The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct: George Kennan’s Fifteen Lessons for Understanding and Dealing With Tehran

The Sources of <del>Soviet</del> Iranian Conduct:
Policy Outlook
While the Iranian government—an increasingly militarized theocracy—is unique, George Kennan’s 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” reveals instructive behavioral parallels between the Iranian and Soviet regimes.
Related Media and Tools

In an attempt to understand the Islamic Republic of Iran—a regime that has bedeviled the United States since the 1979 revolution—U.S. analysts often invoke three historical analogies, comparing Iran to Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. While the Iranian government—an increasingly militarized theocracy—is sui generis, former U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” reveals instructive behavioral parallels between the Iranian and Soviet regimes. A close reading of Kennan’s analysis suggests some key lessons current U.S. policy makers should consider in dealing with Iran, including: 

  • Iran’s revolutionaries are defined by what they are against, not what they are for, and rely on foreign threats to maintain their legitimacy. The Islamic Republic may make tactical offers of compromise, but its hostility toward the United States is strategic. 
  • Given that Iran’s regional strength derives from its political influence more than its military prowess, U.S. strategy should focus less on containing Tehran militarily and more on political measures to diminish the regional appeal of Iran and its client militias including Hamas and Hizbollah.
  • While the ability of the United States to expedite positive political reform in Iran is limited, Washington can help constrain the Islamic Republic’s ability to repress and censor its population.

Kennan’s wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations. Talking to Iran will not resolve the real, serious differences the United States has with the Islamic Republic, but given Iran’s influence on major U.S. foreign policy challenges—namely Iraq, Afghanistan, Arab-Israeli peace, terrorism, energy security, and nuclear proliferation—it can help mitigate the risk of escalation and misunderstanding. 

In the process, Kennan would caution, the United States should remain “at all times cool and collected” until the Iranian regime is forced to change under the weight of its contradictions and economic malaise. “For no mystical, Messianic movement,” Kennan wrote in 1947, “can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.”

End of document

About the Middle East Program

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.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.