AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel
Iran has long represented a geopolitical challenge to the United States. It now represents a challenge that Joe Biden admits he has no idea how to overcome.
On January 16, Iran launched military strikes within two of its sovereign neighbors, Pakistan and Iraq, triggering a military response from Pakistan and further destabilizing the region amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Meanwhile, Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen have also caused global shipping prices to skyrocket by attacking commercial ships.
As immediate as these current crises are, Iran’s growing aggression represents not just the bankruptcy of Joe Biden’s policy, but of the intellectual inheritance of the Democrat Party for decades when it comes to the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.
Arguably, the question of how to confront the Islamic Republic has been asked of every presidential candidate since 1980. The answers since that time have largely come down to variations on the themes of either conciliation or confrontation.
Those answers have not always fallen along partisan lines, nor are all forms of conciliation or confrontation the same. Jimmy Carter arguably attempted both, abandoning the Shah and wooing Iran’s new rulers at one point, but also signing off on the ill-fated Desert One bid to rescue American hostages. Both approaches ended in the failure that defined so many of the Carter administration’s initiatives.
In turn, Ronald Reagan made overtures to Iran’s leaders to see if common hostility to communism and fear of Soviet expansion in Afghanistan might make cooperation possible, ending in the ill-fated Iran-Contra affair. Yet Reagan also directly confronted Iran in the Persian Gulf in 1988, helping to force an end to the Iran-Iraq War.
Since 2001, however, conciliation and confrontation have increasingly come to be defined along partisan-lines. This is perhaps a long-term legacy of the Bush administration, but diversity remains, especially among hawkish Republicans.
Following Obama’s years of appeasing the Iranian regime – the most infamous example being the Iran Nuclear Deal – Donald Trump took unprecedented steps to isolate Tehran, building a regional coalition through the Abraham Accords and taking out Qasim Soleimini. However, Donald Trump’s approach was a far cry from that advocated by those around the late John McCain, who often appeared to advocate for regime change through a ground invasion.
Democratic policy towards Iran has shown less nuance over the past two decades, largely because it developed in reaction to the Bush Administration’s neoconservative foreign policy, and only adopted an intellectual foundation as an ad hoc justification. On the whole, Democrats have almost exclusively embraced conciliation. This response to Iran, for structural reasons, consistently ensures not only that the regime in Tehran behaves worse, but that the United States is poorly positioned to respond.
In the aftermath of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, liberal intellectual thought was infected with a strain which saw Bush’s policies not as ill-considered attempts to address real problems, but rather the cause of those problems existing in and of themselves. This was how Obama could view Bush’s policy not as ineffective in dealing with Vladimir Putin, but rather as the cause of all of Vladimir Putin’s poor behavior, and why Obama’s team could believe that a “reset” could right everything that was wrong with the relationship.
When it came to Iran, a theory spread among Democrats that Iran’s leaders were not thugs or extremists, but merely misunderstood. Iran had been lumped in with the “Axis of Evil,” and if only the United States was willing to talk with Iran, Iran would be willing to talk back. It was Bush’s hostility which made Iran hostile, or so the Obama team thought.
In support of this thesis, many Democrats seized on the democratic window dressing within Iran which sees the election of a president and parliament. They ignored the details, including that the election of the “moderate” Muhammed Khatami in 1997 had not stopped members of the Iran Intelligence Ministry (who were outside presidential authority) from engaging in a series of “chain murders” of journalists and politicians. They also ignored that the “Reformist” Majlis or parliament elected in 2000 was crippled, subject to violence, and eventually forced out, with no open elections held since.
When it came to George Bush’s Iran policy, liberals were even less interested in familiarizing themselves with facts which might complicate the caricature which they had created within their heads. In their mind, conflict between the U.S. and Iran had been driven by uncomplicated ideological hostility.
In reality, George W. Bush went further than even Barack Obama in seeing whether a modus vivendi with Tehran was possible. No less a source than Hasan Rouhani, later the Iranian President (2013-2021) with whom Obama reached his “nuclear deal” recorded in his memoirs that Bush offered to hold direct talks between himself and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei if the Iranians were willing to come to Washington and work toward normalization, not just settling the nuclear issue. According to Rouhani, “the decision was that we should not negotiate with the U.S.”
This story reveals a fundamental truth that rendered Obama’s entire Iran policy and that of the early Biden administration futile: Iran did not want a relationship with the United States.
The greatest fear for Khamenei and his advisors, according to Rouhani, was not that relations would worsen, but that a deal on the nuclear issue would pave the way for improved relations in general. That, in turn, might undermine the position of the regime.
Iran’s government is hated by its people. That was made clear in the mass protests in 2009, 2018, and 2021-2022. Iran’s government knows this. Obama and his team believed that if they could get a country to allow George Soros/State Department-funded entities to be able to operate in the country and organize on an open internet, it would set the stage for mass protests to topple the regime, and that if the regime had a relationship with the United States which was valuable enough, it would not risk crushing that revolt.
In consequence, the Obama administration’s entire foreign policy approach – with Russia, with China, with Cuba, and especially with Iran – was to offer whatever concessions it took to keep the relationship going in the hope that the risk of losing such a deal would cause these regimes to prefer losing power to losing their advantageous relationship with the U.S. At the heart of this strategy was a faith, raised and then shattered by the Arab Spring, that governments cannot beat or kill people when TV or social media are there to expose the wrongdoing.
