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U.S. and Iran: 41 Years of Swinging between Engagement and Confrontation


Since the moment of the Islamic Republic’s inception 41 years ago, U.S. – Iran relations have been fraught with mistrust, animosity, threats, and occasional active hostilities. This outweighs instances of negotiation and tacit mutually beneficial cooperation that have occurred over the last four decades. Since 1979, U.S. officials have not resolved even the most basic question concerning U.S.-Iran relations: force the regime to capitulate and possibly collapse, or engage with Tehran? Any decision to pursue the latter option would demand the further debate of whether to focus on brokering a comprehensive agreement that settles all outstanding issues, or rather work from a narrow set of issues to build confidence, and over-time expand agreements to other areas. The Trump Administration has clearly pursued a “capitulation” strategy, which has weakened Iran’s economy but has not, to date, compelled Iran to accept the full range of U.S. demands. The Obama Administration’s pursuit  of an alternate thesis to negotiate nuclear restraints resulted in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but made little progress extracting any further Iranian concessions or expanding the relationship beyond that singular issue.

History of the Relationship

U.S.-Iran relations took an almost immediate turn for the worse on November 4, 1979 when militant youth loyal to Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats their hostage. This started a fourteen-month crisis from which relations have yet to recover. In large part because of the hostage crisis, as well as the Iranian regime’s commitment to “export the revolution” throughout the region, the United States tilted significantly towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, downplaying Saddam’s alignment with Moscow and the hostility of his Ba’ath Party toward Israel. The United States and Iran engaged in clashes in the Gulf during that war – clashes in which Iran’s naval forces were humbled significantly. In expressing their grievances against U.S. policy, Iranian leaders invariably stress that the United States did not take action to stop the Hussein regime’s extensive use of chemical weapons against Iranians and even against Iraq’s own Kurdish population during the Iran-Iraq War, possibly emboldening Saddam to invade Kuwait in 1990.

Even as the United States supported Iraq against Iran, the 1985-87 “Iran-Contra Affair” demonstrated that a certain strain of thought within the U.S. government remained confident that even Iran’s Islamic Regime could be successfully engaged.  Whereas President Ronald Reagan acknowledged that the Affair represented, in the main, an effort to trade U.S. arms for Iranian help to free U.S. hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, there were indications that the transaction represented an effort to engage perceived “moderate” elements in Iran to potentially rebuild U.S.-Iran relations. Optimism about the potential for an Iran engagement strategy increased from 1989-1991 when Iran answered the George H.W. Bush Administration’s appeal that “goodwill begets goodwill” with successful efforts to free the last of the U.S. hostages in Lebanon by the end of 1991. However, the U.S.’ focus on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and its aftermath, as well as the initiating of a new phase of an Arab-Israeli peace process that Iran opposed, derailed any U.S.-Iran rapprochement during this time.

During the 1990s, the campaign led by Hamas, the Iran-backed Palestinian organization, drove home Iran’s ability to conduct attacks inside Israel itself, and contributed to a shift toward a harder line policy on Iran by the Clinton Administration.  That Administration came into office articulating a “dual containment” strategy to simultaneously weaken both Iran and Saddam Hussein’s regime, and sought to implement the policy by considerably ratcheting up economic sanctions on Iran.  President Clinton imposed a ban on all U.S.-Iran trade in 1995, and in 1996 Congress enacted the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which sought to weaken Iran strategically by crippling its long-term future as an energy exporter. By the end of the Clinton Administration, the pendulum swung back again towards engagement after the 1997 election of a professed moderate, Mohammad Khatami, as Iran’s president. The perennial U.S. “search for Iranian moderates” with whom to engage resurfaced, but hardliners in Iran, seeking to constrain Khatami broadly, blocked any U.S.-Iran thaw.

The potential for broad engagement continued throughout the George W. Bush Administration because Iran proved useful and even somewhat helpful to U.S. efforts in the “War on Terror” spawned by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.  The Bush Administration did not appear to try to engage perceived Iranian moderates. Instead, it tactically engaged hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force, (who controlled Iranian policy in Iraq and Afghanistan), to try to stabilize those two theaters of U.S. military intervention.  Whereas Iran was helpful to the United States in standing up to the post-Taliban government in Kabul and the post-Saddam government in Iraq, Iranian hardliners’ fears of U.S. encirclement also led Iran to support attacks on U.S. troops, particularly in Iraq.  At the same time, by backing European diplomacy, the Bush Administration sought to curb a new and potentially ominous factor in U.S.-Iran relations: the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite Iran’s nuclear program becoming a progressively more central consideration for each President, the Obama Administration and Trump Administration have pursued diametrically opposed Iran strategies. Both administrations apparently calculated that they could break the “stalemate” with Iran one way or another, and end the U.S. oscillation between tentative engagement with, or confrontation of, Tehran.  Also uniting both presidents is that, in contrast to past U.S. governments, neither Administration apparently recognized any distinction between Iranian “moderates” and hardliners, deciding instead to aim U.S. policy directly at the heart of Iran’s political structure. Both made extensive use of the policy tool of secondary U.S. sanctions to pressure Iran.

Still, despite these similarities, the two Administrations articulated rival theses that represent the unresolved question in U.S. Iran policy: engagement or confrontation?  The Obama Administration used sanctions to pressure Iran into a negotiation on one critical issue: Iran’s nuclear program. It essentially sought a resolution on this one central problem and hoped to later expand the dialogue to all outstanding issues between the two countries.  The Trump Administration hypothesis has been that “maximum pressure” on Iran, applied through extensive U.S. sanctions, will weaken Iran so dramatically that it will capitulate to all U.S. demands, including and especially that Iran end its support for the wide range of armed factions operating in the Middle East region and beyond. Officials from the Obama Administration argued that their Iran strategy had not been fully tested before the policy shift undertaken by the subsequent Trump Administration, and that the tacit U.S.-Iranian cooperation against the Islamic State challenge during 2014-16 could have been expanded upon. Trump Administration officials have asserted that their Iran strategy is “working” because Iran’s economy has been weakened significantly. Meanwhile, Iran has resumed much of the nuclear work it had curbed when the United States was implementing the JCPOA, and there have not been any signs, to date, that Iran’s projection of power throughout the region has been diminished.  In successive administrations, U.S. policy may continue to oscillate between engagement and confrontation with Tehran, at least for as long as the Islamic Republic is in power.


Dr. Kenneth Katzman, a Senior Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Library of Congress, writing in a personal capacity.


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

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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.

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