The Need for Strategic Thinking in U.S.-Iran Relations

This article originally appeared in Tehran Times on April 29, 2014.

By Emad Kiyaei

On April 14, the American-Iranian Council (AIC) convened a roundtable luncheon on “the Need for Strategic Thinking in U.S.-Iran Relations” at Washington D.C.'s historic Willard Hotel. Some 35 government employees, academics, senior administrators, consultants, lawyers, businessmen, and former officials (all representing organizations that are involved in engaging their Iranian counterparts) gathered to examine the various dimensions of the U.S.-Iran relationship, and to explore how they can collaborate to effectively promote engagement, and to help the Obama Administration in developing and implementing a proactive policy towards Iran. The aims of the roundtable were twofold: to explore why it is crucial to develop a strategic perspective on U.S.-Iran relations and what the elements of such vision might be, and to examine the ways in which engagement and interaction can be expanded and deepened between the two countries. The event's lead organizer was AIC's policy director, Dr. Alidad Mafinezam.


The first set of discussants focused on the importance of developing strategic and proactive thinking on U.S. Iran relations, especially since the Obama Administration has yet to make a substantive statement or policy address on the bilateral relationship. The first speaker was former Senator Bennett Johnston, the Council's chairman. He highlighted the high cost of any type of military confrontation with Iran, and focused on the necessity of expanding security dialogue between the two countries so that the risk of accidents and collisions between them is further reduced. He used his visit to Iran as an example of his belief in dialogue and engagement between the two countries. He discussed AIC's long record of building bridges between the two countries, and acknowledged a number of long-standing AIC board members in the audience including former Ambassadors Robert Hunter and William Miller. Also noted was the eminent states-men and women who have taken part in AIC's past programs: U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, vice president Joe Biden, as well as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, AIC's founder and president, emphasized the multidimensional and complex nature of the U.S.-Iran relationship, and the need for both governments to adopt a broad-based engagement strategy to complement the nuclear negotiations. This, in his view, would increase the chances of success in the current nuclear negotiations, particularly in the implementation of any agreement that they might reach, as it would outline the elements of American-Iranian cooperation in multiple spheres and sectors. Strategic thinking is needed in both countries particularly because issues in the relations are not just bilateral but essentially multilateral and geopolitical. That strategic thinking must began by a critical evaluation of each country's hitherto antagonistic stance towards the other, and the cost and benefits that have resulted. For example, we know that the US led economic sanctions have significantly weakened the Iranian economy, but have these sanctions benefited the U.S.? Obviously not! If the US had given relations with Iran a strategic thought, it would have not imposed economic sanction on Iran given that nation’s enormous economic and geopolitical potential. 

In a related vein, Professor Amirahmadi argued that, the US policy of sanctions and containment has sought to weaken Iran, but is a weak and fragmented Iran a positive outcome for the U.S and regional stability? Clearly not as the US experience in the Middle East in the last 30 or so years fully demonstrates. Here again strategic thinking is much needed. On the one hand, the US acknowledges Iran’s historical and economic significance. At the same time, current policies have been based on the assumption that Iran is not a key player in the region that surrounds it, and can thus be isolated and weakened at little cost to the region and international stability. Yet, if Iran had not been perceived by Saddam Hussein as weak after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it would have not invaded Iran and in the absence of that war, Hussein would have not invaded Kuwait and the US would have not fought two wars with Iraq, wars that have cost the US trillions in cost, thousands in human loss and a serious erosion of its regional standing. History shows that a stronger Iran is a better Iran for its region and beyond while a weaker Iran leads to regional instability.

Amirahmadi cautioned that the dearth of strategic thinking in both countries has led to a “no war and no peace” status quo, a situation that has become a serious stumbling block in the way forward in US-Iran relations. While it is prudent to avoid war, it is hugely shortsighted to deny the two great nations an honorable peace. Building such a peace will require that both governments change their hostile lenses and see each other with more realism. Unfortunately, Iran views the US through the lenses of its Islamic Revolution, which makes it appear as an imperialist power that is bent to destroy its regime. Ironically, the US too views Iran from the prism of that same revolution, finding Iran as the source of all problems in the region. The US in particular has been incapable of adopting to that revolution and the fact that Iran of the post-revolution wishes to maintain independence from outside interferences, a requirement that the revolution has imposed. Strategic thinking here will demand that both sides recognize each other’s concerns and roles, a regional role for Iran and a global role for the US.

Another lead discussant was Robert J. Einhorn, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and until last year a top non-proliferation official at the State Department, who was directly involved in negotiations with Iran over the country's nuclear program. He focused on the importance and the daunting challenge of reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran in the context of the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran. While these negotiations aim to reach a conclusion by July 20, this deadline may need to be extended given the distance that exists between the two sides on Iran's acceptable latitude in enriching uranium. Only through a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement will it be possible for the U.S and Iran to work towards greater engagement and improved relations.

Placing the U.S.-Iran relationship in a regional and international context, Dr. Shireen Tahmassebi Hunter, a visiting professor of international relations at Georgetown University, pointed out that the United States should not look at Iran solely through the prism of the nuclear issue, because the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities is more a symptom of deeper problems in US- Iran relations rather than their principal cause. Rather, a better way of approaching Iran would be to do so within the broader regional context. She then pointed out that, in the past, a number of US policies aimed at isolating and containing Iran and America’s refusal to respond positively to Iranian overtures and offers of cooperation in places, such as Afghanistan, have harmed US interests.

