American Policy Towards Iran

According to the “international politics” model of U.S. foreign policy discussed by Halperin and Kanter, the domestic politics aspect of policy-making matters less than the behavior of states vis-à-vis each other[1]. The “international politics” model of foreign policy advanced by Halperin and Kanter states that a nation’s foreign policy objectives are a result of history and tradition and is “invariant” even with changes in leadership[2]. This is quite relevant to U.S. policy toward Iran since 1979 after the Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took U.S. diplomats hostage. When then Candidate Obama proposed rapprochement as well as talks without preconditions with Iran during his presidential campaign in 2008, many people thought Obama would actually transform U.S. policy toward Iran. In fact, the majority of Americans favored Obama’s approach to Iran.

But the option of rapprochement with Iran was not available for Obama when he first entered the White House because foreign policy initiatives by the president are largely carried out in the second term of a president’s tenure when there are no electoral consequences to deal with. Halperin and Kanter also suggest that “events involving the actions of two or more nations can be best explained and predicted in terms of the actions of two or more national bureaucracies whose actions affect the domestic interests and objectives of the other bureaucracies involved.”[3] Iran’s initial intransigence on the nuclear issue due to an environment characterized by mistrust between bureaucracies and states led to tougher sanctions that were designed and imposed by the United States during President Obama’s first term.

There were in fact a number of officials within the Obama Administration who opposed rapprochement with Iran due to bureaucratic interests. Secretary Clinton of the State Department and her advisor on Iran – Dennis Ross – were opposed to any rapprochement with Iran for personal reasons. As with the Defense Department, the Iranian threat perpetuated their aim of advancing and modernizing capabilities which obviously required money and more than adequate budgets. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff discouraged any military action against Iran, and despite then-Secretary Clinton’s personal views, the bureaucratic interests of the State Department may have actually been aligned with those of the Joint Staff.

According to Halperin and Kanter, a Secretary of State is less likely to be influenced by the organizational interests of his or her department, “since [The Department of State] provides guidelines that are less clear-cut and in many cases offer conflicting guides to the nation’s security interest.”[4] This demonstrates that there are conflicts of interests even within a single bureaucratic agency. It is perhaps in the bureaucracy’s interest that Iran is a threat to America’s standing in the global order, and the main objective of U.S. foreign policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But the way in which the objective should be met is a matter of contention. There is a difference between what is known as “logic of consequences” and “logic of appropriateness,” according to Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow.

The following is an explanation of the “logic of appropriateness”:

“The first, an analytic rationality, is a logic of consequences. Actions are chosen by evaluating their probable consequences for the preferences of the actor. The logic of consequences is linked to conceptions of anticipations, analysis, and calculation. It operates principally through selective, heuristic search among alternatives, evaluating them for their satisfactoriness as they are found.”

As for the “logic of appropriateness”:

The second logic of action, a matching set of rules to situations, rests on a logic of appropriateness. Actions are chosen by recognizing a situation as being of a familiar, frequently encountered, type, and matching the recognized situation to a set of rules…the logic of appropriateness is linked to conceptions of experience, roles, intuition, and expert knowledge. It deals with calculation mainly as a means of retrieving experience preserved in the organization’s files or individual memories.[5]

It is largely the result of the “logic of consequences” that the United States has restrained itself from the use of force against Iran. The consequence of using force against Iran will be devastating for the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, notwithstanding the damage that will be done to American regional interests as well as the threat that the reaction towards military force would pose to Americans at home and abroad. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have even suggested that the United States can live with the idea of a nuclear Iran, for if other means of pressure such as sanctions and diplomacy fail, the United States can always fall back on the strategy of containment and deterrence as it did during the Cold War vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union. Falling back on a strategy of containment and deterrence vis-à-vis Iran is acceptable, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, because Iran poses less of a threat to the United States than Russia or China during the Cold War and in the present day.

These assessments are crafted and made at an organizational level and are brought before principal players in the foreign policy process for consideration. Nevertheless, these organizations are not immune from Congressional pressure, just as Congress is not immune from domestic pressures stemming from special interests. Actions and counteractions between the organizational level in the executive and the domestic level through Congress also shape the policy toward Iran as well as how the policy manifests into concrete action.

