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Research Report

A New Strategy for US-Iran Relations in Transition

Ellen Laipson
Foreword by Chuck Hagel
Copyright Date: Oct. 1, 2016
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 35
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. i-ii)
    Chuck Hagel

    Nearly four decades have passed since the transformational Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran. From that year to the present, the United States has found itself at crosspurposes with Iran throughout the Middle East. From the 1979 hostage crisis to the current wars in the Middle East, US-Iranian relations have been marked by conflict that, until recently, left very doubtful prospects for any type of cooperation.

    It is against this backdrop that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear program has provided a realistic probability for more stable relations with Iran, based on the common interests...

  2. (pp. 1-4)

    US-Iran relations may be entering a new era, after nearly four decades of a largely adversarial relationship. The nuclear agreement of July 2015, if successfully implemented, creates a new reality in US-Iran relations that could present opportunities to prevent conflict and promote cooperation, at the bilateral and regional levels. The Barack Obama administration did not tie the achievement of the nuclear agreement to a more comprehensive improvement in relations, but sees merit in building on this diplomatic success to find additional ways to work with Iran, on regional crises such as Syria, or on topics of shared concern, such as...

  3. (pp. 5-9)

    The period of implementation of the JCPOA creates a new and dynamic opportunity for US-Iran relations, which could begin a process of normalization. The US ability to engage Iran directly over bilateral and regional concerns could achieve the following ends: reduce prospects for a military confrontation with Iran; work with regional partners and with Iran to strengthen conflict prevention and regional security; and, eventually, enable Iran and the United States to build cooperation in diverse areas of shared concern. These opportunities will play out slowly and unevenly over the next decade, and will require perseverance and patience.

    Perhaps foremost among...

  4. (pp. 11-16)

    The next president of the United States will have a list of national security priorities that require review, and Iran may be considered as a standalone strategic problem, or in the context of a larger regional review that raises fundamental questions about US interests and objectives in the wider Middle East. Under either approach, the following elements are essential.

    The United States needs to update and revise its understanding of the nature of the Iranian threat to US interests and to the region in light of the nuclear agreement. That development is a significant shift in behavior and thinking, and...

  5. (pp. 17-20)

    The strategy will attempt to integrate, and improve coordination among, the existing practices and tools in the national security system. It will also create new mechanisms for private-sector and civil-society actors to be part of a holistic approach to US-Iran relations. Over the next decade, it is possible that resource allocations for Iran will shift, between the military aspects and the financial and human resources required to expand diplomatic, consular, cultural, and other civilian activities with Iran. In general, the changes proposed here have no major new-revenue implications.

    The next president should continue trying to establish a workable channel with...

  6. (pp. 21-21)

    Iran’s leaders are not sure that a fundamentally different relationship with Washington is possible or desirable. The Supreme Leader and many of his associates still see the revolutionary principles of independence and sovereignty as vital, and fear that any accommodation with great powers or international institutions will erode Iran’s freedom of action. But others, from the reformist camp as well as public constituencies, chafe at the self-imposed isolation. They want to see Iran more active on the world stage and more integrated in the world economy.

    At the purely bilateral level, the decades of mistrust and willful demonization of the...