Against Iran, the US needs to reactivate its Cold War strategy

Tehran has proved more resilient than Obama and Trump anticipated. Biden needs to focus on the long game

Girls in black uniforms hold up an image mosaic of Ayatollah Khomeini made up of individual boards, each in one of the three colors of the Iranian flag, 8th February 1999. They are in Azadi Stadium, west Tehran, during the celebrations on the 20th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
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Since the so-called "Islamic revolution" of 1979, the problem of Iran has bedevilled every US president. Joe Biden is no exception. The challenge intensified following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But at no point in the past two decades has the US developed a viable long-term strategy for dealing with Iran.

Mr Biden has placed Iran at the top of his international priorities. That gives him the opportunity to craft a strategy that learns lessons from his predecessors' successes and failures. Most importantly, he could establish a broad framework that avoids fragmented or contradictory partial solutions and that bequeaths coherence to his own successors.

A persistent lack of coherence has been central to his predecessor's failures.

Although George W Bush reviled the Iranian regime as part of an "axis of evil", he greatly strengthened Tehran by, among other things, invading Iraq, leaving the country shattered and largely dominated by Iranian proxies.

The 2015 nuclear deal was Barack Obama's signature foreign policy achievement but it was both flawed and limited. The agreement merely postponed a reckoning over Iran's nuclear ambitions for about a decade and resolved nothing. It also left Iran's other destabilising policies, particularly its support for a network of sectarian armed gangs in neighbouring Arab countries, completely unaddressed.

If anyone in the Obama administration was hoping that the sanctions relief and international legitimacy provided by the nuclear deal would moderate Tehran's behaviour, they were deeply disappointed.

Donald Trump promptly charged in the opposite direction, walking away from the agreement in 2018 and imposing a thoroughgoing regime of "maximum pressure" sanctions. But while the sanctions created significant economic hardship for Iran, Tehran's regional behaviour became more belligerent than ever.

Because reality is complex, it isn't automatically true that Iranian setbacks translate into American successes. Indeed, Mr Trump found no formula for achieving anything through the considerable pressure and leverage he accumulated.

Mr Biden inherits this legacy of profound confusion on one of his key priorities.

He clearly wants to revive nuclear diplomacy and even the 2015 agreement, but insists important lessons were learned from the failures and eventual collapse of the Obama approach.

The good news is that the Biden administration isn’t rushing into anything, and may even be dawdling a little.

The bad news is that senior administration officials may be so fixated on preventing Iran from going nuclear that some appear to think that this is the only really serious problem confronting Washington in the Middle East and that everything else is relatively minor.

Yet a single-minded fixation on reviving or even "fixing" the deal would trap Washington in the same fragmentary and contradictory framework responsible for 20 years of failure.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, left, with then US secretary of state John Kerry, right, in Vienna in 2014. The 2015 nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, was flawed and limited. Reuters
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, left, with then US secretary of state John Kerry, right, in Vienna in 2014. The 2015 nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, was flawed and limited. Reuters

In an important new essay, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests a modified version of the "containment" policy the US deployed towards the Soviet Union and its network of allies to provide a rational, unifying structure to the US approach towards Iran over the long run.

Shifting to such a "Cold War" model begins by recognising that a meaningful rapprochement between Washington and an unreconstructed Islamic Republic is simply impossible. Opposition to the US is hardwired into the core identity of this regime.

Expecting anything else is naive.

Such a radical transformation in Iran's worldview and policies towards the US and the rest of the Middle East would surely signal the end of the Islamic Republic as it has existed since 1979. Whether such a change is viewed as revolutionary, imposed on the state from outside the regime, or evolutionary, with existing structures taking the lead in such a shift, is irrelevant semantics. The resulting reality would be the same and utterly transformational.

US President George W. Bush (2nd L) stands with President-elect Barack Obama (L), former President Bill Clinton (2nd R) and former President Jimmy Carter (R) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 7, 2009. Bush, acting on a suggestion by Obama, invited the former Presidents and President-elect for lunch, the first time since 1981 that all living presidents have been together at the White House. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)
George W Bush stands with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office of the White House in 2009. Successive US presidents have got their Iran strategy wrong. AFP
Obama hoped JCPOA would encourage evolutionary change. It didn't. Trump hoped 'maximum pressure' would result in regime collapse. Not even close

Therefore, two key realities must be simultaneously acknowledged.

First, such a transformation must be the long-term goal of the US and its allies, because real reconciliation with this regime as it stands is not possible. But, second, such a change, no matter how vital, cannot be imposed from the outside.

The Obama administration appeared to be hoping that the nuclear agreement would strengthen "moderates" and encourage evolutionary change. It didn't. The Trump administration seemed to be hoping "maximum pressure" would result in regime collapse. Not even close.

Neither aspiration was realistic, and the resulting policies were at least somewhat misguided and ultimately ineffective.

The containment framework Sadjadpour suggests would, drawing on the US' broadly successful Cold War policies towards the Soviet Union, have three main prongs. It would seek to bolster US allies; undermine Iran's own network of support; and use both carrots and sticks to influence Tehran's policies. Its purpose would, eventually, be to provide a framework for fundamental, but domestically driven, change inside Iran.

Mr Biden's goal of an early return to the nuclear agreement fits nicely into this framework, as long as it's not an end in itself. So might a far broader diplomatic engagement with Iran if possible.

But the US would have to take care to strengthen ties to its own regional allies, all of which have a stake in keeping Iran non-nuclear.

Also indispensable would be major efforts to combat and fragment Iran's regional network of violent gangs, primarily by strengthening the dilapidated Arab state structures that Iran's militia proxies prey upon.

This approach also requires the careful reconceptualisation of both sanctions and engagement with Iran, all carefully tailored to promote Iranian civil society and turn social, political and nationalist aspirations against the regime itself.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 25, 2021, US President Joe Biden answers a question during his first press briefing in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Biden has suggested founding an initiative from "democratic" countries to rival China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative as tensions spike between the Asian power and Western nations. Biden said late On March 26, 2021, that he floated the proposal in a call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson amid a row over sanctions against abuses targeting the Uyghur minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. / AFP / Jim WATSON
US President Joe Biden has an opportunity to reset US strategy vis-a-vis Iran. AFP

The keys would be persistence, patience and the understanding that Iranians will only change their system when they are ready and on their own terms. Clearly there's already a great deal to work with in Iranian society, but that can only be done with subtlety and a clear vision.

Such a framework can provide coherence and flexibility, allowing what might otherwise be contradictory impulses and policies to become mutually reinforcing.

Without a guiding strategic concept, based on the largely successful American approach to a far more challenging and dangerous Soviet adversary, Washington is likely to continue to stumble from one miscalculation and missed opportunity to another.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National