The U.S.’s Iran approach: From ineffective to incoherent

The fall issue of the Washington Quarterly has just published what may end up being the worst, most garbled policy piece on Iran within the last decade or so. Curiously, the authors, Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh, are mainstream centrists who claim that they have long “articulated both the rationale and the broad features of the dual-track approach [i.e. sanctions and economic enticements], arguing …it unquestionably represented the best course for the United States.” Yet it seems now, out of frustration and disappointment with the Iranian political system’s “refusal” to abandon its nuclear policy, they have all but given up and are encouraging the administration to “double down” pressure on Iran – from funding oppositional groups, to covert sabotage, to sanctions, etc. In other words, from their perspective, the U.S. “offered” to negotiate with Iran but the latter remained “defiant” and thus needs to be punished. Their thinking is that Iran will only ‘fall in line’ if its leadership is pressured enough, nevertheless it remains unclear whether their goal is now ‘regime change’ or some other deviation from their past policies.

The article is a badly organized stream-of-consciousness collage written from an ossified Washingtonian narrative that offers very little, if any, fresh input on actual policy. It is really far more emblematic of the collapse of U.S. regional strategy as opposed to being a new course. And although Stephen Walt has already done a masterful job at debunking the faulty logic of the article in Foreign Policy, it is also useful to consider a few points concerning the overall U.S.-Iran relationship, for they are often either taken for granted from both critics and advocates of current U.S. policy towards Iran, or confused altogether – hence why U.S. policy towards Iran has never really succeeded.

1) The first concerns the efficacy of the dual-track approach, which is what Pollack and Takeyh claim they have advocated for. Broadly speaking, the rationale behind the dual-track approach is the following: faced with a “problem country”, the US, as a matter of policy, would apply economic and/or trade sanctions, either gradually or rapidly, to convey the message to the target country that their policies are unacceptable and need to be changed according to American objectives. At times, the U.S. laces what it deems are in its interests with the moniker of ‘global security’ or ‘the will of the international community’ – however, being a hegemon, the US usually can get few-to-several countries to back its policies, particularly with the sanctions regime. Simultaneously, the US would convey to the country being targeted with sanctions that ‘there is a way out’ – if the country would change policies, there would be vague economic inducements as a ‘reward’. Although this sounds logical from the U.S. side, rarely, if ever, does the target country view the situation in similar fashion. There are a plethora of examples – from Cuba, to Mao’s China, to the Sudan, to Saddam’s Iraq, to Burma, to Syria, and to Iran itself – that suggest that this approach rarely works, primarily because it fails to view the behavior of the target country from the latter’s vantage point. Hence, if a country is being sanctioned for funding terrorism or having a nuclear program, that country might view their own behavior (i.e. the behavior that is eliciting sanctions) as vital for their national security and thus, economic inducements would not work without an overarching political/security architecture that can address the target country’s security concerns. On Iran, the U.S. has never attempted to discuss a broad ranging security framework for the region that would include Iran, and thus this leaves the latter with no choice but to push towards nuclear capacity and to fund and sponsor sub-national groups within the region for protection.

2) The second has to do with the fallacy of the sanctions or war dichotomy, which subscribes that in lieu of actually waging a war on a certain ‘problem’ country, the US will sanction the latter in hopes of behavior change. Yet this reasoning breaks down when transferred to actual policy, as it falsely implies that sanctions can prevent war when at times they actually lead to war (e.g. Iraq, Libya, etc.). On Iran-U.S. relations, earlier this year, I mapped out why Washington’s policy towards Tehran has usually failed. One of my main points was that:

…containment [sanctions and military posturing] and the use of military force are not opposing perspectives but two faces of the same policy, viewpoints that both lie along a continuum principally rooted in hostility. Since 1979, American policy toward Iran has oscillated between these two points, usually landing somewhere in the ambiguous middle. During the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War, the United States actually intervened militarily against Iran. In the war’s aftermath, the Clinton administration employed a dual containment approach, imposing stringent trade and financial sanctions on both Iran and Iraq. Yet whatever its varying strategy — “pure” containment, the use of military force, or the ambiguous middle — American actions have failed to deter Iran from pursuing what it has deemed to be its justifiable policies, including its nuclear program.

