Time for Détente With Iran

A RISING STAR

Over five years after the Bush administration vowed to transform the Middle East, the region is indeed profoundly different. Washington's misadventures in Iraq, the humbling of Israeli power in Lebanon, the rise of the once-marginalized Shiites, and the ascendance of Islamist parties have pushed the Middle East to the brink of chaos.

In the midst of the mess stands the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its regime has not only survived the U.S. onslaught but also managed to enhance Iran's influence in the region. Iran now lies at the center of the Middle East's major problems -- from the civil wars unfolding in Iraq and Lebanon to the security challenge of the Persian Gulf -- and it is hard to imagine any of them being resolved without Tehran's cooperation. Meanwhile, Tehran's power is being steadily enhanced by its nuclear program, which progresses unhindered despite regular protests from the international community.

This last development has put Washington in a bind. Ever since the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, the United States has pursued a series of incoherent policies toward Tehran. At various points, it has tried to topple the regime -- even, on occasion, threatening military action. At others, it has sought to hold talks on a limited set of issues. Throughout, it has worked to box in Iran and to limit its influence in the region. But none of these approaches has worked, especially not containment, which is still the strategy of choice in the Iran policy debate.

If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away anytime soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente. In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations. Thus armed with the prospect of a new relationship with the United States, the pragmatists would be in a position to sideline the radicals in Tehran and try to tip the balance of power in their own favor. The sooner Washington recognizes these truths and finally normalizes relations with its most enduring Middle Eastern foe, the better.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

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