America Needs a New Iran Policy
It will take years to construct, but a new bipartisan domestic coalition for a different approach on Iran is long overdue.
America’s foreign policy debate has been quite understandably fixated on the Israel-Hamas and Ukraine wars in recent months. Congress continues to block funding to support America’s partners in those two wars as well as measures to counter threats posed by China in Taiwan and offer solutions to the ongoing challenges on America’s southern border.
Add to this combustible mix a series of incidents over the past few months that have raised concerns about long-standing threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the so-called “axis of resistance” it has constructed over decades across the wider Middle East and the broader international system. Some noteworthy incidents include:
Attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, which prompted the United States and Britain to mount an ongoing military response as part of a wider coalition.
More than 150 attacks against U.S. troops by Iranian-aligned groups across the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria, since last October.
Iran’s ballistic missile strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan this month, which included Iran’s longest range missile strike ever in Idlib, Syria and retaliatory strikes by nuclear-armed Pakistan inside Iran.
A series of cyberattacks on water systems and private companies in the United States by an Iran-linked hacking group as well as increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks against defense and intelligence agencies across the Middle East, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
These recent incidents come after decades of actions by the Iranian regime that have posed threats to regional and international security. Iran’s ongoing nuclear program and the risk that it might obtain a nuclear weapon could spark a regional nuclear arms race. The regime’s long-standing support for terrorist groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen have undermined regional stability and undercut basic human rights and freedoms in key countries across the Middle East.
Iran’s disruptive and destructive activities extend well beyond the Middle East. Tehran’s material support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine with drones is just one example of the way Iran reaches outside the region and undermines the wider international system.
Last but not least, in a world sometimes described as divided between autocracies and democracies, the regime’s brutal repression of the Iranian people regularly sparks waves of protests met with harsh crackdowns by the authorities. The people of Iran are a key center of gravity often overlooked in America’s scattered and sharply ideological debates on Iran.
What drives the Islamic Republic of Iran’s actions? As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently explained:
…since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, there have been very few governments in the world that have had a more clear and consistent grand strategy over the last four or five decades. And there's essentially three pillars to that strategy:
Number one, Iran is intent on evicting the United States from the Middle East.
Number two, they're intent on replacing Israel with Palestine.
And, number three, they want to help defeat the U.S.-led world order.
So, I would argue Iran and all of its regional proxies share these—all these three objectives.
With this long list of threats and challenges posed by Iran in 2024, you might think that most Americans would recognize this and adopt a different policy approach because what has been done thus far clearly hasn’t achieved its stated goals.
A central challenge: America has been divided against itself on Iran for years
One of the biggest challenges that the United States faces in crafting a strategic approach to a complicated challenge like Iran comes from within—the sharp divisions inside the United States about what could and should be done about Iran. These divisions weren’t always as acute as they are today, and recent events are the product of the lack of serious reflection and meaningful debate about what should be done about the current situation in the Middle East and the role that the Iranian regime has played in creating it.
For nearly two decades, America has been divided into two main camps in the political debates about Iran: for simplicity’s sake, let’s call them the “passive appeasers” versus the “accidental World War III advocates.”
The passive appeasement camp mostly looks the other way or wishes away the challenges posed by the current regime in Tehran and likes to talk about prioritizing diplomatic tools in any response to its destabilizing actions. Even though many in this camp claim to prioritize human rights and cloak themselves in the language of values from time to time, it is usually highly selective, dwelling on cases like Palestine while largely ignoring some of the most egregious human rights violations in places like Syria—and almost never are values raised when it comes to Iran.
In many ways, this “blame America first” camp agrees with the Iranian regime’s worldview that America does more harm than good in the world—they tend to see America as a neo-imperial power with too much global influence. Voices in this camp call for America to withdraw from the region and pull back from the world in a neo-isolationism under the thinly veiled banner of “restraint” or “progressive foreign policy.” A common tactic used by this camp is to mount ad hominem attacks against those who criticize them or claim that those who don’t share their views want to re-run the 2003 Iraq war, only this time in Iran.
Accidental World War III advocates put the Iranian regime as the root of all that has gone wrong in the Middle East. They usually focus more on key aspects of Iran’s security threats to the region and the world, like the regime’s support for terrorism across the Middle East. A good example of members of this camp are the figures who were on a kamikaze mission against the 2015 nuclear deal, the ones who mostly hit their target but didn’t have much to show for it as Iran continues to proceed apace with its nuclear effort.
