Over the past quarter century, relations between the United States
and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been trapped by legacies of
the past. The aftermath of the 1979 revolution transformed Iran from
a staunch ally into one of the most intractable opponents of the
United States in the region and beyond.
Today, the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq have positioned American troops along Iran’s
borders, making the United States and Iran wary competitors and
neighbors who nonetheless possess some overlapping interests. All of
this is occurring against a backdrop of the problems posed by Iran’s
nuclear program and its involvement with terrorism.
contending with Iran will constitute one of the most complex and
pressing challenges facing the next U.S. administration.
Council on Foreign Relations established this
Force to consider both Iran’s domestic reality and its foreign
policy and to examine ways the United States can foster a
relationship with Iran that better protects and promotes American
interests in a critical part of the world.
The Task Force reaches the important assessment that “despite
considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not
on the verge of another revolution.” From this finding flows its
advocacy of the United States adopting a policy of what it describes
as limited or selective engagement with the current Iranian
The Council is deeply appreciative of two distinguished public
servants, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Dr. Robert M. Gates, for
chairing this effort. Their intellectual leadership steered this
Task Force toward a consensus on an issue of great international
importance. My thanks also go to Dr. Suzanne Maloney, a leading American expert on Iranian society, who skillfully directed this
project from its inception.
Finally, I wish to thank the members of
this Task Force for this important contribution to the national
Richard N. Haass
Council on Foreign Relations
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The Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy toward Iran benefited
greatly from the involvement of many individuals. First and
foremost, we are indebted to the leadership of the chairs, Dr.
Zbigniew Brzezinski and Dr. Robert M. Gates. Their judicious
stewardship, broad intellectual vision, and vast experience framed
this entire project.
From February to May 2004,Task Force members and observers
participated in four meetings that took place at the Council on
Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and in New York. The
discussions reflected the depth of the group’s collective expertise
on the subject matter at hand, as well as the wide range of their
experiences in government, academia, business, and nongovernmental
organizations. The willingness of all the participants to share
ideas and offer suggestions on the report itself has greatly
elevated the final product. In addition, several Council members
outside of the Task Force generously contributed their time,
interest, and perspectives on Iran. The report is richer as a result
of their input.
Thanks go to Christopher Angell, a research associate at the
Council, for his work in staffing the Task Force meetings,
organizing material distributed to Task Force participants, and
managing the many administrative details involved with this
undertaking. We were also fortunate that one of the Council’s
U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet, was involved as the project
coordinator. Lindsay Workman and Abigail Zoba were both tremendous
assets to the Task Force effort, and Lee Feinstein, the executive
director of task forces at the Council, provided support and
guidance throughout the process. We would also like to thank Sandy
Crawford at Texas A&M University and Trudi Werner and Candice
Wessling at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
All those involved with this project are ultimately grateful to
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council, who challenged the Task
Force to think critically and carefully in examining the issues at
Finally, the Task Force would not have been possible without the
financial support of the Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Foundation and
the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. We deeply appreciate their
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Map of the Islamic
Republic of Iran
Note: Map courtesy of United Nations Cartographic Section:
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Twenty-five years after its Islamic revolution, Iran represents a
challenge and an opportunity for the United States. The issues at
stake reflect the urgent and multifaceted dilemmas of U.S. security
in the post-9/11 era: nuclear proliferation, state support of
terrorism, the relationship between religion and politics, and the
imperative of political and economic reform in the Middle East.
this time, as Iraq—Iran’s neighbor and historic adversary—embarks on
a difficult transition to post-conflict sovereignty, and as the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) extends its scrutiny of
Iranian nuclear activities, Iran looms large on the U.S. policy
agenda. Recognizing this relevance to vital U.S. interests, the Task
Force advocates selectively engaging with Iran to address critical
The Task Force centered its deliberations on Iran’s domestic
situation and overall foreign policy, in order to illuminate the
context for U.S. policy. It did so in the recognition that the long
absence of U.S. relations with Iran and Washington’s limited ongoing
contact with the country mean that any assessment of the internal
dynamics of the Islamic Republic is inevitably imperfect.
Nevertheless, it is the view of this Task Force that despite
considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not
on the verge of another revolution. Those forces that are committed
to preserving Iran’s current system remain firmly in control and
currently represent the country’s only authoritative interlocutors.
Direct U.S. efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime are therefore
not likely to succeed; nor would regime change through external
intervention necessarily resolve the most critical concerns with
respect to Iran’s policies.
The ferment of recent years demonstrates
that the Iranian people themselves will eventually change the nature
of their government for the better. In the meantime, the durability
of the Islamic Republic and the urgency of the concerns surrounding its policies mandate
that the United States deal with the current regime rather than wait
for it to fall.
U.S. concerns have long focused on Iran’s activities and intentions
toward its neighbors. Over the past decade, Iran’s foreign policy
has gradually acceded to the exigencies of national interest, except
in certain crucial areas where ideology remains paramount. As a
result, Tehran has reestablished largely constructive relations with
its neighbors and has expanded international trade links. The
changing regional context has produced new pressures and
uncertainties for Iran.
The Task Force concluded that although
Iran’s leadership is pursuing multiple avenues of influence and is
exploiting Iraqi instability for its own political gain, Iran
nevertheless could play a potentially significant role in promoting
a stable, pluralistic government in Baghdad. It might be induced to
be a constructive actor toward both Iraq and Afghanistan, but it
retains the capacity to create significant difficulties for these
regimes if it is alienated from the new post-conflict governments in
those two countries.
The Task Force also reaffirms the proposition that one of the most
urgent issues confronting the United States is Iran’s nuclear
ambitions. Although Task Force members voiced differing opinions on
whether evidence is sufficient to determine that Iran has fully
committed itself to developing nuclear weapons, the Task Force
agreed that Iran is likely to continue its pattern of tactical
cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency while
attempting to conceal the scope of its nuclear program in order to
keep its options open as long as possible.
At the core of the Task Force’s conclusions is the recognition that
it is in the interests of the United States to engage selectively
with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing
nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the
threat of terror, and address the “democracy deficit” that pervades
the Middle East as a whole.
For these reasons, the members advocate
a revised strategic approach to Iran.
A Revised Approach to Iran
The Task Force concluded that the current
lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms U.S. interests in a
critical region of the world and that direct dialogue with Tehran on
specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued.
A political dialogue with Iran should not be deferred until such
a time as the deep differences over Iranian nuclear ambitions and
its invidious involvement with regional conflicts have been
resolved. Rather, the process of selective political engagement
itself represents a potentially effective path for addressing those
differences. Just as the United States maintains a constructive
relationship with China (and earlier did so with the Soviet Union)
while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and
international policies, Washington should approach Iran with a
readiness to explore areas of common interests, while continuing to
contest objectionable policies. Ultimately, any real rapprochement
with Tehran can only occur in the context of meaningful progress on
the most urgent U.S. concerns surrounding nuclear weapons,
terrorism, and regional stability.
A “grand bargain” that would settle comprehensively the
outstanding conflicts between Iran and the United States is not a
realistic goal, and pursuing such an outcome would be unlikely to
produce near-term progress on Washington’s central interests.
Instead, the Task Force proposes selectively engaging Iran on issues
where U.S. and Iranian interests converge, and building upon
incremental progress to tackle the broader range of concerns that
divide the two governments.
U.S. policies toward Tehran should make use of incentives as
well as punitive measures. The U.S. reliance on comprehensive,
unilateral sanctions has not succeeded in its stated objective to
alter Iranian conduct and has deprived Washington of greater
leverage vis-à-vis the Iranian government apart from the threat of
force. Given the increasingly important role of
economic interests in shaping Iran’s policy options at home and
abroad, the prospect of commercial relations with the United States
could be a powerful tool in Washington’s arsenal.
The United States should advocate democracy in Iran without
relying on the rhetoric of regime change, as that would be likely to
rouse nationalist sentiments in defense of the current regime even
among those who currently oppose it. The U.S. government should
focus its rhetoric and its policies on promoting political evolution
that encourages Iran to develop stronger democratic institutions at
home and enhanced diplomatic and economic relations abroad. Engaging
with the current government to address pressing regional and
international issues need not contradict U.S. support for these
objectives; indeed, engagement pursued judiciously would enhance the
chances of internal change in Iran.
The Task Force is mindful of repeated efforts over the last
twenty-five years to engage the regime in Tehran, and that all of
these have come to naught for various reasons. However, the Task
Force believes that the U.S. military intervention along Iran’s
flanks in both Afghanistan and Iraq has changed the geopolitical
landscape in the region. These changes may offer both the United
States and Iran new incentives to open a mutually beneficial
dialogue, first on issues of common interest, such as regional
stability, and eventually on the tough issues of terrorism and
proliferation. We recognize that even the most perspicacious policy
toward Iran may be stymied by Iranian obstinacy.
Recommendations for U.S. Policy
In pursuit of the new approach
outlined above, the Task Force recommends the following specific
steps to address the most urgent issues of concern:
The United States should offer Iran a direct dialogue on
specific issues of regional stabilization. This should entail a
resumption and expansion of the Geneva track discussions that were
conducted with Tehran for eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks.
The dialogue should be structured to encourage constructive Iranian
involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the
central governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan and in rebuilding
Regular contact with Iran would also provide a
channel to address concerns that have arisen about its activities
and relationships with competing power centers in both countries.
Instead of aspiring to a detailed road map of rapprochement, as
previous U.S. administrations have recommended, the executive branch
should consider outlining a more simple mechanism for framing formal
dialogue with Iran. A basic statement of principles, along the lines
of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by the United States and
China, could be developed to outline the parameters for U.S.-Iranian
engagement, establish the over-arching objectives for dialogue, and
reassure relevant domestic political constituencies on both sides.
The effort to draft such a statement would give constructive
focus and substance to a serious, but also realistic, bilateral
dialogue. Should that effort end in stalemate, it should not
preclude going forward with the dialogue on specific issues.
The United States should press Iran to clarify the status of
al-Qaeda operatives detained by Tehran and make clear that a
security dialogue will be conditional on assurances that its
government is not facilitating violence against the new Iraqi and
Afghan governments or the coalition forces that are assisting them.
