Influential and strategically located, Iran has long presented a challenge for U.S. foreign policy. We have struggled for decades to get this important bilateral relationship right, and we aren’t there yet.
Through much of the 20th century, Americans and Iranians were allies. We sought to protect investments in Iran, even overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953 in a dispute over oil. We provided equipment, training and aid, much of which went to the Shah, who used it to shore up his power, suppress dissent and intimidate political rivals.
Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ousted the Shah and installed a new group of leaders who were pious, conservative and religiously oriented. We went from allies to adversaries, as Iran supported anti-American and anti-Western governments and forces in the Middle East. The relationship has never recovered, and it has taken a turn for the worse.
Many policy experts agree that a better U.S.-Iran relationship would contribute to a more stable Middle East. Positive steps were taken with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multinational, long-term agreement that stalled Iran’s nuclear weapons development and allowed stringent inspection of its facilities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
But President Donald Trump denounced the deal — a signature achievement of his predecessor, Barack Obama — casting it as a symbol of American decline. Siding with Israel and Saudi Arabia, he said it gave Iran too much flexibility to eventually resume its weapons programs.
In 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement and imposed harsh sanctions.
There is no question that the U.S.-Iran relationship is a tough one. Iran is big and powerful enough to cause a great deal of trouble. It takes every opportunity to challenge our interests, and it does so skillfully. It has sponsored terrorism, although that support has lessened.
Iran does not, however, present an existential threat to the United States — not even close to it. While its population is about one-fourth the size of America’s, its economy is only 2% as large. Its industrial base is decrepit, and its weapons systems are largely outdated. Sanctions have weakened Iran’s economy, and any aggressive use of its weapons could trigger a devastating response.
Trump and some in his administration seem to be fixated on Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks frequently about its “malign activities.” Trump has shifted American Middle East policy in favor of Iran’s rivals, and there is pressure within the administration to ratchet up confrontation with Iran.
While the rhetoric has grown more hostile, we have so far avoided armed conflict, but the risk has increased. We haven’t had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980. We lack reliable communication channels, and one misstep could bring hostilities.
My own view is that our approach must be more pragmatic. Our differences are considerable and difficult, but they don’t warrant going to war.
Some U.S. officials think we should avoid contact with Iran. That’s a mistake. Our relationship needs work, but this is work that should be done. We need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, reduce its efforts to foment instability, and lessen the risk of armed conflict.
I’m not suggesting this will be easy, and the Trump administration may be too committed to the present course to reach accommodation. But we ought to engage with Iran as quickly and positively as we can, responding to this serious test of our diplomacy.
The United States and its allies will be better off, the Middle East will be more stable, and the world will be safer if the relationship is repaired.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and a professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.