This camp quite often doesn’t think through the logical consequences of the policies they advocate, like how a major Middle East war could easily draw in other actors like Russia more directly to a wider conflict. They are quick to turn to using military tools without defining a realistic end game. Many seem unwilling to learn the lessons from America’s post-9/11 wars, especially the lesson that the battle of ideas remains an important component in the challenge to counter extremism and terrorism.
Though a bit of a caricature, these two camps have essentially fed off each other and framed the broad contours of America’s political debate on Iran for years as a false choice between “more war” and “retreat”—though neither camp will call it that. At some level, members of these two camps look at the current situation with Iran and at some level can recognize that there’s something terribly wrong with the current U.S. policy approach, but they remain stuck in a rut re-litigating past debates on Iran while the entire landscape has changed.
But just like America’s partisan divide, these two camps remain wedded to their old ways of thinking, unable to break the endorphin addiction that comes from doing battle with one’s political or ideological adversary on social media, even as real battles play out in the Middle East disconnected from the U.S. policy discussion. The positions staked out in the current Iran debate between these two camps are so predictable and advances in artificial intelligence are getting so good that quite soon technology might be able to replace the leading voices in both of these camps. The one thing that they have in common: they often ignore the people of Iran and what’s to come in a form of neo-Orientalism that narrows the debate about policy options.
Towards a long game on U.S. policy on Iran with a new vital center
How does America get out of this bind and craft a more sensible approach to Iran than pushed by these two camps?
One thing is almost certain: the 2024 election campaign debate won’t resolve it. The sad reality of America’s politics today is that there is no real discourse over complicated questions like Iran. If anything, political campaigns are about dividing Americans into smaller and smaller camps and then forcing them to choose a tribe, which in many ways reflects the nature of the Iran policy debate just described.
Three modest steps in the right direction to address the current gaps in America’s Iran debate include:
Create a new network of foreign policy thinkers willing to cross current ideological lines inside of America. The first step in putting together a longer-term strategy on Iran that addresses the deficiencies in the current approach is to gather people from different backgrounds and perspectives who are ready and able to discuss a range of complicated challenges posed by Iran with an open mind. Easier said than done in this current environment, when the debate is still framed by heated social media exchanges that generate more heat than light. But to transcend and move beyond the current debate, a new camp from the center should be created. It should have some connection and reference to the people of Iran and what they want to see happen in the coming years, and it can avoid getting stuck in the typical so-called foreign policy “blob” by reaching out to other part of America’s diverse civil society.
Examine the full range of challenges presented by Iran. A second basic step is to make sure that the debate doesn’t get stuck in one particular square of the chessboard like Iran’s nuclear program or arguments over prisoner releases. It should seek to incorporate all of the relevant issues related to Iran in an integrated way, from Tehran’s regional and global security role along with the way the regime seeks to prevent freedom at home.
Look for possible opportunities for change on the horizon. Despite the bleak landscape in the Middle East and divisions inside of America’s politics, there is a glimmer of hope and important opportunity on the horizon. This glimmer of hope is found in the people of Iran, particularly the next generation, many of whom aspire to something different than the status quo and some of whom courageously take to the streets in defiance of the repression that they face at home. Iran is a country of nearly 90 million people, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30, and something different will come as a result of the demographic shift now underway.
The most important immediate opportunity on the horizon is found in what will be the inevitable leadership transition when Ali Khamenei, the octogenarian Supreme Leader of the ruling regime, passes from the scene. No credible Iran expert can predict who will come after this leader is gone with 100 percent accuracy.
A key question this new initiative should address: How should the United States prepare for the inevitable leadership transition in Iran? What tools does America have at its disposal to influence changes inside of Iran's political economy and power structures that can incentivize positive political change and give voice to the people of Iran who seek greater freedoms?
Taking these first three steps could help set a framework for building a new consensus and additional efforts. For example, the next U.S. Congress that comes into office in January 2025 could form a Select Committee on the Islamic Republic of Iran similar to what’s been done in the current Congress on China policy in the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.
These stepped-up effort by experts and elected leaders could address long-term policy challenges such as how the United States could better deploy its own civil society and technology and entertainment industries in a massive 21st century “soft power” initiative to connect the Iranian people to the world and more closely with each other and also to counter the “sharp power” strategies deployed by the regime in Tehran against America. It could also debate other aspects of U.S. power that could be deployed in different ways to shape the conditions in Iran and the region, rather than remaining stuck in the current reactive, crisis management posture.
Right now, U.S. policy on Iran is missing one main needed element: a bipartisan coalition to devise a new, comprehensive U.S. policy on Iran that addresses the full range of challenges, threats, and opportunities posed by Iran to U.S. national security interests and values.
That’s something that almost certainly will not be forged in the fires of the 2024 election debate, but the work needs to begin now to develop a new approach in the coming years.