At the same time, Washington should work with the interim government
of Iraq to conclusively disband the Iraq-based Mojahideen-e Khalq
Organization and ensure that its leaders are brought to justice.
In close coordination with its allies in Europe and with Russia,
the United States should implement a more focused strategy to deal
with the Iranian nuclear program. In the immediate future, Iran
should be pressed to fulfill its October 2003 commitment to maintain a complete and verified suspension of all
enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. While this
suspension is in effect, the United States and other members of the
international community should pursue a framework agreement with
Iran that would offer a more durable solution to the nuclear issue.
Such an agreement should include an Iranian commitment to
permanently renounce uranium enrichment and other fuel-cycle
capabilities and to ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency’s
Additional Protocol, an expanded set of safeguards intended to
verify the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program.
the United States should remove its objections to an Iranian civil
nuclear program under stringent safeguards and assent to
multilateral assurances that Tehran would be able to purchase fuel
at reasonable market rates for nuclear power reactors as long as it
abided by its nonproliferation commitments. The agreement should
also commit both sides to enhancing political and economic
relations, through a dialogue that would take place in parallel with
Iran’s established talks with the European Union.
In the short term, the United States should press the
exercise its Additional Protocol verification rights vigorously in
order to deter and detect any clandestine nuclear activities. This
should serve as a decisive test case for Iranian compliance with its
obligations under Article II of the Nonproliferation Treaty and for
the credibility and viability of the global nuclear nonproliferation
regime. Tehran must clearly understand that unless it demonstrates
real, uninterrupted cooperation with the IAEA process, it will face
the prospect of multilateral sanctions imposed by the United Nations
Over the longer term, the United States should aim
to convene a dialogue on issues of cooperative security involving
Iran and its nuclear-armed neighbors.
The United States should resume an active involvement in the
Middle East peace process and press leading Arab states to commit
themselves to providing genuine, substantive support
for both the process and any ultimate agreements. Iranian incitement
of virulent anti-Israeli sentiment and activities thrives when there
is no progress toward peace.
Efforts to curtail the flows of
assistance to terrorist groups must be coupled with steps to offer a
meaningful alternative to the continuing cycle of violence. A
serious effort on the part of Washington aimed at achieving
Arab-Israeli peace is central to eventually stemming the tide of
extremism in the region.
The United States should adopt measures to broaden the
political, cultural, and economic linkages between the Iranian
population and the wider world, including authorizing U.S.
nongovernmental organizations to operate in Iran and consenting to
Iran’s application to begin accession talks with the World Trade
Organization. Iran’s isolation only impedes its people’s ongoing
struggle for a more democratic government and strengthens the hand
of hard-liners who preach confrontation with the rest of the world.
Integrating Iran into the international community through formal
institutional obligations as well as expanded people-to-people
contacts will intensify demands for good governance at home and add
new constraints on adventurism abroad.
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TASK FORCE REPORT
The past two years have witnessed a series of extraordinary changes
across the wider Middle East, a region long characterized by a
dangerous status quo. Since the tragic turning point of 9/11, two
governments whose threat to their citizens and their neighbors was
well established—Afghanistan and Iraq—have been destroyed. In their
place, a new set of strategic realities and opportunities has
To date, however, one U.S. policy problem in the Middle East has
remained curiously impenetrable to the changes that have buffeted
its neighbors: Iran. Nearly a quarter-century after the revolution
that replaced a modernizing monarchy with a radical religious state
that has abrogated a close alliance with Washington, U.S.-Iranian
relations remain trapped by the legacies of the past and the very
real differences of the present.
These differences principally
concern Iran’s apparent efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons
capability and its continuing support for militant groups involved
in a variety of regional conflicts, including the
Palestinian-Israeli dispute. But U.S. interests with respect to Iran
go beyond these differences, important though they are, to include
promoting democracy and prosperity in the Middle East and ensuring a
stable flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.
In a region beset by turbulence and unpredictability, antagonism
between Washington and Tehran has a curious constancy. The
estrangement persists despite considerable internal change within
the Islamic Republic since its chaotic post-revolutionary inception
and despite the fact that the rift arguably undermines the interests
of both states. However, dispassion remains a commodity in short
supply in the Middle East, and Iran today endures as the only country in the region to categorically reject formal diplomatic
relations with Washington.
Such durable antagonism might be sustainable in another part of the
world, or in relations with another kind of state, but where Iran is
concerned it is profoundly problematic. First, the rift defies the
realities of this globalized era. As the most populous country in
the Middle East and one of the world’s leading energy producers,
Iran today cannot enjoy the luxury of wholesale recalcitrance and
isolationism as pursued by rogue states such as North Korea. By the
same token, Iran’s intrinsic involvement with its neighbors and with
the global political and financial order limits the efficacy of any
U.S. policy of outright isolation or simple disinterest.
Moreover, the official enmity between Washington and Tehran belies
the convergence of their interests in specific areas. The strategic
imperatives of the United States and Iran are by no means identical,
nor are they often even congruent, but they do intersect in
significant ways, particularly with respect to the stabilization of
Iraq and Afghanistan. In regard to both these countries, the
short-term needs and long-term visions of Washington and Tehran are
Although they may differ profoundly on
specifics, both the United States and Iran want post-conflict
governments in Iraq and Afghanistan that respect the rights of their
diverse citizenries and live in peace with their neighbors. The
hostility that characterizes U.S.-Iranian relations undermines these
shared interests and squanders the potential benefits of even
limited cooperation. As tenuous new governments in Baghdad and Kabul
embark on precarious post-conflict futures, the United States and
the region cannot afford to spurn any prospective contributions to
the region’s stability.
Finally, the estrangement has tended to further entrench some of the
very policies that are sources of conflict between the United States
The frustrating but familiar interplay between Tehran and
Washington has generated a self-perpetuating cycle whereby mutual
distrust begets uncompromising assertiveness and unyielding
negotiating positions. Tehran’s nuclear programs are
driven in part by aspirations for an ultimate deterrent against any
threat to its national security; these efforts, in turn, stiffen
U.S. resolve to mobilize an international consensus in opposition to
Iran’s policies. Overcoming the absence of any U.S.-Iranian contacts
may be the only alternative to utilizing force in mitigating
Washington’s major concerns about Iran’s behavior.
The Task Force was challenged to examine the issues at stake with
respect to Iran and to propose a future course to best address
U.S. concerns and advance U.S. interests. At the core of this effort
is an overarching conviction that Iran poses a complex and
compelling set of concerns for many important U.S. security
interests, particularly curbing terrorism and checking the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The report begins with
an overview of these interests, offers an assessment of the general
trends shaping Iranian internal politics and international
relations, and analyzes the critical areas of proliferation and
Finally, it offers the assessments and
recommendations of the Task Force for dealing with these challenges.
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WHY IRAN MATTERS
The United States is currently engaged in a vast region encompassing
the Middle East and Central Asia to an extent unprecedented in its
history. This region is complicated, volatile, and vitally important
to an array of U.S. geostrategic interests. Iran occupies a central
position—literally and symbolically—in the Middle East, and as such
its internal and international conduct have wide-ranging
repercussions for the region as a whole and for
U.S. interests within it.
Consider Iran’s environs. To the east is a fractious Afghanistan
that is the fountainhead of chaos fueled by religion and drugs. To
the southeast is Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state that may be on the
verge of another ethno-religious explosion. To the northeast is
Turkmenistan, whose erratic communist ruler has isolated his
country from the world. Across Iran’s northwest border is
Azerbaijan, with a government still navigating the challenges of
Also to the northwest is Turkey, the single
successful democracy in the Muslim Middle East and, if it joins the
European Union, a potential border with the West. To the west is
Iran’s historic adversary, Iraq, occupied by 140,000 U.S. troops and
currently in turmoil. Finally, to Iran’s south and southeast lie the
vulnerable Gulf sheikhdoms, its regional rival Saudi Arabia, and the
passageways through which 40 percent of the world’s oil must flow.
Iran thus lies at the heart of the arc of crisis in the Middle East.
Its intricate political, cultural, and economic ties to Afghanistan
and Iraq—including long-standing involvement with opposition
movements that have worked with Washington to establish successor
governments in each country—make Iran a critical actor in the
postwar evolution of both countries.
Its large endowment of natural
resources—approximately 11 percent of the world’s oil reserves and
the second-largest deposits of natural gas— positions Iran as an
indispensable player in the world economy. Its status as the largest Shia state and heir to the first religious revolution in modern
times means it heavily influences wider doctrinal debates
surrounding Islamic governance and jurisprudence. Finally, Iran’s
long history as a cohesive state with a tradition of
constitutionalism and experience in representative government means
that its political experience may prove a valuable model for any
regional transition to a more democratic order.
Two recent developments highlight the most urgent priorities for
U.S. policy toward Iran. The first was the decision by the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at its June 14–16, 2004,
board of governors meeting to rebuke Iran for failing to cooperate
adequately with the organization’s investigation into its nuclear
The latest IAEA report, based on an inquiry launched more
than two years ago and intensified by a series of revelations
concerning Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, illustrates the
complexities that the international community faces in contending with Iranian resourcefulness and diplomatic dexterity in
covering for its extensive nuclear activities. It also highlights
the need for the West to develop an effective strategy for
countering Iranian proliferation efforts.
Beyond the nuclear imbroglio, the evolving situation in Iraq also
underscores the vital relevance of Iran for U.S. policy there. As
Iraq navigates its recent transfer from international occupation to
limited sovereignty, the prospects for its short- and long-term
stability hinge to a considerable extent on the role of its
By virtue of its history and geography as well as its
intricate religious ties to Iraq, Iran has and will continue to bear
unique influence over the transition to a post–Saddam Hussein Iraqi
Given the centrality of success in Iraq to the
United States’ broader international objectives, the U.S. government
has an important stake in ensuring that the role of Iran in the
future evolution of Iraq is a positive one.
