- 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?
- 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.”
- “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program;
- we also assess with moderate to high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
- “We continue to assess…that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.”
- “The program was probably halted primarily in response to international pressure…”
- “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities…”
- “There is a real risk that its nuclear program will prompt other countries in the Middle East to pursue nuclear options…”
- “We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”
- Given the longstanding gap in access, policy-makers trying to either address the threat from Iran or pursue diplomacy are unlikely to have all the knowledge they seek before making hard choices.
- But integration of information from more diverse sources, language skills, access to Iran and openness to multiple points of view would add greater value to the analysis needed by U.S. decision-makers.
- Successful diplomacy with Iran will particularly require a deeper understanding of the stakes for Iran and the intentions of its leaders.
- In the end, however, even the best analysis does not ensure successful policies. There is no substitute for relationships to communicate and build trust in international relations. Contacts among diplomats, the military and civil society groups all contribute to the ability to read Iran.
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“The Iran Primer” brings together 50 experts—Western and Iranian—in comprehensive but concise online chapters on Iran’s politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and nuclear program. It chronicles U.S.-Iran relations under six U.S. presidents. It also offers policy options, timelines, leader bios, data on nuclear sites—and context for what lies ahead. Click here to order a hardcopy. Timely articles are added weekly at the top.