Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Grand Bargain: Five Presidents Have Treated Iran as a Threat. the Next Needs to Think of It as an Opportunity

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Grand Bargain: Five Presidents Have Treated Iran as a Threat. the Next Needs to Think of It as an Opportunity

Article excerpt


In the rhetoric of many American politicians and commentators, the Islamic Republic of Iran is portrayed as an immature, ideologically driven regime that does not think of its foreign policy in terms of national interests. Apocalyptic scenarios have been advanced about a millennially inclined Iranian leadership using nuclear weapons against Israeli targets, with no regard for the consequences, effectively suggesting that the Islamic Republic aspires to become history's first "suicide nation."

Even in less extreme foreign policy circles, the debate about America's Iran policy is reminiscent of a debate over how to discipline badly behaved children. On one side, a hard-line "spare the rod and spoil the child" school argues that this immature polity must be coerced into more appropriate behavior. On the other side, a pro-engagement "build a problem child's self-esteem" camp argues that it is more productive to cajole Iran into better behavior through various material inducements.

This type of discussion is profoundly flawed, for it overlooks an important new reality: Iran's growing strategic importance and confidence in its role in the region mean it is no longer just a threat to be managed. More than ever, it is now an international actor that can profoundly undermine, or help advance, many of the United States's most vital strategic objectives.

That is why the next U.S. president, whether it is John McCain or Barack Obama, should reorient American policy toward Iran as fundamentally as President Nixon reoriented American policy toward the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s. Nearly three decades of U.S. policy toward Iran emphasizing diplomatic isolation, escalating economic pressure, and thinly veiled support for regime change have damaged the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. U.S.-Iranian tensions have been a constant source of regional instability and are increasingly dangerous for global energy security. Our dysfunctional Iran policy, among other foreign policy blunders, has placed the American position in the region under greater strain than at any point since the end of the Cold War. It is dearly time for a fundamental change of course in the U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic.

By fundamental change, we do not mean incremental, step-by-step engagement with Tehran, or simply trying to manage the Iranian challenge in the region more adroitly than the Bush administration has done. Rather, we mean the pursuit of thoroughgoing strategic rapprochement between the United States and Iran: the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian "grand bargain." This would mean putting all of the principal bilateral differences between the United States and Iran on the table at the same time and agreeing to resolve them as a package.

Prior to George W. Bush's presidency, a diplomatic opening with Iran was at least intermittently viewed by the Clinton and first Bush administrations as falling in the "nice to have" category--a desirable prospect, but not essential for American interests. For the president who takes office in January 2009, strategic rapprochement with Tehran will fall into the "must have" category. Iran's location--in the heart of the Persian Gulf and at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia--was always strategically important. It's more so now that we are bogged down in two ground wars in countries along its borders.

Iran's oil and gas resources have also heightened its strategic importance. For more than a decade, the United States has been successful in its efforts to keep European energy companies out of the Iranian upstream--that is, out of the discovery and production of crude oil and natural gas--with the effect of limiting Iran's rates of oil and gas production. This policy amounts to declaring that the world's second-largest proven reserves of conventional crude oil and the world's second-largest proven reserves of natural gas should stay in the ground until Washington decides otherwise. …

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