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IRAN’S DOMESTIC DILEMMAS
Ultimately, any U.S. policy toward Tehran must be conditioned by a
credible assessment of the current regime’s durability.
between the countries began with a revolution, and many argue that
it cannot conclusively end without another comprehensive
transformation in the nature and composition of the Iranian
Moreover, recent political ferment within Iran and
expectations of a demonstration effect from regime change in Iraq
has given rise to persistent anticipation that such a revolution is
imminent. Although largely overly optimistic, these forecasts have
policy toward Tehran, conditioning the administration of
Bush to reach out to putative opposition leaders and making
policymakers reluctant to engage with the current regime in order to
avoid perpetuating its hold on power.
Inevitably, the distance established by geography and political
separation complicates any accurate understanding of Iran’s domestic politics today. Still, certain broad conclusions can be drawn
from a careful consideration of the recent patterns of politics in
Iran. Most important, the Islamic Republic appears to be solidly
entrenched and the country is not on the brink of revolutionary
upheaval. Iran is experiencing a gradual process of internal change
that will slowly but surely produce a government more responsive
toward its citizens’ wishes and more responsible in its approach to
the international community.
In contrast to all of its neighbors—
and to the prevailing stereotypes inculcated by its own vitriolic
rhetoric—Iran is home to vigorous, albeit restricted, political
competition and a literate, liberalizing society. Even after the
recent political setbacks, Iran today remains a state in which
political factions compete with one another within an organized
system, restrictions on civil rights and social life are actively
contested, and the principles of authority and power are debated
Although Iran’s political competition and debate are robust,
however, they nevertheless exist within the narrowly defined
constraints imposed on the country by its unique governing
framework, which accords ultimate power to unelected and
unaccountable Islamic clerics, culminating in the Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Under this regime, the Iranian government
enforces severe restrictions on all aspects of political, cultural,
and economic life, and routinely violates even those limited
protections enacted in its own constitution and laws. The restricted
scope of Iran’s electoral politics was made only too clear in recent
parliamentary elections, held in February 2004, in which a clerical
oversight body disqualified more than 3,000 candidates from
competing, including eighty then members of the parliament.
Iran’s theocratic system is deeply unpopular with its citizenry. In
their own media as well as in dialogue with external interlocutors,
many Iranians—across a wide spectrum of age, class, and ethnic and
religious backgrounds—are candid and scathing in their criticism of
their government and its policies. Iranians also expressed this
criticism through a series of surprising electoral outcomes in
the late 1990s that, even within the narrow limits of permissible
politics, indicated resounding support for progressive reform of the
governing system. Large-scale demonstrations are rare due to fear of
repression, but they have surfaced intermittently and with great
intensity in various parts of the country. Most notable were the
July 1999 and June 2003 student protests, both of which were
violently crushed by government security forces.
A central factor in Iran’s political agitation is the coming of age
of a new generation of Iranians whose expectations and sense of
political entitlement has been framed by their rearing under the
revolution. Young people comprise as much as 70 percent of the
population and are positioned to serve as arbiters of the country’s
political order in the near future. Generally speaking, young
Iranians are highly literate, well educated, and supportive of
expanded social and cultural liberties and political participation.
Given that approximately one-third of young job-seekers are
unemployed, economic interests rank high on their list of political
With the disqualification of liberal-minded candidates from Iran’s
2004 parliamentary elections, the country’s reform movement has
effectively been sidelined as a significant actor in formulating
domestic or international policy. Reformist leaders were largely
unwilling to challenge the basic parameters of Islamic politics and
their organization, which includes nascent political parties such as
the Islamic Iran Participation Front, and proved unable to mount an
effective bid for change.
As a result, the reform movement’s central
strategy—gradual change brought about from within the existing
governing system—has been discredited by Iranian citizens as a
viable pathway to reform. As a June 2004 report by Human Rights
Watch details, Iran’s conservative forces quashed efforts to promote
peaceful political change with a deft strategy of silencing public
debate and eliminating potential opposition leaders.
Still, the influence of reformers—both as individuals and through
the articulation of their ideas—remains notable, albeit indirect.
The reform movement has had an important role in shaping public expectations and in setting the context for future
change, and future leaders of any post–Islamic Republic political
movement will likely come from reformers’ diverse ranks.
Force anticipates that just as these people emanated from the
alienated ranks of the early revolution, the students, journalists,
and political actors who have been frustrated in their attempts to
implement gradual reform may now redirect their efforts to mobilize
public support to press for fundamental changes to the political
Conservatives and hard-liners who are committed to the preservation
of the Islamic Republic’s status quo remain firmly in control of all
institutions and instruments of power in Iran. They represent the
locus of power and the only authoritative interlocutors for any
diplomatic interface. Although some may be amenable to limited
moderation of Iranian policies and rhetoric, conservatives have
repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to preserve the regime by
crushing anti-regime protests and imprisoning or even killing their
Yet despite their commitment to retaining the current system (and,
in part, because of that very factor), at least some segments of
Iran’s conservative faction, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are capable of making limited concessions to
reform in their policies both at home and abroad. Conservatives’
overriding interest in retaining power means that they have an
increasing imperative to avoid provoking international tensions, so
as to preserve and expand the economic opportunities available to
Iran in general and to their own privileged elite cohort in
Some conservatives appear to favor a “China model” of
reform that maintains political orthodoxy while encouraging market
reforms and tolerating expanding civil liberties.
For this reason, Iran’s economy offers an ever more important avenue
of potential influence by outsiders. High global oil prices have
boosted the overall growth rates of the Iranian economy, but
structural distortions—including massive subsidies, endemic
corruption, a disproportionately large public sector, and dependency
on oil rents—severely undermine the strength of the Iranian economy.
Iran’s economic woes pose direct, daily hardships for its
population, whose income measured on a per capita basis has fallen
by approximately one-third since the revolution.
With as many as one
million new job-seekers coming into the market each year, the single
greatest challenge for any government in Iran will be generating
conditions for job growth. Iran needs a substantial and sustained
expansion of private investment sufficient for its productive
capacity, including as much as $18 billion per year in foreign
direct investment, in order to meet these demands.
Iran’s conservatives tout their capabilities to address these
economic challenges, but in fact neither they nor their rivals can
boast a successful track record on the economy. This is due, in
part, to the political sensitivities that are invoked by the
prospect of sound economic development. Real reform would
effectively undermine the power of the state and the monopoly
enjoyed by Iran’s elites. Creating a secure climate for foreign
investment, meanwhile, would necessitate a more accommodating
international posture. Ultimately, economic reform in Iran would
promote more responsible governance at home and abroad.
Unfortunately, however, high oil prices have enabled Tehran to defer
these politically painful steps.
Following a brief period of increased political ferment in the late
1990s, Iran’s public has become intensely disillusioned with both
the status quo and available political alternatives and has become
manifestly disengaged from the political process itself. They have
shunned the reform movement (most recently by delivering it a
surprising defeat in 2003 municipal elections) and are increasingly
frank in their outright rejection of any political formula that
retains the current theocratic system.
Despite this widespread alienation from the prevailing political
order, Iran does not now appear to be in a pre-revolutionary
situation. Iranians are protesting the political system by
withholding their participation from any form of organized politics,
including involvement with the opposition. People are frustrated
with the Islamic Republic, but they have also demonstrated that they
not yet prepared to take that frustration to the streets.
disengagement from politics is a direct product of Iran’s recent
history. Having endured the disappointment of their last democratic
experiment gone awry, Iranians are weary of political turmoil and
skeptical that they can positively change their political
circumstances through mass mobilization.
Moreover, to date, no organization or potential leader has emerged
with the apparent discipline or stamina to sustain a major
confrontation with the government’s conservative forces. Several
national student organizations, such as the Office for the
Consolidation of Unity (Daftar-e Takhim-e Vahdat), are vocal
proponents of democratic change, but government repression has muted
As a result of these factors, the current Iranian government appears
to be durable and likely to persist in power for the short and even
medium term. However, Iran’s generational shift and prevailing
popular frustration with the government portend the eventual
transformation to a more democratic political order in the long
That process is too deeply entrenched in Iran’s political
history and social structure to be derailed or even long delayed.
Back to Contents
IRAN’S APPROACH TO THE WORLD
Throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s domestic
dynamics have had a direct impact on its foreign policy agenda and
approach. In the past, factional infighting has precipitated some of
the most provocative elements of its foreign policy, such as the
1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy, the 1989 promulgation of a fatwa
condemning writer Salman Rushdie to death, and the more recent
“Dialogue Among Civilizations” initiative.
Today, internal rivalries
continue to infiltrate Iran’s external activities, and, as a result,
Iran’s many official institutions often pursue policies in direct
contradiction with one another.
Over the course of the past twenty-five years, Iran’s foreign policy
has moderated in significant and meaningful ways. Whereas the
Islamic Republic initially repudiated the prevailing norms of the
international system, today its government has largely abandoned its
efforts to topple the region’s existing political order and
approaches interstate relations primarily on the basis of national
interest rather than ideology. In seeking to project its influence
and protect its interests, the Islamic Republic has increasingly
yielded to realist principles. Today, Iran’s foreign policy exhibits
striking extremes of accommodation and antagonism.
Commercial considerations figure prominently in the realignment of
Iranian foreign policy. Iran’s interests in maintaining and
expanding international trade, attracting foreign direct investment,
and coordinating oil policy with other leading producers to prevent
a future price collapse have shaped its approach to the world and
conditioned its partial abandonment of confrontational tactics in
favor of a more accommodating stance.
These broad contours of Iranian foreign policy are evident in its
successful implementation of detente with its neighbors in the
southern Persian Gulf, in its pragmatic approach to its northern
neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in its cultivation
of close ties with a range of regional actors, including India,
Russia, China, Japan, and the European Union. This last effort is
designed to offset Iran’s persistent official antagonism with the
Tehran’s approach to Washington remains one of several decisive
exceptions to the general trend toward moderation and realism in
Iranian foreign policy. In formulating Iranian policy toward the
United States, ideological imperatives continue to outweigh
dispassionate calculations of national interest. Iran’s strident
opposition to Israel is also the product of self-defeating dogma.
These exceptions may be slowly abated by the erosion of Iran’s
revolutionary orthodoxies, the growing importance of public support
as a component of regime legitimacy, and the increasing difficulty
of international integration. Nonetheless, for the immediate future,
Iranian foreign policy remains a captive of the regime’s official
enshrinement of anti-American and anti-Israeli ideology.
