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:
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.”
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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