After 30 years of estrangement, the Obama administration is now engaged with Iran in hopes of a deal to ensure Iran’s nuclear energy program is not subverted to make nuclear weapons. On December 1, 2010, Iran experts explored important trends inside Iran and in its dealings with the outside world at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s launch of “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Policy.”

After 30 years of estrangement, the Obama administration is now engaged with Iran in hopes of a deal to ensure Iran’s nuclear energy program is not subverted to make nuclear weapons. On December 1, 2010, Iran experts explored important trends inside Iran and in its dealings with the outside world at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s launch of “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Policy.”

Iran has an opportunity and I hope it will take that opportunity,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President, in his keynote speech. The Islamic Republic has become one of the world’s most complex challenges because of its controversial nuclear program, violent repression, support of extremists, and inflammatory rhetoric. Ross noted that growing pressure from international sanctions has added incentive for Iran to negotiate with the world’s six major powers. He warned, however, that “if Iran stays on the path it is on, then it should be ready to a pay a price.”

Robin Wright, editor of “The Iran Primer,” noted that “talks are coming at a time of unprecedented internal divisions.” Tensions are visible within the hardline regime, among the original revolutionaries, in parliament, even inside the Revolutionary Guards, as well as from the new Green Movement opposition. Pressures are likely to mount further because Iran’s population is overwhelmingly young and pessimistic about their own futures. Corruption and chronic economic mismanagement have added to public dissatisfaction. The danger for diplomacy is that Iran’s internal crises will make any diplomatic deal more difficult too—launching an open-ended game of “diplomatic dodge-ball” that does not resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Wright is a joint fellow at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Wright’s skepticism was echoed throughout the conference. “More people realize the system is unlikely to reform itself…The likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough is very slim,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Susanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, expressed doubt about the seriousness of Iranian cooperation because “any sort of opening poses a threat to those ruling the regime.”

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, suggested that even a deal on Iran’s nuclear program would not end diplomatic tensions or punitive sanctions. “If we resolve the nuclear issue, we would still retain sanctions due to [Iran’s] terrorism links,” Clawson said. And Tehran is unlikely to stop support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Despite the overwhelming pessimism about negotiations, James Dobbins emphasized the importance of the administration’s decision to engage Iran. “I don’t suggest it will lead to a grand negotiation or deal, but it will produce better information and better information will produce better policy,” said Dobbins, director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy. Dobbins urged the United States to communicate with all Iranian leaders open to American diplomacy.

Kenneth Pollack expressed support for diplomacy due to a lack of viable alternatives. Yet Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, emphasized the need for a fall-back plan based on containment to prevent the regime from doing harm beyond its borders. “Containment sucks. It is what we do when we can’t have a normal relationship with the government and we can’t change the government.” He said the United States should prepare for long-term sustainable sanctions as well as bolster U.S. regional allies, in addition to engaging in diplomacy. “There needs to be a sense of the long struggle and that the U.S. will not back down,” Pollack said.

The panelists generally agreed that the costs of the military option outweigh the benefits. “The politics of a military attack are more critical than an attack itself,” said Dov S. Zakheim, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Zakheim said that even a prolonged period of strikes might not be effective based on Iran’s size as the world’s 18th largest country, the limited U.S. intelligence inside Iran, and divisions within the international community in addition to the human consequences of a military offensive.

The event ended with a general consensus that if Iran is not serious about cooperation, then the United States may have no other better option than long-term containment policy, which Pollack called “the least bad option.” 

Explore Further

Related Publications

Vikram Singh on the South China Sea

Vikram Singh on the South China Sea

Thursday, October 25, 2018

By: Vikram J. Singh

With trillions in goods moving through the South China Sea annually, it’s arguably the most important shipping lane on the planet, says Vikram Singh. While China says that it wants to keep the sea free and open for trade, most worryingly for the United States, Beijing has claimed it can deny access to military vessels, challenging the U.S.’ ability to maintain a balance of power in the region.

Economics & Environment; Global Policy

Why the U.S. Needs a Special Envoy for the Red Sea

Why the U.S. Needs a Special Envoy for the Red Sea

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

By: Payton Knopf

The Trump administration has appointed four special envoys to coordinate U.S. policy toward key hot spots: Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan. Yet in the Red Sea—one of the most volatile and lethal regions of the world afflicted by several interconnected conflicts and rivalries that pose significant challenges to American interests—U.S. policy has been rudderless in large part due to the absence of a similar post.

Global Policy; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

America’s Vital Needs on China Policy: Realism and Strategy

America’s Vital Needs on China Policy: Realism and Strategy

Friday, September 28, 2018

By: USIP Staff

As U.S. national security debates focus heavily on the growing power and ambitions of China, two prominent members of Congress discussed how bipartisan policymaking can better protect America’s interests. Representatives Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) emphasized a need for strong engagement in Washington between the political parties, and for focused U.S. attention on China’s military buildup, intellectual property theft and cyber activities. Both congressmen are members of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees the U.S. foreign affairs budget, and both have played leading roles on national security and intelligence issues.

Democracy & Governance; Economics & Environment; Global Policy

China’s Evolving Role as a U.N. Peacekeeper in Mali

China’s Evolving Role as a U.N. Peacekeeper in Mali

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

By: Jean-Pierre Cabestan

Chinese troops have been stationed in Mali for the last half-decade as part of the UN-mandated stabilization force. Deployed after rebel groups overran large portions northeastern Mali in 2013, it was just the second time Beijing had ever contributed combat troops to a UN peacekeeping mission. This Special Report examines how China is using its peacekeeping activities in Mali as an opportunity to train troops and test equipment in a hostile environment—and as a way of extending its diplomatic reach and soft power in Africa and beyond.

Global Policy

View All Publications