Strategic Horizons: Untangling the U.S.-Iran Conflict

Strategic Horizons: Untangling the U.S.-Iran Conflict

All roads in the conflict between Iran and the United States may not lead to war, but the one both sides are currently on certainly does. The two are at loggerheads, their relationship ossified into a zero-sum strategy that leaves almost no room to maneuver.

Since Israel's security, as the Israelis define it, shapes U.S. strategy toward Iran as much as America’s direct security does, there are rigid limits on what Washington can do or even propose. It is hard enough to reconcile the vital interests of two nations, much less three. Compounding the problem, the United States does not have an integrated and comprehensive Iran strategy, but rather one designed only to address the Iranian nuclear program. Because the United States does not trust the Iranian regime on either nuclear issues or other points of contention, such as Tehran's support for terrorism, it relies solely on sticks like diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, with no carrots in the diplomatic tool kit. And since the United States knows that once U.N. sanctions targeting Iran are lifted they will not be reapplied, the Obama administration clings tenaciously to them while waiting for concessions from Tehran.

Iran's position is, if anything, even less amenable to conciliation. The Iranian regime seems convinced that the U.S. objective is to remove it from power and reverse Iran's 1979 revolution. Any new offer from Washington is seen as a ploy to weaken Iranian resolve. And the regime in Tehran seems to have concluded from recent events in Libya, Iraq and North Korea that only nuclear weapons can stop the United States from removing a regime it considers an enemy. Current U.S. hostility and America's history of intervention in Iran only amplifies these suspicions. Because fewer and fewer Iranians have a direct memory of the Shah, the 1979 revolution or the ensuing war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the regime uses external enemies, particularly the United States and Israel, as a rationale for clinging tightly to power and sustaining repression of domestic dissent. Endless reminders of the nefarious meddling, whether real or imagined, of the "Great Satan" and its Israeli partners help the regime justify the economic hardship caused by international sanctions.

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