The general framework for Iranian foreign policy has remained
relatively consistent over the past several years, and is likely to
continue to do so in the near future. Moreover, there is a growing
consensus within Iran’s foreign policy elite around the principal
pillars of its strategic interests. Steps that heretofore were
ideologically taboo—such as the still-incomplete normalization of
relations with Egypt, whose government sheltered the deposed shah
and signed a peace treaty with Israel—today command broad-based
support among most factions in Iranian politics.
Recent shifts in Iran’s domestic political fortunes may facilitate
enhanced flexibility and coherence in its foreign policy.
setbacks for Iranian reformers have reconsolidated the official
organs in the hands of a single ideological faction. Although they
have historically pandered to anti-American sentiments, Iran’s
conservatives have also demonstrated a track record of success in
crafting compromise approaches and following through with their
implementation. The pragmatists who appear to be ascendant in Tehran
have described dialogue with the United States as a course that is
“neither wine, nor prayer”—in other words, neither prohibited nor
The prospects for additional moderation of Iran’s international
approach remain highly uncertain, however. The strengthened position
of Iranian conservatives at home may inspire some to restock
ideological fires abroad in order to reinvigorate their domestic
constituencies and justify extremist policies.
An inflated sense of
their own bargaining power may constrain the conservatives’
willingness to moderate their own international conduct and could
well lead them to anticipate disproportionate rewards for any
Back to Contents
IRAN’S NUCLEAR PROGRAMS
Over the past two years, Iran’s construction of extensive
uranium-enrichment facilities was made evident through the work of
Iranian opposition groups and follow-up inquiries by the
International Atomic Energy Agency. The disclosures of the hitherto
undeclared research facilities in Natanz and Tehran together with a
heavy-water production plant in Arak, and the acknowledgement of
significant imports of uranium from China, transformed the urgency
of intelligence estimates surrounding Iran’s nuclear capabilities
and reduced the time remaining before it may reach a nuclear
These discoveries, and the string of alarming revelations
that have emerged through subsequent IAEA inspections, have also
given rise to new doubts about the credibility of the Iranian
commitment to abide by the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty (NPT). The revelations about the extent of Iran’s nuclear
program have confirmed U.S. suspicions and have transformed the
assessments of others. According to the IAEA, Iran has achieved “a
practically complete front end of a nuclear fuel cycle,”
considerable evidence suggests that this is part of a multipronged
effort to acquire and/or produce fissile material.
concern about Iran’s nuclear activities is its long-established and
sophisticated missile development program, which has successfully
produced medium-range missiles capable of targeting regional states
such as Israel. Tehran also has plans for intercontinental ballistic
1 “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic
Republic of Iran,” Report by the Director General of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, November 10, 2003.
The Bush administration responded to these developments with a
combination of tough rhetoric and concerted international pressure.
The alarming nature of the disclosures helped to generate a rare
multilateral consensus aligned to admonish Iran, as did the
coincidental emergence of new irritants in Iran’s previously smooth
relations with Canada and Argentina—whose governments each
currently serve on the board of the IAEA. The outcome was an
unprecedented effort by the international community to exert
increased pressure on Iran concerning its nuclear activities, an
effort underlined by the implicit threat of United Nations Security
Council action and the potential for international economic
This multilateral pressure generated noteworthy short-term progress,
with an October 2003 Iranian agreement to sign the Additional
Protocol mandating enhanced verification of both declared and
undeclared materials and activities. The Iranians also agreed to
suspend enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.
agreement was negotiated by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany,
whose foreign ministers committed their governments to providing
Iran access to peaceful nuclear technology. The agreement
represented a limited but meaningful concession by Iran, one that
reportedly evoked contentious debates among its senior leadership.
At the time, it also offered a compromise that met the immediate
interests of both the United States and its allies when neither side
wished to repeat the acrimony that had emerged only a year earlier
Subsequent Iranian statements and actions have
significantly diminished confidence regarding Iran’s intentions to
abide by the terms of this deal, however. The October accord and
Iran’s subsequent interaction with the IAEA represent an inherently
ephemeral victory in what must be, by definition, an open-ended
relationship between the Iranian government and the international
community on nuclear issues. Since that time, Iran’s interaction
with the IAEA has been characterized by continued friction,
obfuscation, and a steady flow of new revelations about the true
extent of Iranian nuclear activities. The recent diversion of
nuclear materials to Iran has raised expectations of further
confrontations in the future.
The IAEA has continued to walk a fine line, maintaining pressure on
Tehran while avoiding provoking either further Iranian intransigence
or a breakdown in the hard-won consensus among its own members.
During a March 2004 visit to Washington, IAEA Director General
Mohammad ElBaradei reiterated frankly
that “the jury is still out” on the status of Iran’s nuclear
program—as well as on the extent of the clerical regime’s
preparedness to abide fully by its agreements to disclose all
aspects of that program.2
2 Transcript, CNN, March 18, 2004.
In June 2004, the IAEA board of governors
passed its most strongly worded resolution to date, drawing
attention to Iran’s failure to cooperate in a timely manner, the
omissions in its disclosures to the international community, and the
urgency surrounding the most problematic elements of Iran’s nuclear
program. The IAEA and the international community appear to be
converging around the conclusion articulated by the Bush
administration more than a year ago that Iran has not complied with
its obligations under the NPT. In response, Tehran announced that it
would resume construction of centrifuges in contravention of its
earlier pledges in the October accord.
Iran’s Nuclear Imperatives
Given its history and its turbulent
neighborhood, Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not reflect a wholly
irrational set of strategic calculations. Arguments for enhancing
Iran’s nuclear capabilities are necessarily pursued in private more
often than in public forums, although the recent diplomatic
activities vis-à-vis the IAEA have to some extent provoked a more
freely available debate.
Nonetheless, the rationale behind Iran’s
pursuit of a nuclear option can be elucidated from the rich
literature on security issues that is present in Iranian academic
journals and the press. Despite the clerics’ frequent rhetorical
invocations referencing the Israeli nuclear capability, this is not
one of the primary drivers for Iran’s own program. Rather, in
addition to the prodigious sense of insecurity inculcated by the
Iraqi invasion and the experience of the war itself, there appears
to be widespread consensus surrounding two other important
consequences of weapons of mass destruction: prestige and leverage.
The former reflects the deeply held national pride that is a
distinctly Iranian characteristic; it is simply inconceivable to
Iranians across the political spectrum that neighboring Pakistan, a
country considered to be exponentially inferior in terms of its
economy, society, and political maturity, should have access to more
advanced military technology.
The second factor that pervades Iranian
consideration of its nuclear options, leverage, further exposes the
fundamental strategic deficiencies of Iran’s continuing estrangement
from the United States. For many in Tehran, maintaining some sort of
viable nuclear program offers the single most valuable enhancement
of the country’s bargaining position with Washington.
The elimination of
Saddam Hussein’s regime has unequivocally
mitigated one of Iran’s most serious security concerns. Yet regime
change in Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its
vulnerable western borders, as well as with an ever more proximate
U.S. capability for projecting power in the region. By contributing
to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the
elimination of Saddam’s rule has not yet generated substantial
strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with U.S.
statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action,
recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced
the potential deterrent value of a “strategic weapon.”
Unlike Iran’s other provocative policies, which have provoked
intrafactional debate and thereby played into the internal power
struggle in the country, the nuclear temptation is widely shared
across the Iranian political spectrum. It dates back to the
pre-revolutionary period, when the monarchy began developing a
nuclear program that was ostensibly for power generation purposes
but understood to be intended as a launch pad for an ongoing weapons
Opponents of crossing the nuclear threshold remain
vocal and influential. Still, it is clear that the nuclear potential
resonates with a collective set of interests that do not neatly
correspond with Iran’s political factions. The prestige factor and
the apparent deterrent that a nuclear capability represents will
offer powerful incentives for an Iranian regime of any political
As has become increasingly evident in the more public debate of the
past several months, however, Iran’s political elites are divided by
a subordinate (but still critical) issue: the prospect of
confrontation with the international community over a nascent
nuclear weapons capability. Although reformers emphasize the
benefits of Iran’s regional detente and its commercial relations
with Europe and Asia, hard-liners are not deterred by the prospect
of international sanctions and isolation and would welcome a crisis
as a means of rekindling Iran’s waning revolutionary fires and
deflecting attention from the domestic deficiencies of Islamic rule.
Iran’s Nuclear Future
A number of uncertainties surrounding Iran’s
nuclear program remain outstanding. First, the viability of the
October agreement between Iran and the three European foreign
ministers remains in considerable doubt, particularly given Iran’s
recent decision to resume centrifuge construction. This defiant step
by Tehran is the latest bid to erode the original terms of the
agreement, as well as to undermine the narrow consensus that was
attained between Europe and the United States on the issue.
leadership appears to be trying to maintain momentum in its nuclear
program while avoiding a major confrontation with the international
community. Iran’s commitments in the October accord were in fact
quite expansive, entailing a complete suspension of all
enrichment-related and reprocessing activities—originally understood
to include production of centrifuge parts, assembly and testing of
centrifuges, and production of uranium hexafluoride feedstock—and of
the construction of a heavy-water reactor.
The primary challenge for
the international community today is formulating an effective
response to Iran’s efforts to flout its October 2003 promises.
In addition, there are a number of outstanding subordinate issues.
Ratification of the Additional Protocol by the Iranian parliament
has still not happened (the issue was expected to be taken up some
time after the May 2004 inauguration of representatives who won
their seats in the extremely flawed February balloting
that produced an overwhelming conservative majority). Although Iran
has promised to provisionally apply the protocol in advance of
ratification, as required by its agreement with the IAEA, the
parliamentary debate (and the need for subsequent endorsement by the
hard-line Council of Guardians) leaves open an opportunity for Iran
to hedge or renege on its commitments.
Also unresolved is a long-promised deal between Tehran and Moscow on
the return of spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr, although both sides
have said repeatedly that such an accord is imminent. Russia has
particular reason for concern about Iran’s ultimate ambitions in
this regard, since success in Iran’s efforts to produce nuclear fuel
would obviate the need to purchase Russian supplies of fresh fuel.
