Moving Forward on Iran

A Policy for the Next U.S. Administration

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani in New York City, September 26, 2015. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The latest idea de jour on how the next U.S. administration should deal with Iran, trumpeted especially by the Hillary Clinton camp, is the need to be tougher and more aggressive in confronting Tehran. Only a stiff spine in standing up to the mullahcracy, as the argument goes, will block its expansionist desires and prevent a rising Iran from dominating the region.

This muscle-flexing approach, if done in a knee-jerk manner, is unwise and unnecessary, exaggerating both Iranian power and inflating the United States’ capacity to stop it. Instead, Washington should focus on containing Iran where it threatens vital U.S. interests and cooperating with Tehran where it serves those interests.

That said, it would be a mistake to carry a torch for the Islamic Republic. It’s a cruel and nasty regime—a serial human rights abuser at home and a promoter of policies in the region that are clearly at odds with many U.S. interests and those of its partners and allies. And it would be foolhardy to conclude that the nuclear agreement with Iran will be the last that the world sees of its flirtation with nuclear weapons. 

But creating a new Middle East bogeyman and scaring ourselves into a policy that mandates a more confrontational posture, particularly without the means and will to carry it out, makes little sense. Donald Trump has threatened to abrogate or renegotiate the Iranian nuclear agreement. Clinton has defended the accord, but her advisers seem bent on checking Iranian power in the region without outlining how they will do this or what the consequences might be.

Given the near universal unhappiness in Congress with the Iranian nuclear agreement and worries that the current administration of President Barack Obama has been far too risk-averse and acquiescent in the face of Iranian expansion, a mindless default position has emerged: getting tough with Tehran without thinking through the consequences of such a policy and whether it can achieve its objectives without compromising other

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