A Reset for Iran and the United States

Why an Unpopular Approach Is Washington’s Best Option

The Iranian and U.S flags in Vienna, Austria, July 2015. Carlos Barria / REUTERs

It remains conventional wisdom in many U.S. foreign policy circles that Iran’s government is ineluctably hostile to U.S. interests by virtue of its ideology and thus is impervious to conciliation. According to this school of thought, there are few differences among the competing forces in Iranian politics, and the labels of  "moderate” and “hard-line" used by some Western observers are misplaced. Since anyone standing for election must be approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, an unelected body of Shiite jurists, all candidates must support the fundamental revolutionary tenets of the Islamic Republic. Measured by a properly balanced political scale, all Iranian politicians are therefore hard-liners, and the government is monolithic. As such, this thinking runs, Iran’s presidential elections are less an expression of popular will than a mechanism for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to rotate power among loyalists while maintaining control.

Proponents of this line of thinking point to the record of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who overwhelmingly won reelection to a second term in May. Rouhani’s first term, they note, brought few improvements to domestic human rights conditions, nor did it appear to moderate Iran’s foreign policies. They point to Iran’s support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for Houthi forces in Yemen, and for Shiite militias in Iraq, as well as to Tehran’s provocation of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. They point to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) continued development of medium-range ballistic missile technology as evidence of the offensive threat that Iran poses to Israel and the region. And they note some Iranian officials’ bellicose rhetoric against Israel and the United States. These facts, it is commonly argued, show that Iran is not ready for responsible international engagement.

American expectations about the pace of change in Iran need to be tempered.

Current U.S. policy is therefore built around containing and isolating Iran, using

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