Russia and Iran also remain in protracted negotiations concerning
the possibility of developing a second power plant at Bushehr.
Finally, even if it were to fulfill its commitments under the NPT
and the Additional Protocol to the letter, Iran would still possess
the legal and technical capabilities to establish an elaborate
nuclear infrastructure with significant applicability for military
purposes. Under its international treaty obligations, Iran is
permitted to enrich uranium, construct heavy-water plants, and
complete an indigenous fuel cycle.
Moreover, the sophisticated
nature of its capabilities reveals that Iran is approaching the
point of self-sufficiency, where external assistance will no longer
be required to acquire a weapon capability. Should Iran reach that
threshold, traditional counter-proliferation measures are unlikely
to affect its nuclear timetable. Given that Iranian officials have
pledged to resume its uranium-enrichment activities once the IAEA
verification is complete, the October accord may have only furnished
Iran with a new delaying tactic as it inches closer to full-fledged
nuclear weapons status.
Iran’s recent conduct indicates that the government is likely to
continue pursuing a sort of selective accommodation with the
international community on the nuclear issue, yielding to additional
inspections while continuing activities that advance its military
This may extend to maintaining a clandestine nuclear program for
military aims in parallel with its declared civilian activities, as
alleged by an exiled Iranian opposition group. At a minimum, Iran’s
pattern of concealment and the sophisticated and extensive nature of
its disclosed activities indicate that its leadership is committed
to retaining all available nuclear options.
As a result, the real
imperative for the United States will be to maintain consensus
around a continuing effort to check Iranian progress toward a
nuclear weapons capability within the broad international coalition
erected over the last year.
Back to Contents
INVOLVEMENT WITH REGIONAL CONFLICTS
Three regional issues have emerged as the centerpiece of the Bush
administration’s Middle East policy: stabilizing Iraq and
Afghanistan and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran has
major influence in all three arenas and can potentially play an
important role in assisting or retarding Washington’s objectives.
U.S. policy pronouncements concerning Iranian involvement in each
sphere tend to reduce its role to generalized allegations of
terrorism; however, the reality is more complex, particularly with
respect to post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran has arguably benefited more than any other country from
U.S. policies toward the Middle East since September 11, 2001. By
removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from power in Afghanistan
and Iraq, Washington has eliminated two of Tehran’s most bitter
enemies and most serious threats. What has replaced them, however,
is not unambiguously preferable from Iran’s point of view, as the
new regional landscape entails profound uncertainties, new
geographic proximity with the United States, and the threat (and, to
some extent, reality) of chaos.
The Iranian government has often played a constructive and
unheralded role in U.S.-led efforts to establish effective
institutions of central government authority in Iraq and
the same time, Iranians have cultivated ties with a wide range of
political actors in both countries, including extremists, as a means
of maximizing their potential leverage.
This cultivation has taken
place via both official and informal mechanisms and ranges from the
direct recognition and assistance provided to the central government
in each country to financial and material support funneled to bad
actors bent on subverting the nascent democratic processes under
way. As a result of its compelling strategic interest in retaining
influence over the dramatic evolution of its immediate neighbors,
Iran’s multilevel approach to Iraq and Afghanistan is certain to
Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda
Enmity between the Taliban and Iran long
predated the events of September 11, 2001, that precipitated the
U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. Iranian suspicions of the
Taliban movement were present from the outset, engendered by its
origins in the radical Sunni seminaries of Pakistan and its close
association with Islamabad’s military and intelligence services.
Ever concerned with the country’s stature as an Islamic state and
vulnerable to a distinctive Persian pride, Iranian officials viewed
the Taliban as reactionary peasants sullying the image of Islam.
Their animosity was exacerbated by the rising tide of drugs and
instability from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan that too frequently
spilled across the Iranian border.
For the Taliban’s part, their
extreme ascetic doctrine reviled Shia Muslims as apostates, and its
militants menaced Afghanistan’s Shia minority. Tensions between the
neighbors nearly escalated to direct conflict in August 1998, after
eleven Iranian diplomats were murdered in the Taliban takeover of a
Shia city. As a result, Iran cultivated close ties to the opposition
militias that were battling the Taliban, including the Northern
This history positioned Iran as an unlikely ally in the post-9/11
campaign by the United States to unseat the Taliban and deny safe
haven in Afghanistan to al-Qaeda. Iran’s early track record was
extremely promising: Tehran continued to work in tandem with the
U.S. military effort in Afghanistan through the Northern Alliance,
and it played an active and constructive role in the Bonn process
that produced a new central government in post-conflict Kabul.
Iranian officials also point to Iran’s extensive logistical efforts
to facilitate the U.S. victory over the Taliban, and its
considerable aid to, and early recognition of, the post-conflict
administration organized under President Hamid Karzai.
The Bush administration has acknowledged these efforts but has also
consistently pointed to the more nefarious elements of Iranian
actions in Afghanistan. As early as January 2002, President Bush
issued a thinly veiled warning to Iran against any interference in
“If they, in any way, shape, or form, try to
destabilize the government, the coalition will deal with them . . .
in diplomatic ways, initially.” 3
Senior administration officials
have often criticized Iran’s involvement with Afghan warlords whose
independent power bases contribute to the lack of stability and
tenuous nature of central government authority today.
3 U.S. Department of State, International Information Programs,
“Bush Says Iran Must Contribute to War against Terror, Expresses
Hope Iran Will Help Stabilize Afghanistan,” January 10, 2002.
It is critical to consider recent allegations of collusion between
Iranian hard-liners and al-Qaeda. These allegations contravene both
the Islamic Republic’s accommodating stance toward the 2001 U.S.
military campaign in Afghanistan and the well-established track
record of hostility between Iran and al-Qaeda’s ascetic strand of
Al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview are unrelentingly
opposed to the Shia branch of Islam, which its theologians brand as
a heretical sect. Nonetheless, both al-Qaeda’s operational
leadership and the radical hard-liners who dominate the senior ranks
of Iran’s security bureaucracy have demonstrated in the past a
certain degree of doctrinal flexibility that has facilitated
functional alliances, irrespective of apparent ideological
The allegations of cooperation between al-Qaeda and Iran are
shrouded by the lack of much verifiable public evidence. Some
reports suggest that militants associated with al-Qaeda
have had direct contacts with Iranian officials since the mid1990s;
however, no serious reports demonstrate substantive cooperation
prior to the 9/11 attacks. More disturbing is evidence that since
the attacks Iran has served as a transit route for, and has possibly
offered safe harbor to, al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan,
including several prominent leaders such as spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith and security chief
Saif Al Adel. Related to these allegations
are reports that Imad Mughniyeh, the head of Hezbollah’s special
operations directorate and one of Washington’s most wanted terrorist
suspects, has also found sanctuary in Iran.
When public criticism by the U.S. government on this issue
intensified after early 2002, Iran confirmed that it had detained an
unspecified number of individuals connected with al-Qaeda and later
acknowledged that these operatives included both “small- and
big-time elements.” The circumstances of their entry into Iran are
not publicly known, nor are any details of their status beyond the
announced Iranian intention to put the al-Qaeda representatives on
trial. Iran also claims to have deported at least 500 individuals
who fled Afghanistan on the heels of the U.S. military campaign.
Although Iran has trumpeted these actions as evidence of its
vigilance in countering al-Qaeda’s domestic and international
threat, U.S. concerns about Iran’s posture intensified after the May
2003 attacks on expatriate housing complexes in Saudi Arabia that
were attributed to al-Qaeda operatives, possibly working from Iran.
As a result, Washington suspended the quiet constructive dialogue
between the two governments that had developed after 9/11 on a
limited range of regional issues.
The nature of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda is subject to
innuendo and interpretation. Its eastern borders are notoriously
porous, as Iranian officials are prone to noting in its defense.
However, even if this is true, Iran’s opaque handling of its
unwelcome guests strains credulity. One plausible, although as yet
unverified, explanation is that Iran’s reluctance to turn over
captured al-Qaeda operatives stems from concerns that such
cooperation could produce evidence of complicity between Iranian
hard-liners and individual terrorists.
Behind the scenes, Iranian officials have suggested exchanging
its al-Qaeda detainees for members of the Mojahideen-e Khalq
Organization, who are currently interned by U.S. occupying forces in
Iraq. Like many other episodes in the history of its turbulent
relationship with Washington, Iran’s insistence on clinging to what
it perceives to be a valuable bargaining chip may lead to an
overestimation of its potential leverage and an ultimate weakening
of its own security.
As with the Taliban, Iran’s long track record of conflict with
Saddam Hussein is well established.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq War was
so bitter and exhausting that it did not end in a formal peace
treaty and relations between the two countries did not fully resume
for the ensuing sixteen years of Saddam’s rule. Here, too, Tehran
and Washington found themselves improbably united by a common enemy,
although the problematic history of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the
implicit threat of Iran’s affiliation with its Shia majority added
considerable layers of complexity and wariness.
In the lead-up to
the 2003 campaign by the U.S.-led coalition to remove Saddam
Hussein, Iranian officials opposed the War was in the most robust
terms, mindful of the precedent that would be set and the fact that
the U.S. military would be parked on Iran’s western border. In
private conversations, Iranians offered their own tragic experience
in Iraq as an admonition against any optimism about the prospects
for a positive post-conflict scenario.
In the immediate aftermath of the coalition victory, however, Iran
also recognized an unprecedented opportunity to extend its own
influence and encourage the ascension of a friendly fellow Shia
government. As a result, Iran sanctioned cooperation with the U.S.
occupation via one of its primary instruments for projecting power
in Iraq: the Shia opposition groups. In particular, the Supreme
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has long-standing
and intricate ties to Iran’s governing clergy, emerged as a central
and constructive actor in the nascent politics of post-Saddam Iraq. In addition, Iran offered early recognition to the
precarious provisional government and quickly launched efforts to
expand economic and cultural ties with Iraqis.