In other words, from imposing sanctions, threatening the use of force, or actually using force, the U.S. has utilized all of these policy tools against Iran and none succeeded. Again, these are not individual separate policies, but tactical subsidiaries that comprise one overall strategy, characterized by hostility towards the said country. After 32 years of the same policy of sanctions/threats of war/intervention, one would think that the mainstream U.S. punditry would have fresh approaches, but if Pollack and Takeyh are in any way representative, the poverty of ideas is what currently reigns.

3) The third point has to do with faulty logic of applying “pressure” on a country in order to open up their political space. Usually, states democratize and gradually learn an appreciation of human rights internally when they are allotted ‘private time’ to evolve, without the complications of having a superpower threaten regime change, institute sanctions, and intervene domestically. Rarely, if ever, does a political system move towards political reform under threat of war. The aforementioned examples of Cuba, Mao’s China, the Sudan, Saddam’s Iraq, Burma, Syria, etc. – countries that have been under the sanctions regime for years – clearly indicate that outside pressure does not render democratic governments nor do they inculcate an appreciation of human rights amongst target countries. Pollack and Takeyh try to use South Africa as a template but that is a ruse and utterly dissimilar case with Iran. What happened in South Africa, namely full-blown state apartheid was normatively rejected by the brunt.  of the international community, so much so that civil societies around the world initially stopped ‘doing business’ with the apartheid regime, which gradually forced, from below, their respective governments to match their societies positions. On Iran, while its internal characteristics (i.e. politics, governance, human rights, etc.) are problematic, it is not dissimilar to the domestic contents of many other governments in the world. Thus, expecting varying governments to isolate Iran based upon the very same dynamics that exist in the former is simply unrealistic and naïve.

Moreover, democracy, as the adage goes, is not only a messy process, but also a long-drown out evolution, filled with uncertainty and always susceptible to regression. Most importantly, it is ultimately an affair between two actors: the state and its civil society. In Iran’s case, the most salient example of this was in the 1990s. While the U.S. still kept the sanctions regimen upon Iran and even stopped all Iran-U.S. trade, there was a lessening of tension between both countries (i.e. an end to the talk of regime change and virtually no interference in Iranian domestic affairs) which slowly helped the reformists to attain power in 1997. And while the tenure of the reformists was riddled with inaction and tepidness, in many aspects, the press laws, social constrictions, and the overall political space became relatively relaxed. It was only until the invasion of Afghanistan, the axis of evil premise, the Iraq imbroglio, and most consequently, the collapse of the nescient post 9/11 Iran-U.S. regional cooperation that gave way to the rise of the Iranian neo-conservatives.

4) Fourthly is the specious claim concerning the supposed “outreach” of the Obama administration to Iran.  One of the hallmarks of Pollack and Takeyh’s jumbled article is the utter confusion they possess regarding this subject:

The [Obama] administration started out, properly, by offering to repair relations through a process of engagement. When Tehran rebuffed these overtures, Washington switched over to the path of pressure…

Yet, in the next paragraph they admit that there was very little authentic engagement that differed from the Bush years:

In truth, Obama’s approach to Iran was another variant of the basic strategy embraced by the George W. Bush administration – a carrot-and-stick policy designed to create a combination of incentives and disincentives which would convince the Iranian leadership to give up its nuclear program (and hopefully its support for terrorism and other anti-status quo gambits).

This last statement by Pollack and Takeyh is accurate, but why then construct a supposed ‘new’ Obama “outreach” when essentially the Bush approach never changed?

Equally disingenuous is Pollack and Takeyh’s next assertion that, “… Iran…, refus[es] to consider any limits on its nuclear program.” However, with his recent trip to the U.S., Iranian President Ahmadinejad explicitly said that given a deal with the U.S., Iran would halt enrichment at 20%. This was buttressed by the proposal of Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, that Iran would allow international inspectors full supervision over the country’s nuclear activities for the next five years – a major concession of sovereignty.

