What Iran Really Wants

Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN)

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy.

May-June 2018

The same rationale is often extended to discuss threats to America’s “allies.” The states chiefly involved, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, are not, of course, formal allies to which the United States has the obligations of a mutual security treaty. An irony of the United States having its forces linger in Syria, partly in the name of countering Iran, is that this has brought it closer than ever to a direct military clash with a state with which it does have such a formal tie: Turkey, its fellow NATO member. As for those states customarily termed allies, as regional rivals of Iran they welcome whatever ostracism or bashing of Iran emanates from Washington. That preference is not to be confused with U.S. interests; nor is it to be confused with any existential threats to the regional rivals themselves. Israel’s superior military power and demonstrated willingness to use it will continue to preclude anything remotely approaching that level of threat from, say, Iranian elements in Syria.

The separation of Israeli rhetoric on Iran from strategic reality was amply demonstrated in Israel’s debates about the JCPOA, with a major discrepancy between Netanyahu’s denunciations and testimony from senior security-establishment veterans that the agreement was in Israel’s interests. The Israeli political line on Iran has pivoted from, at the time of the Iran-Contra affair, encouraging the United States to do business with the Islamic republic to, after the end of the Cold War and especially after the ouster of Saddam, relentless lobbying to isolate and punish Iran. The Israeli message has similarly pivoted from an earlier overriding emphasis on the nuclear issue to, after the JCPOA closed the possible pathways to an Iranian nuke, greater reliance on the theme of malign Iranian behavior in the region. Besides keeping a regional rival down, the Israeli positing of Iran as an all-encompassing bête noire serves to discourage any wavering of the United States away from Israel as a regional partner, to distract attention from topics Israel would rather not discuss and to place blame for all the region’s ills in a capital hundreds of miles from Israel. The extraordinary role of Israel in American politics means that this line has been a major determinant of current U.S. policy toward Iran. This, along with more specifically American factors, such as emotions that are a legacy of the 1979 hostage crisis, is a major reason why today’s U.S. policy toward an entire region is built rigidly and narrowly around confrontation with Iran.

THAT POLICY is a prescription for still more confrontation, with no end in sight. It increases the chance of friction and incidents spinning out of control into open warfare. With the Trump administration having allowed communication channels—especially a valuable one at the foreign-minister level—to wither, such escalation is likely after the next incident resembling the 2016 incursion of U.S. naval craft into Iranian waters. With the United States’ policy taking insufficient account of the what and why of Iranian actions, and of incentives that might influence Iranian decisions, the policy promises nothing better than Iranians digging in their heels. Worse than that, the policy is counterproductive. It encourages counterpunches from an Iran that sees itself as directly threatened, and politically strengthens Iranian hard-liners, who are most inclined to punch, and who have been loudest about America’s hostility and incorrigibility.

A more effective regional policy would recognize that, in the words of Philip Hammond when he served as Britain’s foreign secretary, Iran is “too important a player in this region to simply leave in isolation.” It would recognize that U.S.-Iranian tension and estrangement have been at least as much a product of U.S. rebuffs—from trimming the invitation list at Madrid to declaring an axis of evil right after Iran had worked constructively with the United States to build a post-Taliban Afghanistan—as of any anomalistic conduct by Iran. Such a policy would build on the JCPOA (and, for the sake of U.S. credibility, rigorously observe its terms) to address other matters of concern to both Washington and Tehran—including nonregional issues, such as Iran’s egregious incarceration of dual citizens on trumped-up charges.

A sound regional policy would involve diplomatic engagement with all states of the Middle East in pursuit of greater stability and prosperity, while recognizing that all states have some interests that conflict, and others that converge, with those of the United States. The war in Syria, with its potential for escalation, is a prime candidate for such diplomacy. The diplomacy should involve a serious search of the bargaining space for formulas of redeployment or disengagement that would meet the reasonable and legitimate requirements of all players, including Israel.

An effective regional policy also would reflect awareness that Iran lives in the region in question and the United States does not. Much that goes on there is inherently more important to Iranians than to Americans. The principal body of water involved is the Persian Gulf, not the Gulf of Maine. If the United States is to play in that neighborhood, it needs to recognize the concerns, fears and threat perceptions of everyone who lives there, whether America likes them or not.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.