Time for Maturity in the White House Attitude to Iran

by Peter Jenkins

The article “The Obama Doctrine in the April issue of The Atlantic lays bare a striking contrast in the White House’s attitude to two states that pose a challenge to US interests: Iran and China.

This is what Susan Rice says about Iran to the author of the piece, Jeffrey Goldberg:

The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran. It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.

And this is how President Barack Obama responds to a question about the challenge that China poses:

In terms of traditional great-state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical. If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order. If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.

The formula for dealing with China—engagement with a view to managing Chinese nationalism and encouraging Chinese commitment to global norms of behavior and responsibilities—is wise. The minimalist formula being applied to Iran is misguided.

Engagement can result in influence, and influence can produce changes of behavior; the odds are stacked against anything good coming from minimalism.

Why Bother?

Obviously China’s potential to challenge or to dovetail with US interests is greater than Iran’s. But Iran’s potential is not so slight as to be negligible:

  • Iranian ties to Shi’a communities, or communities that are sympathetic to Shi’ism, in Iraq, Syria, the Lebanon, the Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Afghanistan are a fact of life in Southwest Asia. These affinities give Iran a capacity to influence events in those states and to contribute to or obstruct US regional policy objectives;
  • When restrictions on uranium enrichment lapse in 2031, Iran can decide to expand its enrichment capacity in ways that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are likely to find alarming. Or it can calculate that it has much to lose by causing alarm, and little to gain;
  • Iran’s ballistic missile program is not subject to international treaty or UN Security Council prohibitions. As in the nuclear field after 2031, Iran has a choice. It can restrict its missile capabilities to the medium ranges needed to counter the capabilities of regional rivals, or it can develop an intercontinental capability that could be a threat to the United States;
  • The indictment of seven Iranians in recent days suggests that Iran is capable of mounting damaging cyber-operations, if it chooses;
  • Contrary to US and Israeli claims, Iran is no longer the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Iran is hostile to the two Sunni fundamentalist movements that have become the leading perpetrators of terrorist acts: al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But Iran remains a sponsor of Lebanese Hezbollah and can encourage or discourage Hezbollah from mounting operations against Israel;
  • Iran’s leaders also have a rhetorical option in relation to Israel. They can broadcast their opposition to a “Jewish state,” or they can go easy on the rhetoric and try to come to terms with a fait accompli.

Filling the Void

Minimalism will deny the United States influence over these choices. That is a lesson that the United States ought to have learned by now, from the consequences of its minimalism toward China after 1949, toward North Korea after 1953, toward Cuba after 1959, and toward Iran itself since the revolution and the seizing of US hostages in 1979.

Engagement won’t give the United States influence overnight. Far from it. Iran’s Islamic nezam (establishment) will be deeply suspicious of US motives and divided over how to respond to US advances. Only a week ago Iran’s Supreme Leader referred to the United States as an “enemy of Iran.”

But over time engagement can mitigate Iranian hostility and suspicion. Engagement can bring about something akin to a mutual non-aggression pact. Engagement can create conditions under which Iran and the United States can explore, soberly and intelligently, ways in which their national interests converge and ways in which differences can be managed or even minimized. Surely that sort of relationship with Iran would be more useful to the United States than the void that has appealed to so many US politicians for far too long?

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. All that rhetoric about a non-relationship with Iran is merely part of the larger project of appeasing Israel. One only has to look at Hillary’s speech at the AIPAC conference as reported in Foreign Policy:

    ‘She called Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests “unacceptable,” and said that they should be “answered firmly and quickly including with more sanctions.” She suggested that as president, she would push back against Iranian aggression. A Clinton administration, she promised, would “impose additional sanctions as needed on Iran and the Revolutionary Guard for their sponsorship of terrorism, illegal arms transfers, human rights violations and other illicit behavior like cyber attacks.” ’

    Hillary’s not alone in her fantasies of “Iranian aggression” which seem a bit over the top to me, since Iran is one of the less aggressive nations in that region. But Israel is a jealous master and wants no American fraternizing with Iran — or tear up JCPOA.

  2. Mr. Jenkins, nice article but I totally disagree with it. The only thing I can agree with is that the White House admitting political immaturity! The US should and must deal with it’s dangerous allies namely KSA and Israel first! If the past behavior is an indication of the future behavior then these 2 states have done much more damage and presented more challenges to this country than any other country on earth over the past 50 years! It is interesting that the false and perceived allies and the US itself are fairly young in human history (KSA,70; Israel 70 and the US, 250 years old) as opposed to Iran and China! In short the US has a lot to learn yet to distinguish the differences between its friends and its enemies! The US will mature when it’s politicians abandon the idea of being subservient to these 2 states for their personal and campaign gains!!

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