There is much more to consider regarding the contours of this complex interaction between the U.S. and Iran and equally charged critiques do exist on the Iranian side. And unfortunately, most of the much-needed nuance gets subsumed under a simplistic wrong vs. right or good vs. evil narrative that exists in both capitals. Yet, when one sums up both the failed policies that the U.S. and its punditry has pushed on Iran, along with diminishing American influence in the region, a troubled economy at home, economic and strategic challenges on the Iranian side, and the ostensive merging of key areas of interests with Iran and the U.S., one wonders how long the narrative fostered by Pollack and Takeyh will hold.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. If the problem was just the United States and Iran a grand bargain of some sort would have been hammered out long ago simply because it is in the interest of both parties to resolve their differences. But when you add Israel to the mix and the influence it has over American politicians arriving at any understanding becomes close to impossible.

    Maybe a time will come when Iran and Israel will come to the realization that it is in both their interests to make peace, but for Iran to do that it would have to jettison the Palestinian cause, and to do that it would have to ignore what it considers to be injustices that are rooted not only in history but also religious in nature.

    Israel will eventually have to grant the Palestinians their rights. An outcome similar to South Africa is unlikely but necessary.

    The Europeans and Americans are just as guilty as the Israelis and should not have compensated for the crimes of the Nazi’s by sanctioning crimes against the Palestinians.

    None of these problems are unsolvable and do not need the use of violence to solve them. Jews have lived in peace in Iran for centuries which should provide solid evidence that Iranians and Israeli’s can live in peace in the Middle East.

  2. A grand bargain is NOT in the perceived interests of the United States, because a grand bargain would recognize Iranian independence and sovereignty.

    The US will accept nothing less than an Iran firmly within the US sphere of influence–the Iranian government serving as an agent of Washington’s interests. Obviously, the Iranian government will not accept this.

    Iranian sovereignty is the crux of the issue, not imaginary Iranian nukes or Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which are minor impediments to Israeli freedom of action in the region.

  3. Walt and you guys don’t seem to quite get it: the policy that Takeyh and Pollack are pushing is not simply borne of stupidity on their part, nor has it inadvertently and mistakenly lead the Iranians to believe that the real objective is regime change. No, that IS the actual objective. The reason why Takeyh and Pollack insist on “doubling down” on a policy that has not caused the Iranians to alter their nuclear policy is simply because the nuclear issue is just a pretext and always was a pretext for regime change. Naturally, the US wants to keep that pretext alive, not to resolve it. The last thing the US wants to do is to allow the nuclear issue to be resolved peacefully with the regime still in power. Proof of this is easily observable in the history of the conflict, where everytime Iran has shown flexibility and made compromises – suspending enrichment, agreeing to move the uranium overseas, offering to purchase reactor fuel for the TRR – the US has simply either ignored the offers or upped the ante. The US is simply playing rope-a-dope, using the nuclear issue as a pretext, and trying to topple the regime. And no amount of compromises and allowing inspections etc is going to change that. In fact if Iran totally gave up all nuclear technology tomorrow, the US will simply adopt another pretext, just as “WMDs in Iraq” were a pretext. In this strategy, the sanctions are indeed not an alternative to war, but what you don’t get is that their real target isn’t Iran. No, the real target of the sanctions is the US – the goal being to force the administration down a path which is at every step politically harder to reverse. Everytime some new sweeping sanction is imposed on Iran, it becomes that much harder for the Obama administration to end the sanctions. the only way then is to increase and increase the sanctions, until inevitably they lead to confrontation. The goal of the sanctions is not so much to influence Iran, but to paint the US into a corner. And it has succeeded – witness that no politician today dares question the policy.

  4. Congratulations, Cyrus. You are one of the few people who gets it. It’s truly incredible how many people take US policy statements at face value.

    For me, the biggest flashing red light was that US policy toward Iran never changed, but the rationales for that policy changed constantly. Back in the 1980’s there was no Iranian nuke program, but the US put sanctions on Iran. Now the imaginary nuke program has become all the rage. Washington still hasn’t recovered from the loss of its dear, tyrannical friend, the Shah.

    It reminds me of Bush–no matter what the problem, tax cuts for the rich were always the solution. For Iran, no matter what the problem with Iran (or Libya, or Iraq, or Syria), regime change is always the only solution.

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