• Home
  • The Next Administration Will Still Find a Successful Iran Strategy Elusive 
In this image provided by the White House, President Joe Biden, along with members of his national security team, receive an update on an ongoing airborne attack on Israel from Iran, as they meet in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, Saturday, April 13, 2024. From left to right, facing Biden are, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns; Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence; Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Some papers on the desk have been blurred by the source for national security reasons. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP)

The Next Administration Will Still Find a Successful Iran Strategy Elusive 

The constraints and challenges facing U.S. policy toward Iran are largely as they were at the inception of the Islamic Republic 45 years ago. Iran’s national security goals and regional and global behavior have not changed, U.S.-Iran animosity has not eased, the diametrical opposition of the two country’s interests persists, and a wide variety of U.S. policy options remains on the table. Excluding regime change, all available U.S. options have been attempted at one time or another in the last four and a half decades. The same mix of policies available to the eight Presidents that have been in office since the Islamic Revolution will be available to whoever resides in the White House in January 2025. The sudden and unexpected death of a key figure, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash on May 19 is unlikely to alter the U.S. Iran policy landscape in any way.

At the same time, it is hard to ignore that the regional expansion of the Gaza war sparked by the October 7 attack on Israel has brought the United States and Iran closer to armed conflict than at any time since the U.S.-Iran battles in the Persian Gulf at the late stages of the Iran-Iraq war. As America votes in November, the U.S. and Iran might be on a collision course militarily—even though combat is not a preferred option of Washington or Tehran. And though the two governments remain sharply at odds, their populations have, over the past four decades, become markedly more accepting of bilateral dialogue, negotiation, and agreements that address the core issues that divide the two states.

Whither the International Sanctions Regime?

Though the American debate over the coercive effectiveness of isolation vis-a-vis negotiations against the Islamic Republic remains unresolved, the next administration will take office amid an emerging consensus on one key constant in U.S.-Iran policy: the effectiveness of economic sanctions. U.S. Presidents have imposed economic sanctions on Iran, to varying degrees (and with differing degrees of effectiveness) since shortly after the birth of the Islamic Republic. During the Obama Administration, the determined application of broad sanctions, when coupled with a degree of negotiating flexibility, clearly contributed to a shift in Iran’s behavior. In 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government, with the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, signed an agreement confining Iran’s nuclear program to binding limitations.

At the same time, Iranian foreign policy has demonstrated the limitations of sanctions. The stiff sanctions regime imposed during the Obama Administration might have helped bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table, but it did not force Iran to change its fundamental national security strategy of arming, training, and funding a network of regional armed factions willing and able to act against U.S. interests. Even though Obama-era economic restrictions reduced Iran’s crude oil exports by nearly 100 percent from 2013-2015, Iran still demonstrated the financial and military wherewithal to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria, in the end helping save that regime from a downfall that would have seriously weakened Iran’s regional position. And in 2015, despite selling almost no oil through most of that year, Iran was still able to begin arming the Houthi movement in Yemen with a vast arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles and armed drones, which the group used against targets in Saudi Arabia is now using against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The Trump Administration re-imposed all sanctions that were eased to implement the 2015 nuclear agreement, and added more sanctions as part of a so-called “maximum pressure” strategy to force Iran to capitulate to a wide range of U.S. demands. Even though every sector of the Iranian economy was subject to U.S. secondary sanctions, Tehran made no alterations whatsoever in any of its policies as a response. Although additional sanctions might constitute a component of policy for the administration that takes office in January 2025, there is a consensus among experts that any added measures, whether meted out by law or Executive Order, will have a minimal effect on Tehran’s decision-making.

Considering the Unthinkable

The appeal of preemptive American military action against Iran, once a distant consideration, has grown as the Gaza war threatens to encompass the region. It is likely that U.S. forces will still be locked in conflict with Iran-backed factions when the next president takes office. The military forces of the United States and Iran have come into direct combat at times since the Islamic Revolution, but not often. During the Iran-Iraq war, President Reagan authorized attacks on Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf in an effort to stop Iran’s attacks on commercial shipping there. Those strikes, which appeared to Iranian leaders to bring the United States into the war on Iraq’s side, played a significant role, by Iranian official accounts, in Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision in the summer of 1988 to accept an end to hostilities with Iraq.

Former President Trump asserts that his decision to authorize the strike that killed the revered Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 caused Iran to halt attacks by pro-Iranian factions on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. However, the IRGC-QF and its allies have spent the subsequent years carrying out occasional attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria in an effort to try to compel President Biden to withdraw them, or, failing that, to compel Iraq’s government to ask U.S. forces to depart. The militias accelerated their attacks as Israel began its ground attack into the Gaza Strip in mid-October to dismantle Hamas’ government and military infrastructure there. Yet, the Iranian climbdown from the Iran-Iraq war and Tehran’s initial quiescence after the Soleimani strike suggest that calibrated kinetic action against Iran may shape Iranian behavior in a way that suits American interests. Of course, Iran is well equipped to retaliate for any U.S. attack, and the next administration must calculate the potential for significant military action against Iran to lead to protracted and intense violence across the region and beyond.