Not only was this assumption wrong, but once the regimes targeted by the Obama administration figured out the tactic, all hope of it working was lost. They began to look at American concessions not as acts of generosity, but rather as hostile efforts to overthrow them.
This, ironically, is why Obama’s “reset” policy destroyed relations with Russia, and also why his embrace of Iran led Iranian leaders to ever greater acts of violence to escape his fatal embrace.
When it came to Iran, Obama found himself in the bizarre position of trying to force additional concessions onto Iran because the things he wanted – an increase in economic ties through reduced sanctions, travel between the two countries, and direct academic and political exchanges – were things Tehran didn’t want. In the face of sanctions, an entire shadow economy had grown up controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which would be undermined by real capitalism. Direct exchanges would be subversive.
The result was that Iran deliberately sought to sabotage every effort Obama made to turn his nuclear deal into a framework for improved relations. Iran responded to efforts to open travel by regularly arresting American students and journalists for espionage, which had the dual benefit of providing hostages and deterring travel. Iran also escalated violence in Yemen, the Gulf, Syria and against Israel, which had the dual benefits of putting pressure on Obama at home and reinforcing the conviction among American allies that they were being abandoned.
Ironically, Iranian behavior briefly improved after the election of Donald Trump. Some argued this was due to fear of what the new president might do. Indeed, this may have played a role in motivating Iranian leaders, but a more compelling argument is that Iran’s leaders no longer felt the need to deliberately sabotage relations, because Trump was also not interested in closer ties. That is also why there was no Iranian escalation following either the end of the nuclear deal or the killing Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader Qasem Soleimani, yet Iran embarked on an unprecedented campaign of terror both at home and abroad after Joe Biden won and promised a return to Obama-era policies.
This is the simple truth. Even if Tehran did not have geopolitical ambitions in the region, its leadership’s own desire to preserve their position means they do not want good relations with the U.S., and will respond to conciliation with violence. That was as true when Carter and Reagan reached out as it was when Obama and Biden did.
The problem for Donald Trump, and in truth every U.S. President, is that Tehran does have ambitions in the region, and they have merged with self-preservation to produce a policy of wishing to destroy Israel and drive the United States from the Middle East entirely – a prospect that now seems tantalizingly close following Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan.
But the Trump years scared Tehran. Not because Donald Trump left the nuclear deal, (Iranian hardliners welcomed that) but rather because Donald Trump, for the first time in decades, constructed a regional coalition that looked likely to contain Iranian influence.
Iran’s approach in the region has been one of divide and conquer. It has tried to pit Arab states against each other, to use their conflict with Israel to pit them against the United States, and to launch attacks on both to simultaneously paint the United States as imperialist and impotent to protect its allies.
Donald Trump largely broke this model by constructing a regional coalition. What mattered was not merely that he defeated ISIS in Syria and Iraq and confronted Iran in Yemen, but that it was not Americans doing so. The use of Saudis, Kurds, Iraqis, and Emiratis meant that Iran faced a regional coalition which was self-sustaining, and by removing the Israeli-Arab conflict, Iran found itself unable to divide its opponents.
Iranian policy at the moment is aimed not at Joe Biden, whom Tehran feels it thoroughly crippled in his 2021 efforts to resume where Obama left off, but rather at Donald Trump or a future American president who might try to reconstruct Trump’s pre-2021 policy. That means ensuring that the Abraham Accords Coalition can never be rebuilt.
This motivation also explains Iranian policy right now in Gaza and Yemen. Iran wants to keep Hamas in existence indefinitely because the longer the conflict goes on, the harder it is for Israel and Saudi Arabia to cooperate against Iran. Iran additionally wants to use the Houthis to demonstrate the impotence of the United States in the region while painting opposition to the actions of Iranian proxies as de facto intervention on the side of Israel.
American impotence goes hand-in-hand with Iranian impunity. Iran’s strikes in Pakistan and Iraq have a geopolitical motivation. Under “normal” circumstances, (read, “before Joe Biden’s presidency”) the United States would intervene to respond to such international aggression, lest it undermine the “international system” and trigger wars. But at the height of the Israel-Gaza conflict, calling on the United States to punish Iran would be politically fatal for governments in Baghdad and Islamabad.
By having Hamas attack Israel, Iran has divided its opponents and made the U.S. politically toxic. By having the Houthis attack shipping, Tehran has made the U.S. look impotent. By bombing Iraq and Pakistan, Iran is sending a message to every other state in the region that American impotence means they are at the mercy of Tehran.
We no longer need to talk about an Iranian goal of expelling the United States from the region. Iran has already largely succeeded.
The next U.S. President will have to confront that reality head-on. They will need to understand that Iran neither seeks conciliation nor regional peace. This is not ideological, but logical self-preservation for Tehran.
The next president will have to understand that the ship has also sailed on McCain-style American intervention, if it was ever plausible to begin with. The futile pinprick strikes by Biden on Yemen prove Iran’s point, merely highlighting the limits of American military power.
The only viable policy is the Trump one – one which will pay its own way with energy supplies and arms purchases rather than aid.
This approach will mean building a regional coalition which can defend itself against Tehran with American support. The United States has let pursuit of various localized moral causes – whether in Yemen, with the Saudis, in Pakistan with Imran Khan, and in Israel – distract from the fact we are all in this together.
Iran must be contained at all costs. Unfortunately, aside from Israel, there is currently no liberal, democratic option in the region. The only choice is between domination by Tehran’s murderous mullahs or a Middle East independent of outside domination.
Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.