Wooing Tehran: Nixon engaged China. Obama must be equally bold with Iran.

| May-June, 2009

  • Mosque Top in Tehran, Iran

    image by Greg Von Doersten, Aurora Photos

  • Mosque Top in Tehran, Iran

The debate about America’s Iran policy is reminiscent of a debate over how to discipline badly behaved children. On one side, a hard-line “spare the rod and spoil the child” school argues that this immature polity must be coerced into more appropriate behavior. On the other side, a pro-engagement “build a problem child’s self-esteem” camp argues that it is more productive to cajole Iran into better behavior through various material inducements.

This type of discussion is profoundly flawed, for it overlooks an important new reality: Iran’s growing strategic importance and confidence in its role in the region mean it is no longer just a threat to be managed. More than ever, it is now an international actor that can profoundly undermine, or help advance, many of the United States’ most vital strategic objectives.

It is clearly time for a fundamental change of course in the U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic. Nearly three decades of U.S. policy toward Iran emphasizing diplomatic isolation, escalating economic pressure, and thinly veiled support for regime change have damaged the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. U.S.-Iranian tensions have been a constant source of regional instability and are increasingly dangerous for global energy security.

By fundamental change, we do not mean trying to coerce Tehran into near-term (and imminently reversible) concessions, or simply trying to manage the Iranian challenge more adroitly than the Bush administration did. Rather, we propose the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain.” This would entail putting all of the principal bilateral differences between the United States and Iran on the table at the same time and agreeing to resolve them as a package.

The Nixon administration applied this model to relations with China during the early 1970s. President Nixon and his advisers recognized and forthrightly acknowledged that a quarter century of U.S. efforts to isolate, weaken, and press China had not served America’s strategic interests in Asia or globally. In an act of extraordinary statesmanship, Nixon redefined America’s China policy so that it would serve those interests. Furthermore, he did so when Chairman Mao still presided over the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic was going through the Cultural Revolution.

President Obama needs to display the same sort of wisdom and boldness in re-crafting American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is clearly in the national security interest of the United States—and in the interest of America’s regional allies—to try to get Iran to work with us whenever and wherever possible, rather than against us. Simply put, the Obama administration will not be able to achieve any of its high-profile policy goals in the Middle East—in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Arab-Israeli arena—or with regard to energy security without putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive path.