Just as in Afghanistan, however, Iran’s cooperation did not negate
U.S. concerns about its leaders’ ultimate intentions and its
potential for undertaking subversive activities. Tehran reportedly
tested the commitment of the occupying forces to preserving Iraq’s
existing borders, briefly moving across the south-central border in
the summer of 2003. Iran’s clerical forces also began reaching out
to a wide variety of Iraqi organizations and leaders, including
militants such as Moqtada al Sadr (whose spiritual mentor resides in
Iran). Washington has also accused Iran of allowing foreign fighters
to cross its borders into Iraq.
At the same time, Iranian leaders have taken advantage of the
deteriorating security situation to intensify their condemnations of
the U.S. presence in Iraq. This represents a combination of political
opportunism and authentic empathy with the plight of the Iraqi
people and the manifest instability in the sacred Shia shrine cities
of Najaf and Karbala.
No longer chastened by fears of Washington
expanding its program of regime change, Iranian hard-liners are
already asserting a newly reborn confidence that could easily tend
toward greater audacity on the international scene.
whether they want it or not, whether they accept it or not, are
defeated in Iraq,” Ayatollah Khamenei recently proclaimed.4
4 “Iran Leader Pours Scorn on U.S. Democracy Claims,” Reuters, June
Notwithstanding these very real areas of conflict, there is
considerable overlap between Iranian and U.S. visions for postwar
Iraq. Although their strategic rationales vary widely, both Tehran
and Washington are broadly committed to promoting a unitary and even
pluralistic post-Saddam Iraqi state. For Iran, the driving forces
are purely pragmatic; any partition of Iraq or outbreak of civil war
could pose spillover effects, imperiling Iran’s own stability.
Although its hard-liners may maintain ties to the rabble-rousers
such as al Sadr, they are unlikely to truly align themselves with
his chaotic cause, or to champion the cause of Baathist remnants
the Sunni center of the country. One Iranian newspaper derided the
violence that has beset Iraq as neither guerrilla warfare nor the
people’s resistance, but rather “a horrible blind terror.”
Inconveniencing the United States is one thing; sowing turmoil in
Iran’s own environs is quite another. In fact, at the height of
recent tensions in Najaf, Iran dispatched a team of diplomats to
mediate between U.S. forces and the insurgent al Sadr forces.
Moreover, the Iranian clerics, who have resisted the expansion of
popular political participation at home, are proving ardent
champions of pluralism in Iraq. Again, this position, paradoxically,
suits their interests—a democratic Iraqi polity is likely to feature
strong Shia representation, providing Iran valuable avenues through
which to exert its influence. In addition, such a state would be
prone to internecine political squabbling and would thereby be an
implausible rival for regional hegemony. For these reasons, the very
clerics who undermined Iran’s recent parliamentary polls have
welcomed Iraq’s new interim government and encouraged the early
organization of free elections.
One of the central uncertainties about Iraq’s evolution is the
impact it may have on Iran’s internal affairs. Many U.S. proponents
of regime change suggested that Saddam Hussein’s removal and the
establishment of representative government and rule of law in Iraq
would have a domino effect throughout the region, first and foremost
in Iran. Undoubtedly, a stable, pluralistic Iraq that enjoys cordial
relations with its neighbors may have ripple effects on the
evolution of Iran’s domestic political contention.
between Iranian seminaries and the historic seats of religious
scholarship in Iraq will intensify the debate among Shia clerics
about the most appropriate relationship between religion and
politics. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani commands a considerable
following across the region—wider than that of any of Iran’s ruling
clergy. His quiet approach to clerical involvement in politics and
his reported aversion to Iran’s theocratic system could create new
Iranian adherents to the notion of separating religion from
short term, however, instability in Iraq is only fueling the fires
of extremism throughout the region.
Middle East Peace Process
Among the most troublesome practices of
the Islamic Republic is its sustained and prolonged support for
militant anti-Israeli groups and terrorists. Among these, Iran’s
sponsorship of Hezbollah remains the most significant. Iranian
officials founded the group and continue to provide training,
intelligence, arms, and financing twenty years later. An outgrowth
of the intricate religious and familial ties among the region’s Shia
clerical establishment, Hezbollah today has both military and
political arms but remains closely associated with Iran’s clerical
Hezbollah’s track record as one of the world’s foremost terrorist
organizations is indisputable: until 9/11, its 1983 attack on
barracks housing U.S. Marines held the record for causing the
largest loss of U.S. lives as a result of a terrorist attack. As a
consequence of this attack and several other suicide bombings
carried out by Hezbollah operatives during that period, Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage characterized the U.S. stance
toward Hezbollah in late 2002 as a “blood debt.”
In the 1980s,
Hezbollah was responsible for aircraft hijackings as well as
kidnappings of U.S. citizens and other Westerners who were then held
as hostages. In addition, Hezbollah operatives, along with four
Iranian officials, have been indicted by Argentina in connection
with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed
Despite this history, many within the region emphasize Hezbollah’s
political participation—its party members hold twelve seats in the
Lebanese parliament—and openly supported its role in pressuring
Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000. In this regard,
even U.S. allies are split to some extent. These reservations
reflect Hezbollah’s evolution into something beyond a compliant
Its organization and its history reflect the
complicated rivalries within the Lebanese Shia community, as well as
the formative role Syria has had in shaping the group’s operational
imperatives. Iranian material support, channeled via Damascus,
remains significant, but reliable reports suggest that only a
relatively small number of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards remain in
southern Lebanon today to help coordinate that assistance.
Iranian support for Hezbollah clearly transcends any factional
differences among the Islamic Republic’s political elite; both
Iran’s reformers and Iran’s hard-liners are equally committed to the
Lebanese organization. In fact, it is one of the leaders of the
reformist faction of the 2000–2004 parliament—Hojjatoleslam Ali
Akbar Mohtashamipur—who is credited with founding Hezbollah.
President Khatami has met with its secretary general, Sheikh Hassan
Nasrallah, several times in Lebanon and in Tehran, commenting
recently that the group has a “a natural right, even a sacred
national duty” to defend Palestinians against Israel.5
5 Rob Synovitz, “Iran: Despite U.S. Pressure, Khatami Says Tehran
Supports Hizballah,” RFE/RL, May 14, 2003
As a result, it is highly improbable that Iran can be persuaded or
compelled to completely renounce its proxy. Still, some measure of
Iranian flexibility may be possible even with respect to Hezbollah.
Since 9/11, Iranian leaders have repeatedly advocated that Hezbollah
exhibit restraint in its armed struggle against Israel, and have
also hinted that a resolution to the Shebaa Farms territorial
dispute could set the stage for Hezbollah to abandon its
Iran’s long cultivation of Hezbollah, together with its extreme
antagonism toward Israel, has paved the way for expanding relations
with (Sunni) Palestinian militant groups, including the Popular
Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command,
Palestine Islamic Jihad. The connections among these groups,
Hezbollah, and Iran have intensified steadily over the past fifteen
years, as shared ideological views have facilitated operational
linkages and alliances.
Some reports estimate that Iran’s support
for individual organizations has been as high as $100 million, but
Palestinian militants dispute these assertions, claiming that
Iranian aid is philanthropic in nature and of
a much lesser magnitude. Tehran’s support to these groups has
complemented its long-standing antipathy toward Palestinian leader
Yasir Arafat, whose Fatah movement aligned with Iraq during its war
with Iran and who further alienated the Islamic Republic through his
participation in the Madrid peace process that Tehran reviled.
Iran rejects U.S. criticism of its stance toward Israel and its
support of Hezbollah and Palestinian militants; its official
justifications differentiate between terrorist activities and what
Tehran characterizes as legitimate resistance against occupation.
This paradoxical position has generated occasional evidence that
Iran could be persuaded to countenance an eventual peace agreement
between the Palestinians and Israel.
The foreign ministry declared,
as recently as October 2002, that Iran would not stand in the way of
a final two-state solution and accepted (at least in its official
dialogue with Saudi Arabia) Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan.
Equally important, Iranian policymakers have recognized the risk
that Iran’s assistance to militants opposing the Middle East peace
process could drag the country directly into conflict, particularly
in the post-9/11 environment, where preemption is a tool of
Still, the Iranian leadership’s adherence to extremist rhetoric and
its close association with rejectionist groups ultimately limits the
government’s flexibility on this issue. Having entrenched its
opposition to Israel so prominently and absolutely, Tehran has found
itself in the awkward position of being progressively more
unyielding than the Palestinians themselves. Since the outset of the
second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, the few official
voices of moderation have been increasingly drowned out by
radicalism. As a result, in spite of select and very modest
improvements, Iran’s involvement with terrorist groups and
activities remains considerable according to U.S. and European
Most notably, in January 2002, a ship laden with fifty
tons of Iranian weapons and explosives destined for the Palestinian
Authority was discovered off the coast of Israel, with its captain
claiming that its cargo was loaded in Iran. Iran has also continued
to host an
annual conclave on the intifada, which draws a veritable pantheon of
terrorist leaders. As the U.S. war on terrorism begins to make
headway against alternative sources of funding, these groups’
reliance on Tehran may only be enhanced, which in turn would
increase the incentives for Iranian hard-liners to seek low-cost
Although it is substantial, Iranian assistance does not constitute
the primary factor in the existence or operations of Palestinian
terrorism, however. Absent a return to discernible progress toward a
peace settlement between Palestinians and Israelis and/or a
meaningful commitment by the Palestinians to abandon violence
against civilians as their primary means of confronting Israeli
occupation, these groups and their abhorrent activities are likely
The Legacies of Iranian Support for Terrorism
It is important to
highlight the fact that the international effort to curb Iran’s
terrorist associations has witnessed a few notable successes. Iran
is credited with efforts to bring about the release of Western
hostages held by Hezbollah in the early 1990s, for example, after
rapprochement with the Gulf states dictated an abandonment of the
proxy movements among their Shia populations.
efforts to prosecute Iranian officials for their involvement in
extraterritorial assassinations of dissidents— notably, the German
indictment of Iran’s then intelligence minister in the 1997 “Mykonos
case”—appears to have halted this once-prevalent practice. Most
recently, Iranians internally have forced reforms (albeit very
modest ones) of the intelligence ministry, the organization most
closely identified with the practice of terrorism, as a result of
popular outrage over the ministry’s role in the 1998 murders of
Iranian writers and political activists at home.
