Coping With Regional Powers: U.S. Diplomacy and the Challenges of Iran and China

On November 21, 2003, a meeting was held at The Nixon Center on the topic of "Coping With Regional Powers: U.

On November 21, 2003, a meeting was held at The Nixon Center on the topic of "Coping With Regional Powers: U.S. Diplomacy and the Challenges of Iran and China."  Dr. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center and Executive Editor of The National Interest, moderated the discussion, featuring Dr. Ray Takeyh, Professor and Director of Studies at Near East and South Asia Center, National Defense University, and Dr. David M. Lampton, Director of the China Studies Program at The Nixon Center.

Dr. Gvosdev opened the meeting by calling attention to the articles the two panelists had authored for the Fall 2003 issue of The National Interest.[1]   He noted that he wanted to bring the two authors together in a comparative framework because he felt that there were lessons from the U.S. experience with China that might be useful in conceptualizing U.S. policy toward Iran.  Too often, he observed, experts and practitioners enter into separate "Middle Eastern" and "East Asian" compartments, and that this forum was an attempt to "mix" experts (and audience participants) who otherwise might normally not interact with each other, in an attempt to distill a useful paradigm for American foreign policy.  Iran and China are both "post-revolutionary" regimes who in the past challenged the American-led international order but which now appear ready to work within the parameters of the global system, provided that their interests are taken into consideration.  The U.S. has found pragmatic bases on which to construct a relationship with China even though it has fundamental disagreements with China over some aspects of both its domestic and foreign policies; is such an evolution possible with Iran?

Dr. Takeyh began his presentation by noting that Iran's foreign policy has undergone three phases since 1979: a revolutionary phase under Ayatollah Khomeini, where the theocracy did not believe it was bound by the rules of statecraft and sought to export its revolution; a pragmatic phase during the 1990s when Iran, while it continued to maintain a revolutionary stance vis-à-vis the United States, sought a more pragmatic approach with its neighbors and pursued policies of accommodation with key international actors such as China, India, Russia and the European Union; and a post 9/11 phase, where Iran has come to the conclusion that it needs to develop a "rationalized relationship" with the United States.  Since 2001, there has been a massive projection of U.S. power along all of Iran's peripheries; U.S. forces are not only in the Gulf but stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Dr. Takeyh believes that it is possible to reach a modus vivendi with Iran on certain issues.  With regard to Persian Gulf security, all parties have an interest in stability, and Iran's attempts to build bridges to close U.S. partners in the Gulf indicate that Iran may be willing to accept a Persian Gulf where the balance of power is set by the United States--as long as such a system is not attempting to isolate Iran.

Iran and the U.S. also seem to agree on the desirability of democracy for Iraq.  For Iran, preserving Iraq's territorial integrity while creating a more inclusive political order raises the possibility that a democratic Iraq will be too pre-occupied with internal affairs and thus no longer be trying to assert supremacy over the Persian Gulf or the entire Middle East.  Iran does want influence in Iraq but understands that the local Shiite population will not subordinate their communal interests to Iran's foreign policy objectives, and Iran, likewise, wants to avoid provoking any confrontation with the United States.

On the nuclear issue, Dr. Takeyh agreed that Iran's "peaceful nuclear program" is indeed cover for a nuclear weapons program but noted that Iran's desire for nuclear weapons is grounded in a belief that the acquisition of such weapons might deter the United States.  Iran realizes that such weapons do not aid in the projection of its power and may even recognize that the possession of such weapons would not be practical.  Nonetheless, Iran is likely to pursue a policy of "nuclear ambiguity" akin to India pre-1998: having the components necessary to assemble a weapon but not actually crossing the threshold.

Dr. Takeyh concluded by noting that Sino-American relations may hold the model for future U.S. engagement with Iran.  China and the United States have fundamental disagreements over certain issues (e.g. Taiwan) and are strategic competitors to some extent, but both Washington and Beijing have found areas for cooperation.  In the end, compartmentalizing the U.S.-Iranian relationship, to separate areas of disagreement so that they do not impede areas where the relationship can be advanced, might prove a way out of the current impasse brought about by a policy of categorical isolation.

Dr. Lampton addressed four questions: 1) are the lessons of U.S. diplomacy in one case transferable to the other; 2) what has the U.S. done right (or wrong) vis-à-vis China; 3) how much that has worked has been planned (or accidental), and 4) what lessons can be drawn?

First, are the lessons of how U.S.-China relations developed applicable to Iran? Yes: both are post-revolutionary regimes that realize that the revolutionary policies of their founders have exhausted their societies; both are undergoing fundamental demographic change toward more cosmopolitan leaderships; and U.S. policies of trying to contain both regimes have not been effective.  Finally, the U.S. has an interest in reducing tensions in order to focus on other pressing security issues.