America’s comparative advantage vis-à-vis Iran and perhaps the entire world is its military capabilities. However, military strength is predicated on a strong economy, and it appears that the relative share the U.S. has in the global economy will decline steadily over time as other countries and regions grow and develop. According to Graham Allison, it is already believed by some estimates that China has a larger GDP than the United States. Also, the United States is witnessing the steady decline in the size and military capability of its traditional allies such as Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan. Also, the U.S. Department of Defense might face budgetary restraints over the next ten years, and in spite of these budgetary restraints the United States’ military will have to sustain its strategic priorities with forces that are smaller but more agile, ready, innovative, and technologically advanced.

Adjusting force structure and the modernization of U.S. military tools are also priorities of the U.S. Department of Defense at a time when threats are diversifying. There are physical threats such as conventional and nuclear weapons, but there are also psychological threats that emanate from the cyber realm. Adjustment and modernization will probably allow for the United States to retain its role as the foremost military force on the planet. Circumstances will also change rapidly in a world that is in a state of flux. Thus, the United States must retain the ability to regenerate its capabilities in order to respond to unfavorable circumstances such as American relative decline vis-à-vis China as well as threats to the status quo of American preeminence within the global order such as Russia and Iran. Reverting to a strategy that establishes power equilibrium between Europe and Russia, the Middle East and Iran, as well as China and East Asia would enable the United States to focus on broader foreign policy objectives in the interim, such as the establishment of global order rather than unnecessary entanglements in places like Afghanistan and South Asia.

There is also the question of whether Russia or Iran will be the first to integrate into an American-led global order. China is largely a part of the American-led global order since the late 1970’s. One plausible scenario is that the status quo of hostility will persist between the West and Russia until the end of time. Both Russia and the West will seek to contain and deter one another in Europe as long as life on earth persists. Thus, the focus of the American government is perhaps on reversing Iran’s efforts at sustaining its nuclear program and finding a way of integrating Iran into the American-led global order.

Two strategies in particular underpin American policy towards Iran. For one, there is the strategy of deterrence where American military capabilities are deployed in the Middle East and Persian Gulf to signal America’s willingness to use military force against Iran if the latter resorts to conventional military action in the region. Also, heavy economic sanctions have been imposed by the United States on Iran for many years. President Obama’s 2015 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) where the United States provided sanctions relief to Iran in return for the freezing of Iran’s nuclear program was potentially a stepping stone for broader cooperation on regional and global issues between the two countries. However, after Donald Trump rescinded the JCPOA, relations between the United States and Iran are again at square one. Literally, the only way to salvage what was lost through Trump’s termination of the JCPOA and 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement is strategic patience on the part of the up and coming generation of policy influencers in both America and Iran.

Youth activists in both America, Iran, and elsewhere who envision a new form of global order based on cooperation and peace rather than conflict and chaos will have to bide their time, weather the storm, and wait until they are brought to the fore after the current generation of septuagenarian and octogenarian policymakers who are largely out of touch with the realities of a modern and globalized world essentially dies out. As long as youth activists in America, Iran, and elsewhere do whatever they can to prevent the outbreak of a global war spurred by geriatric power brokers in a number of countries in the interim, time will enable youth activists from around the world to come to the fore and shape a world based on global cooperation and peace sometime in the long run.

Fortunately, the internet and technology has enabled public diplomacy to take on new dimensions, and as Nicholas Cull has outlined, public diplomacy has five elements: listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, and international broadcasting. All of these five elements of public diplomacy have been enhanced by the internet and technology. Through their efforts, the youth will eventually inherit power, and hopefully the youth will be well-prepared to be “stewards of the earth” and to care more for the earth than the current generation in power.


[1] Morton Halperin and Arnold Kanter, “The Bureaucratic Perspective: A Preliminary Framework,” in Morton Halperin and Arnold Kanter (eds.) Readings in American Foreign Policy: A Bureaucratic Perspective, Boston: Little Brown, 1973, Pg. 2.

[2] Halperin and Kanter, Pg. 2

[3] Halperin and Kanter, Pg. 3

[4] Halperin and Kanter, Pg. 9

[5] Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, 1999, Pg. 146.

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