Unfortunately, each of these steps forward has occurred in the
context of worrisome reversals on other issues. For example, the
release of Western hostages in the early 1990s coincided with a
renewed onslaught against Iranian dissidents abroad. The post-9/11 dialogue with Washington on Afghanistan, meanwhile, took place
even as support to militant Palestinian groups intensified and
al-Qaeda operatives were found to have operated from Iranian
territory. As a result of its tendency to subsume its foreign policy
within its fierce domestic political competition, Iran has failed to
achieve substantial diplomatic recompense for its limited bouts of
As a result, the periods of progress in Iran’s domestic political
situation have not led to the sort of progress on the issue of
terrorism that many once hoped for. Also complicating the situation
is the fact that many Iranian reformers, although generally arguing
for a less confrontational foreign policy, have also maintained
steady ties with Lebanese and Palestinian militants, whose cause
resonates with their own ideological roots in the Islamic left wing.
Popular pressure is unlikely to prove a potent force for mitigating
Iran’s international adventurism, simply because of the extremely
limited role of Iranian public opinion in shaping foreign policy.
Thanks to the steady diet of propaganda, sympathy for the
Palestinians’ plight is more widely felt among Iranians today than
prior to the revolution. Beyond a vocal minority, however, public
sympathy does not extend to militancy, and anecdotal evidence
suggests that Iranians are more concerned with expanding their own
opportunities than those of a distant population.
Moreover, even if Iran’s terrorist ties were fully severed today,
their legacy would still be extremely problematic for the country.
As a result of a 1996 U.S. law permitting lawsuits against state
sponsors of terrorism, the Iranian government has been held liable
for damages to families of Americans killed or wounded in terrorist
bombings in Israel and kidnappings in Lebanon—damages that today
total more than $1 billion. At the same time, criminal
investigations into some of Iran’s more far-flung alleged
activities, such as the bombing of the Jewish community center in
Argentina, have just begun to produce legal actions against former
Accountability and expectations of restitution
will remain a serious dilemma for Iran if it is to move forward and
one day fully reintegrate itself into the international community.
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RECENT U.S. POLICY TOWARD TEHRAN
Formulating U.S. policy toward Tehran has never proved simple or
straightforward. Enmeshed in its own contradictions and factional
contestations, the Islamic Republic resists neat prognostication,
and its leaders often act in ways that appear contrary to the
In the twenty-five years that have passed since the 1979 revolution,
Washington has deployed an array of policy tools, including
sanctions, incentives, diplomacy, and military force. Since the
mid-1990s, the United States has sought to contain the threat posed
by Iran, relying increasingly on a set of economic sanctions that
were at first comprehensive in scope but unilateral in application.
These measures sought to alter Iran’s objectionable policies by
exacting considerable costs for such behavior and were coupled with
a similar approach toward Iraq under the rubric of “dual
containment.” With respect to Tehran, the efficacy of this approach
was undermined by Iran’s concurrent efforts to rebuild its relations
with its neighbors and major international actors, including Europe,
China, and Japan.
In the late 1990s, the appearance of political liberalization in
Iran persuaded the Clinton administration to discontinue the Iranian
component of “dual containment.” Although the bulk of the sanctions
regime was maintained, Washington experimented with the possibility
of engaging Tehran through modest unilateral gestures.
was equally unsatisfying, producing only a frustrating exchange of
missed opportunities as well as a continuation—and, in some
important areas, an intensification—of the very Iranian policies
that Washington sought to thwart. As with other aspects of his
Middle East policy, President Clinton invested considerable personal
attention with the intention of generating a breakthrough with Iran
that might serve as a lasting legacy, only to find enhanced Iranian
obstructionism as his reward.
The Bush administration had begun to outline a coherent policy
toward Iran during its initial months in office—mobilizing a
belated, and ultimately ineffective, effort to modify the
Iran-Libya Sanctions Act during its August 2001 reauthorization, for
example—when the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001,
permanently altered its strategic calculus. In the post-9/11
environment, Iran appeared to embody the twin menaces now seen as
the main threat facing the United States: terrorism and weapons of
mass destruction. At the same time, with the initiation of
Washington’s war on terrorism, Iran became a key player in that
effort, at least insofar as it involved Afghanistan and Iraq.
These dual imperatives helped to shape a disjointed and sometimes
contradictory U.S. policy toward Tehran from late 2001 onward. The
most dramatic development in U.S.-Iranian relations during this
period was President Bush’s decision to include Iran, along with
Iraq and North Korea, in his construct of an “axis of evil” in his
January 2002 State of the Union address.
The reference came in
response to the discovery of a weapons cache reportedly supplied by
Iran en route to the Palestinian Authority, but it undercut several
months of tacit cooperation between Washington and Tehran on the war
and the post-conflict stabilization of Afghanistan.
At one end of the spectrum, the administration engaged Iran in a
historic dialogue on Afghanistan, which was effective in generating
greater Iranian cooperation (extraordinarily, the talks were
publicly acknowledged within Iran). At the other end of the
spectrum, some influential parties in Washington criticized the lack
of democracy in Iran and appealed to Iranians for regime change in
Tehran, renewing contacts with the same discredited expatriates who
helped mastermind the Iran-Contra debacle in the 1980s.
views in Washington generated occasionally glaring inconsistencies
in U.S. positions. In the aftermath of the ouster of Saddam Hussein,
for example, the Pentagon publicly flirted with utilizing an
Iraq-based Iranian opposition group as a vanguard force against
Tehran over the protests of the State Department, which had
designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
The U.S. war on terrorism has complicated the process of dealing
with a country such as Iran, which is experiencing internal
pressures and a slow evolution away from radicalism, and
whose politics and predilections are ambiguous and opaque. Flawed
assumptions about Iran’s murky internal situation have weakened the
effectiveness of U.S. policy toward the country in recent years.
Persuaded that revolutionary change was imminent in Iran, the
administration sought to influence Iran’s internal order, relying on
the model of the east European transition from communism.
the neat totalitarian dichotomy between the regime and the people
does not exist in the Islamic Republic, and, as a result, frequent,
vocal appeals to the “Iranian people” only strengthened the cause of
clerical reactionaries and left regime opponents vulnerable to
charges of being Washington’s “fifth column.”
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ASSESSMENTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The United States’ long lack of direct contact with, and presence
in, Iran drastically impedes its understanding of Iran’s domestic,
as well as regional, dynamics. In turn, this reduces Washington’s
influence across the Middle East in ways that are manifestly harmful
to its ultimate interests. Direct dialogue approached candidly and
without restrictions on issues of mutual concern would serve Iran’s
interests. And establishing connections with Iranian society would
directly benefit U.S. national objectives of enhancing the stability
and security of this critical region.
Dialogue between the United States and Iran need not await absolute
harmony between the two governments. Throughout history, Washington
has maintained cordial and constructive relations with regimes whose
policies and philosophies have differed significantly from its own,
including, above all, in its relationship with the Soviet Union. By
its very definition, diplomacy seeks to address issues between
nations, and so it would be unwise (and unrealistic) to defer
contact with Tehran until all differences between the two
governments have evaporated.
Conversely, however, any significant expansion in the U.S.
relationship with Tehran must incorporate unimpeachable progress
toward a satisfactory resolution of key U.S. concerns. Political and
economic relations with Iran cannot be normalized unless and until
the Iranian government demonstrates a commitment to abandoning its
nuclear weapons programs and its support for terrorist groups.
However, these demands should not constitute preconditions for
In launching any new relationship with Iran, it is important that
expectations on both sides are realistic and that U.S. ones are
clearly communicated to the Iranians as well as between the various
players in the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy. A “grand bargain”
between Iran and the United States is not a realistic or achievable
A quarter century of enmity and estrangement are not easily
overcome, the issues at stake are too numerous and complex, and the
domestic political contexts of both countries are too difficult to
allow the current breach to be settled comprehensively overnight.
Moreover, even the most far-reaching rapprochement between the
United States and Iran could not re-create the close alliance that
existed prior to the revolution in 1979.
Were the most serious U.S.
concerns about Iranian behavior to be resolved, significant
differences between worldviews and strategic priorities would
remain. Instead, we envision a relationship through which the two
countries pragmatically explore areas of common concern and
potential cooperation, while continuing to pursue other incompatible
objectives at the same time.
For these reasons, we advocate that Washington propose a
compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building, and
incremental engagement. The United States should identify the
discrete set of issues on which critical U.S. and Iranian interests
converge and must be prepared to try to make progress along separate
tracks, even while considerable differences remain in other areas.
Instead of aspiring to a detailed road map of rapprochement, as
previous U.S. administrations have recommended, the executive branch
should consider outlining a more simple mechanism for framing formal
dialogue with Iran. A basic statement of principles, along the lines
of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by the United States and
China, could be developed to outline the
parameters for U.S.-Iranian engagement, establish the overarching
objectives for dialogue, and reassure relevant domestic political
constituencies on both sides. The effort to draft such a statement
would give constructive focus and substance to a serious but
realistic bilateral dialogue. Should that effort reach stalemate,
dialogue should still move forward on specific issues.
In engaging with Iran, the United States must be prepared to utilize
incentives as well as punitive measures. Given Iran’s pressing
economic challenges, the most powerful inducements for Tehran would
be economic measures: particularly steps that rescind the
comprehensive U.S. embargo on trade and investment in Iran. Used
judiciously, such incentives could enhance U.S. leverage vis-à-vis
One particularly valuable step, which should be made
conditional on significant progress in resolving one or more of the
chief concerns with respect to Iran, would be the authorization of executory contracts—legal instruments that permit U.S. businesses to
negotiate with Iranian entities but defer ultimate implementation of
any agreements until further political progress has been reached.
Commercial relations represent a diplomatic tool that should not be
underestimated or cynically disregarded. Ultimately, the return of
U.S. businesses to Tehran could help undermine the clerics’ monopoly
on power by strengthening the non-state sector, improving the plight
of Iran’s beleaguered middle class, and offering new opportunities
to transmit American values.
