What Iran Really Wants

April 16, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IranForeign PolicyWarDonald TrumpJCPOANuclear

What Iran Really Wants

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.

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.

Image: 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)