The US-Iranian relations have been relatively tense during the last decades. The reasons are primarily related to the adversity of the Tehran regime that has reached a new level of intensity since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. This is why it is important for the US to consider its strategy towards Iran especially due to its energy potential and the crucial role it plays in determining the political and nuclear stability both in the region and in the world.
In order to have a proper image of the issue at hand, a brief historical background is required.
Next, it is important to identify and state the main goal of the US policy towards Iran, together with the course of action needed to achieve it. Finally, due to the complexity of the problem, a proper assessment of the rate of success of these actions must be taken into account.
The Iranian state has experienced a number of important political changes in the last decades, but most importantly following the Islamic Revolution of 1979].
Up until that moment, the shah had been the supporter of a rather moderate political attitude towards the two sides of the Cold War. Although it joined the Bagdad Pact, it managed to keep a distant relationship from both Moscow and western states, a policy that proved to be efficient in ensuring commercial support from the US and political dialogue with Russia.
The Islamic Revolution represented a shift in both internal and foreign policy. On the one hand, the state in itself became the proponent of revolution as means of changing and securing power; on the other hand, it gave way to the establishment of a radical and authoritarian foreign conduct that culminated in the hostage crisis ended in 1981.
From that point on, the strategic lines of the policy conducted by the Tehran government are oriented towards drastic shifts of direction and an overall aversion towards western democracy system of law.
Despite the support it benefited from during the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran kept its hostile attitude towards the West and, following the end of the Cold War, it became more and more reluctant the democratic rule of law, rejecting cooperation and control with and from the international community.
The Middle East has always represented an area of great interest for conducting world politics especially because of its important energy supplies. This is why the last decades have seen a surge in the international interest towards this region and therefore more and more countries are orienting their national strategies according to the political perspectives in the area. It is therefore only natural for the US to consider its most important foreign policy aim in its relation to Iran in terms of energy supplies.
This focus is widely known and historically recognized, as it became extremely important for the world to “ensure the strategic preservation of access to the Middle Eastern Oil.” Given the fact that Iran is the second most important oil supplier after Saudi Arabia, it is fair to say that the US’s most important goal in the foreign policy towards Iran is a stable relationship with a democratic Iranian state that would enable the US and the world to benefit from a proper and sufficient flux of energy supplies.
At the same time however, the situation created by the Iranian demand for nuclear power has made the international community to reconsider Iran as a threat to the security of the world and therefore the state of the negotiations in this area is also a matter of great concern and focus for the US.
This political reality implies a series of additional perspectives. Firstly, a stable relationship requires the limitation and improvement of the paths of dialogue between the two states and the transformation of the Iranian government in a less hostile negotiation and discussion partner. Secondly, there needs to be a reconsideration of the democratic spirit within the Iranian state if it is to be seen as a worthy dialogue partner. Finally, the US must work through every means at its disposal to ensure and promote a wider sense of cooperation from the Iranian state towards the international community.
In order to achieve all this, and to develop and improve the current state of affairs between the two states, the US should follow a course of action that requires two types of measures. On the one hand, incentives in order to assure the Iranian state of the willingness to cooperate in the spirit of positive development, and on the other hand, coercive measures that would send a clear message to Tehran of their obligation to comply with international and US demands in order to improve relations. Thus, actions should be taken at a diplomatic and political level on the one hand, and at an economic and military one, on the other.
The diplomatic channel is the most important asset of any international relationship. Therefore, the US should focus its efforts contributing to a diplomatic solution to the current crisis the Iranian nuclear program has created. Indeed, there are split opinions over the the proper course of action, as the conservatives find it legitimate for Iran to have a national nuclear program, while the opposition consider it to be a threat to international security.
Still, it would be important for the Bush Administration to consider supporting the diplomatic pressures made on the Iranian government especially in the context of the IAAE talks. This would be a rather important course of action to be taken into consideration especially because, unlike the Iraq situation, there is little disagreement at the level of the international political opinion. The US in this case would benefit from a wide support from the European states already engaged in diplomatic talks such as France, Germany, and the UK.
At a political level, it would be important for the US Administration to engage in talks with both internal factors of decision such as the moderate factions of government and with Iran’s allies and neighbors. This could be achieved through meetings with regional leaders as well as promoting political projects that would be relevant for the development of the region.
This would build up trust between the regional actors and the US and ultimately would strengthen the cooperation in the area, leaving Iran forced to cooperate in its turn. Internally, the US must try to attract the support of the moderate forces and to engage in coherent dialogue on specific themes such as democracy and the rule of law, by showing the importance of these notions for the evolution of the Iranian society.
At the same time, while employing cooperative measures, the US must also have in mind the need for coercive actions as well. Concerning the nuclear program, it is important for the Americans to oversee a more efficient enforcement of the nonproliferation treaty, even if reports have shown that Iran is in constant breach of them. The privileged position of the US as the biggest trading actor on the market makes it possible for it to impose certain economic sanctions that would dramatically affect the trade balance of the Iranian government.
Together with the cooperation of other allied states, the US can continue to impose import restrictions, which would eventually deter Iran to a more cooperative attitude. However, this measure must take into account a proper ratio between the costs and benefits of such actions in the sense of avoiding an evolution similar to that of the North Korean case.
Regarding any military action the US may be engaged in, it is rather unlikely that the situation will evolve in that direction, especially considering the massive deployment of forces in neighboring Iraq and the negative reactions it prompted. Although there have been voices that take into consideration a possible war, either supporting or condemning it, in the near future it is both logistically impossible and politically undesirable such a development. The main reason would be the imminent worsening of any diplomatic chances of reaching agreement, together with a definite loss of Arab support for any future American initiatives.
Due to the complexity of the issue, there are certain challenges that may prevent the US from successfully achieving its goals. Firstly, there would be a political impediment, as the Iranian government is rather determined in strengthening its diplomatic and economic ties with other nuclear powers such as North Korea, which is also reluctant to settle its disputes with the international community on the matter.
Secondly, the cultural differences that exist between the Islamic country and the US can be, at one point, an important factor in the overall relationship between the two. The notion of democracy has different meanings and therefore efforts must be made in order to find common grounds. Moreover, due to the fact that the US lacks credibility in the Arab society, especially because of its violent interventions in recent decades in the area, there could be a problem implementing American measures due to a poor percentage of popular support and cooperation, most importantly from the radicals.
Finally, any action that would somehow intervene with the set agenda of the Iranian government can attract negative responses from the Tehran authorities, which would materialize in the form of boycotts of oil supplies. Seeing the importance of Iran in the world flux of oil and taking into account the necessity and increasing demand in energy throughout the world, any reactions in these terms may have the effect of limiting or at least moderating the American strategy.
Overall, the US, as one of the most important actors on the international stage, and as the state that has both the political and practical capacity to influence the Iranian state, must follow a course of action that would help improve both bilateral relations with Iran and this country’s international position in regard to the world. In doing so, the US must adopt the tactics of sticks and carrots, therefore on the one hand diplomatic and political actions but also economic and military sanctions if necessary. Still, it must bear in mind that there are also a series of impediments that would prevent the US from achieving its goals, such as North Korea, a lack of credibility in the Middle East or the stringent need for oil supplies.