Depending on how the current Middle East crisis evolves, the next administration might be the first since the Islamic Republic was formed to seriously consider initiating major military  operations against Iran. Because of the enormous costs and risks associated with such a course of action, Washington has never moved plans of a ground invasion of Iran beyond the speculation stage. Such an assault would only be considered by the next administration if Iran were to escalate its current provocations into a determined attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz or the Bab el-Mandeb to international shipping, or perhaps develop and test a nuclear weapon. Even in these most dire scenarios, it is highly unlikely that Washington would launch a full-scale, preemptive war. But the fact that some debates around direct military action against the Islamic Republic now consider a ground invasion as a possibility shows how American thinking has developed over time.

Iran’s behavior during the last seven months has not endeared it to policymakers in Washington—quite the opposite. Based on Iran’s support for the various proxy groups now engaged in direct conflict with U.S. forces and commercial shipping, the next administration might be tempted to examine the prospects for regime change in Tehran. The increasing frequency and growing intensity of domestic uprisings in the country are clear signs of broad popular dissatisfaction with the regime, but there is good reason this option has not been attempted by any U.S. president. The United States appears to have little leverage to affect events on the ground in Iran, and any perceived U.S. intervention in support of an uprising could backfire disastrously, causing the public to rally on the side of the regime. Thus, the prospects for this option seem doubtful, at best.

As the 2024 presidential elections approach, at no time in recent decades have U.S. and Iranian interests seemed so diametrically opposed. Recent trends suggest the two states will continue to edge closer toward increased tension and potential conflict, but the next administration, no matter who is elected, is certain to revisit the potential for talks with Iran if they serve U.S. interests. Engaging in frank and productive negotiations with Iran has appealed to every American administration since the Islamic Republic was established. Still, talks with Iran have tended to produce benefits only after other U.S. policies garnered enough leverage to persuade Iranian leaders that compromise will maximize Iran’s interests. The next administration might conclude that military action against Iran’s allies—or against Iran itself—could compel the Iranian leadership to come to the negotiating table. The prospects for diplomatic success are likely proportional to the strategic and diplomatic groundwork put forward by U.S. officials before any talks with Iranian officials take place. So the question remains: will the next administration chart a new course, or will U.S.-Iran relations see more of the same?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: Iran

Normalization at What Cost? The Risk of Pushing Amid the Gaza War

May 29, 2024

As Israel’s war on Gaza approaches its ninth month and its aggressive tactics have come under global scrutiny, the United States continues its mission to…

Unfairly Maligned? The Cost of Mediation on Qatar-U.S. Relations

May 2, 2024

Following the Hamas attack against southern Israel on October 7, 2023, calls have risen in the Republican Party to scrap America’s strategic partnership with Qatar…

The West’s Houthi Policy is Rudderless in the Red Sea

April 8, 2024

Since the onset of the Houthis’ missile launches against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the United States and the United Kingdom have conducted dozens…

Iran

Succession and Legitimacy Struggles: Assessing Iran’s Post-Raisi Political Landscape

Commentary

On May 19, the helicopter carrying Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, disappeared in the mountains...

Iran

The Next Administration Will Still Find a Successful Iran Strategy Elusive 

Commentary

The constraints and challenges facing U.S. policy toward Iran are largely as they were at...

Iran

China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role

Commentary

Iran and Israel’s “shadow war” descended into direct state-to-state attacks and counterattacks in April 2024,...

Iran

Strategic Messages and Capabilities: Analyzing the Retaliatory Strikes Between Iran and Israel

Commentary

On April 1, as part of its periodic bombardment of Iranian and Iran-backed positions in...

Iran

Navigating a Tense Exchange: Israel and Iran Sent a Message, and Both Listened

Commentary

The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 destroyed the building and...

Iran

Untangling the Motives Behind Iran’s New Energy Agreements

Commentary

Though the country faces a raft of international sanctions and several major geopolitical hurdles, Iran’s...

Dr. Kenneth Katzman is a Senior Fellow at The Soufan Center, a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum, and Senior Research Adviser at Global Insights Group. His work focuses on geopolitical and regional dynamics in the Middle East—with a focus on Iran—as well as United States strategy. In late 2022, Dr. Katzman retired from his longtime position as a Senior Analyst with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an arm of the U.S. Congress that provides analysis and advice to members of the U.S. Congress in their legislative and oversight responsibilities. In that post, Dr. Katzman served as a senior Middle East analyst, with special emphasis on Iran, Iran-backed groups operating in the Middle East and South Asia, the Persian Gulf states, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During his more than 30-year tenure at CRS, he provided reports and briefings to Members of Congress and their staffs on U.S. policy on these countries and issues, and provided analysis of related legislative proposals.


Iran

Succession and Legitimacy Struggles: Assessing Iran’s Post-Raisi Political Landscape

Commentary

On May 19, the helicopter carrying Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, disappeared in the mountains...

Iran

The Next Administration Will Still Find a Successful Iran Strategy Elusive 

Commentary

The constraints and challenges facing U.S. policy toward Iran are largely as they were at...

Iran

China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role

Commentary

Iran and Israel’s “shadow war” descended into direct state-to-state attacks and counterattacks in April 2024,...

Iran

Strategic Messages and Capabilities: Analyzing the Retaliatory Strikes Between Iran and Israel

Commentary

On April 1, as part of its periodic bombardment of Iranian and Iran-backed positions in...

Iran

Navigating a Tense Exchange: Israel and Iran Sent a Message, and Both Listened

Commentary

The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 destroyed the building and...

Iran

Untangling the Motives Behind Iran’s New Energy Agreements

Commentary

Though the country faces a raft of international sanctions and several major geopolitical hurdles, Iran’s...

Subscribe to Receive Latest Updates from GIF.