- The United States has had trouble reading Iran since the break in diplomatic relations in 1980. A basic lack of understanding, compounded by missed signals at critical junctures, deepened estrangement and set back efforts to rebuild relations.
- Two problems deepened the divide: For decades, the United States has had no diplomatic presence in Tehran, while Iran has had an Interests Section in Washington. And visa policies are not reciprocal: Many more Iranians are able to visit the United States than the reverse. Iran’s secretive political system is not accessible, especially to Westerners. The absence of communication—at any level—often fostered worst-case assumptions.
- More than three decades later, Washington still has trouble discerning Iran’s strategic intentions. Is Iran driven more by religious ideology or the practical interests of the state? Is it committed to becoming a hegemonic regional power at U.S. expense? Or can its leaders, under the right conditions, seek accommodation with the United States?
- U.S. officials’ ability to “read” Iran has been greatly enhanced by the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities. Through nearly two years of intense interactions between U.S. officials and their Iranian counterparts, new insights and understanding have been gained about Iran’s leaders, their intentions and their decision making processes.
- 1997: “Opposition to clerical rule lacks a charismatic leader or an institutional power base.”
- 1998: “Genuine struggle is now underway between hardline conservatives and more moderate elements represented by Iran’s new President Khatami.”
- 2000: “Change in Iran is inevitable…The path will be volatile at times as the factions struggle to control the pace and direction of political change.”
- 2001: “Events of the past year have been discouraging for positive change in Iran…They have begun to push back hard against the reformers.”
- 2002: “Reform is not dead …The people of Iran have demonstrated in four national elections since 1997 that they want change and have grown disillusioned with the promises of the revolution.”
- 2003: “We are currently unable to identify a leader, organization or issue capable of uniting the widespread desire for change.”
U.S. government analysts and outside experts have tried to discern Iran’s capabilities and intentions in the nuclear field for many years. Fierce debates about whether Iran was really committed to a peaceful program or was hiding a weapons program have continued, even after formal talks over Iran’s nuclear program began in 2013. Government policy makers have realized that intelligence can provide information and knowledge, but not necessarily in sufficient detail to make definitive judgments. Analysis about the intentions and motivations of Iran’s leaders is based on judgment, not on scientifically proven empirical data.
This chapter was originally published in 2010, and is updated as of August 2015.
Photo credits: Richard Nixon and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Robert L. Knudsen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani Rafsanjani via HashemiRafsanjani.ir; Mohammad Khatami via Khamenei.ir; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Natanz via Iranian President's Office and The New York Times
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