For instance, the US unwillingness to consider Iran’s offers of cooperation in Afghanistan after the US invasion of that country in October 2001 made US vulnerable to Pakistani pressures, because it made America totally dependent on Pakistan as access route to Afghanistan. Similarly, the US policy of preventing any significant Iranian engagement in the energy related projects in the Caucasus, and its opposition to the transfer of Iranian gas to Europe only has helped Russia to tighten its energy grip on Europe. The negative implications of this situation have become quite clear during the recent crisis over Crimea. Dr. Hunter then pointed out that the American policy of isolating Iran has also led the US to overlook the spread of fundamentalist ideas, especially Wahhabism and Salafism, in the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia, in particular Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has resulted in the growth of fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban and most recently of Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. These groups have been pursuing goals contrary to American interests. Last, but not least, American policy towards Iran has not helped the cause of reform and human rights in Iran.

John Limbert, a former senior U.S. diplomat and a scholar of Iran who is currently a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, focused on the long historical memory of Iranians and the need for U.S. policymakers to remain cognizant of the vicissitudes experienced by Iranians over the past few decades and more. He emphasized the need for establishing a deep dialogue between the U.S. and Iran so that they can begin the process of addressing the grievances and misgivings that each country has about the other. Ambassador Limbert, who spent over a year in captivity in Iran during the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, remains an outspoken proponent of grasping the roots of antagonism between the two countries, and building a future that learns from the mistakes of the past.

Nadereh Chamlou, a former senior adviser to the World Bank addressed the economic potential of Iran. In taking a long-term strategic view of the US-Iran relationship, we need to have a thorough economic cost-benefit analysis. The US public may believe that it is the Iranians that are bearing the cost of the lack of trade, and that Americans are reaping the benefits. But, this is not so. In fact, Americans are losing jobs to the Chinese and Indians who have maintained solid relations with Iran. Iran is a country of 75 million people. In 2012, the IMF ranked Iran’s GDP (PPP measure) as the 18th largest economy, the largest economy in the Middle East; an economy that is slightly below Australia. It has an educated male and female population, a developed public health infrastructure, an extensive network of roads, rail, and pipelines, as well as ports and airports in the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf regions. She also addressed the relatively low level of Iran's international debt obligations as one of the country's other assets. With Iranian people’s affinity to the West, and in particular the US, combined with the large and successful Iranian diaspora, there could be considerable trade between the two countries. This could create the much needed jobs every politician is promising in this election year. American workers can benefit greatly from renewed relations with Iran. And, this case needs to be made more strongly to the American public.

On the issue of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, Edward Krauland, a prominent legal expert, and a partner and chair of international practice at a large Washington, D.C. law firm, delved into the intricacies of the extensive U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. He drew a sharp contrast between the sanctions imposed on Iran during the mid-1990s, and those the U.S. executive and congress have imposed on Iran in the past few years. The current environment, he said, is marked by the deep involvement of congress in existing primary and secondary sanctions legislation against Iran. Any attempt to lift or relax the current sanctions against Iran requires advance planning, effective executive leadership, and ultimately, congressional action. He focused on the need for an all-of-government approach to addressing the current sanctions involving the White House, State Department, Treasury Department, as well as numerous committees of the Senate and House of Representatives.

After discussing the macro-level issues in U.S.-Iran relations, participants turned to the current state of interaction and engagement between the two countries, delving into the myriad of legal and financial constraints that have reduced people-to-people and academic exchanges between the two countries to a trickle. The participants were largely of the view that expanding and deepening such engagement would increase the chances of rapprochement between the two countries.


Pirooz Parvarandeh, the Chief Technology Officer at a publicly-traded company in the semiconductor industry in the San Francisco Bay area, addressed the importance of effective team work and the key role of network development in designing and implementing complex projects. Using his decades-long experience in the high-technology arena, Parvarandeh focused on the various aspects of successful teams and collaborative environments: clearly defined goals, an ethic of servant-leadership, and a clear understanding of each team member's areas of comparative advantage. He stressed the need for diversity in thought and academic disciplines in optimizing the innovative impact of teams. He emphasized the need for participants to focus on learning from each other’s experiences and devising common goals and strategies for achieving them. This would enable team members to develop a holistic picture of their goals and to create a common strategy that would also help policy makers grasp the various challenges and complexities.

Glenn Schweitzer, Program Director at the National Academy of Sciences, addressed the importance of U.S.-Iran cooperation in science, health, and engineering. Schweitzer is the author of a book on scientific collaboration between the U.S. and Iran, which was published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. He is also credited with organizing many trips to Iran including a visit of six presidents of large American universities in November 2008, as well as five Nobel Laureates over the past decade. He discussed his work over the past 15 years in promoting U.S.-Iran collaboration, focusing on the legal and logistical challenges in enabling scientists and engineers of the two countries to collaborate in tackling salient issues, and he underscored the importance of moving beyond single visits to programs of sustainable exchanges between American and Iranian institutions, with particular emphasis on involving the leading universities of the two countries.

Another participant was Ms. Siri Oswald, Director of Research Partnerships at CRDF Global, an independent non-profit that promotes international scientific collaboration through grants, technical resources, training and services. She discussed the importance of adopting a regional outlook on addressing common problems, referring to some of her organization's work in engaging numerous countries in the Persian Gulf region (including Iran) in technical discussions of soil and water resource preservation issues. This regional approach helps integrate Iranian researchers into a broader discussion, and emphasizes the importance of trans-boundary efforts. Katherine Bova, coordinator of Track II initiatives at Search for Common Ground (SCG) mentioned the organization's long-standing efforts in organizing high-profile athletic and cultural exchanges between the two countries. Her colleague, William Green Miller, former Ambassador and senior advisor to SFCG also participated in the event. Bova stressed the importance of sustainability in promoting high-level interaction between the two countries as a way of increasing the level of understanding of noted individuals and the two respective publics.

Other organizations whose affiliates attended the meeting included the Atlantic Council, the Institute of International Economics, the National Institutes of Health, American University, and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared in Tehran Times on April 29, 2014.