the world. Although Tehran’s role in creating problems in the Middle East is often exaggerated, it has unquestionably taken advantage of the growing instability there (itself partly a result of American missteps) to make important gains, often at Washington’s expense. Meanwhile, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, properly understood, warned that Tehran was likely to acquire the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons at some point in the next decade.1