While the historic May 29 talks between the United States and Iran in Baghdad hinted at the possibility of renewed dialogue, the search for an effective foreign policy toward Iran has proven elusive for both U.S. and European administrations. The need for engagement with Iran is often cited as a major step in easing Middle East tensions and a matter of necessity to contend with Iran’s nuclear ambitions—yet remains a very difficult approach to implement.
In this Carnegie Policy Outlook, Guidelines for Approaching Iran, Carnegie Endowment Associate Karim Sadjadpour points to current realities in Iran and existing difficulties that should guide any attempts to engage Iran and influence its policies.
• Given that Iran is integral to several issues of critical importance to U.S. and EU foreign policy—namely Iraq, nonproliferation, energy security, terrorism, and Arab-Israeli peace—avoiding dialogue with Iran is not an option and confronting it militarily would only worsen what the West seeks to improve.
• Iran’s reintegration into the global economy and improved ties with the United States will provide more fertile ground for political reform and marginalizing hardliners—a fact well understood by the small but powerful clique of hardliners in Tehran who are determined to undermine attempts at reconciliation.
• The cooperation of the EU, Russia, China, and India is key to resolving the current tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran is adept at identifying rifts in the international community, and diplomatic efforts will unravel if each country approaches Iran with a different redline.
• Despite current U.S. concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq, Iran arguably has more common interests with the United States in that country than any of Iraq’s other neighbors. Shared interests should lead both countries to look to Iraq as a forum to build confidence.
• Abrupt domestic change in Iran is unlikely in the near term and would not necessarily lead to an improvement of the status quo. The only groups that are both armed and organized at the moment are not liberal democrats but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Bassij militia.
• Threatening military force against Iran weakens the position of moderates and strengthens hardliners. Washington must disabuse Iran’s leadership that it is intent on the removal of the Islamic regime.
• Any type of U.S. engagement with Iran should address concerns about human rights in that country, including the recent detention of four U.S.-Iranian dual nationals.
• The Iranian government ultimately must make a strategic decision to change its own policies. What the West can do is attempt to facilitate Iranian decision making by formulating an approach that is more united and more nuanced, one that makes it clearer to Tehran that “goodwill will begets goodwill,” and reaffirms that a defiant approach will gain little and cost more.
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About the Author
Karim Sadjadpour is an associate in the Middle East and Nonproliferation programs at the Carnegie Endowment.
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.
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