In dealing with Iran, the United States should relinquish the
rhetoric of regime change. Such language inevitably evokes the
problematic history of U.S. involvement with the 1953 coup that
unseated Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. For these
reasons, propounding regime change simply invites nationalist
passions that are clearly unconstructive to the cause such a policy
would seek to serve.
Rather, Washington’s positions and policies
must clearly communicate to the government and citizens of Iran that
the United States favors political evolution: the long-range vision
is an Iran that ushers in democracy itself in a meaningful and
Iran’s history of maintaining clandestine programs
suggests that a radical change in its strategic environment would be
the only enduring way its nuclear weapons programs could be
thwarted. In dealing with a state determined to maintain a nuclear
option, counter-proliferation efforts can only succeed in escalating
the time and cost associated with such programs. A permanent
solution must address the catalyst that drives Iran’s pursuit of
nuclear weapons: its persistent sense of insecurity vis-à-vis both
regional rivals and its paramount adversary, the United States.
Ultimately, only in the context of an overall rapprochement with
Washington will there be any prospect of persuading Iran to make the
strategic decision to relinquish its nuclear program.
Short of such a fundamental breakthrough in Iran’s own stance, the
International Atomic Energy Agency process offers a viable path for
managing Iran’s nuclear efforts, provided that there is close
multilateral coordination and firm U.S. leadership. A strong
European role is essential in marshalling an effective combination
of pressure and incentives.
But there must be direct U.S. engagement
in the process to maintain vigilance and persuade Tehran of the
potential costs of noncompliance. The United States should intensify
its engagement with its allies on this issue. Although enhanced
international scrutiny of Iran’s weapons programs cannot permanently
neutralize Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the IAEA can play an active
role in retarding these programs and in generating a coordinated
multilateral stance. To this end, the United States should continue
to press the agency to enforce the Nonproliferation Treaty’s
Additional Protocol and pursue snap comprehensive inspections of
Iran will provide an important test case for
this verification instrument. In addition, the United States should
work with the Europeans and with the IAEA to identify a set of “red
lines”—conditions that, if Iran failed to fulfill, would trigger a
referral of Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council.
Tehran must clearly understand that unless it demonstrates real,
uninterrupted cooperation with the IAEA process, it will face
the prospect of multilateral sanctions imposed by the Security
Further, the Task Force recommends that the United States work with
its allies and the IAEA to outline a detailed framework agreement
that would seek to outline a more durable solution to the nuclear
issue. The basic parameters of such an agreement would institute
ongoing rigorous constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange
for continued access to peaceful technology and international
Iran would be asked to commit to permanently ceasing all
its enrichment and reprocessing activities, subject to international
verification. In return, the international community would guarantee
access to adequate nuclear fuel supplies, with assurances that all
spent fuel would be returned to the country of origin, and to
advanced power generation technology (whose export to Iran is
currently restricted). These commitments would permit the continuing
development of a peaceful Iranian nuclear power program and provide
multilateral guarantees of access to nuclear technology, as long as
Iran abides by its nonproliferation obligations defined broadly to
include cessation of uranium enrichment.
Iran will inevitably resist such a proposal, as it has vocally
proclaimed its sovereign rights to nuclear technology and to all
those activities not specifically prohibited by the Nonproliferation
Treaty. For this reason, the framework agreement should incorporate
a new combination of carrots and sticks to persuade Tehran to
reconsider its course. In particular, the United States should be
prepared to commit to opening a bilateral dialogue with Iran on
enhancing political and economic relations that would take place in
parallel with the Islamic Republic’s established negotiations with
the European Union on trade, terrorism, proliferation, the Middle
East peace process, and human rights.
A viable framework agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue would
demand more effective cooperation between Washington and its allies
to make clear to Iran both the potential rewards for its cooperation
as well as the possible costs of its continuing
obstructionism. Although the United States must take a leadership
role, the involvement of its allies and multilateral institutions
will be essential to provide leverage vis-à-vis Iran.
States should carefully calibrate any approach to garner the widest
consensus and a firm commitment to a coordinated set of steps. For
example, the United States should focus its dialogue with Russia not
on pressuring Moscow to abandon its involvement with the
construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, but on persuading
it to intensify its efforts to reach an agreement on the return of
spent fuel from that facility. For its part, the European Union must
be willing to consider curtailing economic relations with Tehran
should Iran be unwilling to adopt greater controls on its nuclear
Given the potential threat that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear
weapons could pose, the full range of alternatives—including
military options—for confronting Tehran must be examined. Yet the
use of military force would be extremely problematic, given the
dispersal of Iran’s program at sites throughout the country and
their proximity to urban centers.
Since Washington would be blamed
for any unilateral Israeli military strike, the United States should
make it quite clear to Israel that U.S. interests would be adversely
affected by such a move. In addition, any military effort to
eliminate Iranian weapons capabilities would run the significant
risk of reinforcing Tehran’s desire to acquire a nuclear deterrent
and of provoking nationalist passions in defense of that very
course. It would most likely also generate hostile Iranian
initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the perspective of U.S. interests, one
particular issue area appears particularly ripe for U.S.-Iranian
engagement: the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States
has a direct and compelling interest in ensuring both countries’
security and the success of their post-conflict governments. Iran
has demonstrated its ability and readiness to use its influence
constructively in these two countries,
but also its capacity for making trouble. The United States should
work with Tehran to capitalize on Iran’s influence to advance the
stability and consolidation of its neighbors. This could commence
via a resumption and expansion of the Geneva track discussions with
Tehran on post-conflict Afghanistan and Iraq.
Such a dialogue should be structured to obtain constructive Iranian
involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the
central governments and rebuilding the economies of both Iraq and
Afghanistan. Regular contact with Iran would also provide a channel
to address concerns that have arisen about its activities and
relationships with competing power centers in both countries.
discussions should incorporate other regional power brokers, as well
as Europe and Russia—much like the “Six Plus Two” negotiations on
Afghanistan that took place in the years before the Taliban were
ousted. A multilateral forum on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan
would help cultivate confidence and would build political and
economic relationships essential to the long-term durability of the
new governments in Baghdad and Kabul.
Critics have argued that Iran should be denied any formal role in
the reconstruction of Iraq due to the propensity of some Iranian
factions to pursue destabilizing policies there. In the aftermath of
the June 28, 2004, handover of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi
administration, however, the United States is no longer in a
position to implement such a veto, nor should it endeavor to do so.
Convincing Iran that it has a direct stake in the successful
transition of its former adversary represents the most effective
means of thwarting any attempts by hard-line elements in Iran to
Over the longer term, U.S. interests in achieving peace and
stability in the Persian Gulf would be best served by engaging Iran
and each of its neighbors in a dialogue aimed at establishing an
effective organization to promote regional security and cooperation.
Such an organization could be structured to provide a forum for
regional dialogue, confidence-building measures, economic
cooperation, conflict prevention, and crisis management.
Settling the al-Qaeda issue must remain a high priority for the
Through direct dialogue with Afghanistan via a renewed
Geneva track, the outlines of a reciprocal arrangement should be
negotiated. In private discussions, the Iranian government has
already suggested the outlines of an agreement that would trade
al-Qaeda detainees for members of an Iraqi-based opposition group,
the Mojahideen-e Khalq, which has long perpetrated terrorist
activities against Iran.
Such an explicit trade is not possible,
however, due to the impossibility of ensuring fair adjudication in
the Iranian system. Rather, the Task Force recommends that the
United States press Iran to clarify the status of all
al-Qaeda–related detainees and to extradite those who can be
identified as persons pursued by other governments. At the same
time, the United States should work with the interim Iraqi
government to ensure that Mojahideen facilities are conclusively
disbanded and that its leaders are brought to justice for their role
in violence against both Iraqis and Iranians under Saddam’s regime.
Iran’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a
pernicious factor in an already debilitating conflict. Ultimately,
the most effective strategy for extracting Iran from the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resuming a robust peace
process buttressed by a sustained U.S. commitment to lead the effort
and a broad regional consensus in support of the negotiating parties
and the ultimate agreements.
Should leading Arab states such as
Saudi Arabia and Egypt actively support and facilitate a peace
process between Israelis and Palestinians, Iran would be likely to
acquiesce to this process. Iranian hostility toward the peace
process is not immutable— a lonely struggle against an emerging
regional consensus on behalf of radical Palestinian forces is not
likely to be the path chosen by Tehran.
Long-Term Relations with Iran
Washington should work to ensure that
its rhetoric and policies target Iran’s objectionable policies
rather than its population. Attempting to isolate the Iranian people
does not serve the cause
of democracy in Iran or the region.
The most appropriate and
effective mechanism for contributing to Iran’s slow process of
change would be to intensify the political, cultural, and economic
linkages between its population and the wider world. Specifically,
this should entail gradually incorporating Iran into the activities
U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative and other regional reform
programs and issuing a blanket license to authorize the activities
of U.S. nongovernmental organizations in Iran. The administration
should also take care to ensure that its message—that the United
States desires a dialogue on mutual interests and that the
resumption of relations will require a positive response from Iran
regarding U.S. concerns—is crystal clear to both the government and
the people of Iran.
Successive U.S. administrations have centered their policy toward
Iran on the persuasive power of economic sanctions to change the
country’s positions and conduct. The comprehensive and unilateral
nature of the U.S. embargo, however, ultimately deprives Washington
of leverage: both the influence that comes with a government’s
ability to make trade ties conditional on improved political
relations and the more diffuse impact business relations can have on
changing political culture.
The Task Force ultimately concludes that
economic relations between the United States and Iran must be
conditioned upon improvements in the diplomatic relationship between
the two countries. Small steps, such as the authorization of trade
between U.S. entities and Iran’s relatively small private sector,
should be contemplated as confidence-building measures that would
create new constituencies within Iran for a government that is fully
integrated into the international community. In addition, the United
States should relinquish its efforts to prevent Iranian engagement
with international financial institutions, as these efforts are
inherently counterproductive to the objective of promoting better
governance in Tehran.
Permitting Iran to begin accession talks with
the World Trade Organization will only intensify pressure on Tehran
for accountability and transparency, and may help facilitate Iran’s
evolution into a state that respects its citizens and its neighbors.
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