By Robert S. Litwak (Jan 7, 2020)
The sequence of events triggered by the U.S. drone strike killing General Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad on January 3 has brought the United States “closer to war with Iran than we’ve been in the last 40 years,” according to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The Tehran regime retaliated with a salvo of missile strikes on two U.S. bases in Iraq. This military response followed Iran’s declaration that the country would no longer observe the negotiated constraints on its nuclear program under the 2015 deal. Though these major developments heighten the risk of an escalatory spiral, they do not alter the fundamental structure of the crisis in which post-revolutionary Iran and the United States have been locked over the last four decades.
During this forty years’ crisis, the respective policy debates in Iran and America have revealed persisting contradictions. In Tehran, the politics of foreign policy are roiled by the regime’s unresolved identity crisis: in Henry Kissinger’s words, is Iran “a nation or a cause”—an ordinary country or a revolutionary state? The nuclear issue, the centerpiece of international diplomacy with Iran, has been a proxy for that more fundamental issue of how the Tehran regime defines the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the outside world in general and America—the “Great Satan”—in particular.
In Washington, competing strategies—whether to contain, engage or strike— center on an unresolved tension: should the objective of U.S. policy toward Iran be to change the Islamic Republic’s behavior or to change its ruling theocratic regime? Contending assumptions about the nature of the threat and the prospects for a change of or within the Tehran regime undergird alternative policy options. In the transformed security environment after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration argued that threatening behavior posed by “rogue states,” including Iran, derived from the very character of their regimes—a proposition central to its case for a preventive war of regime change in Iraq in 2003. But unable to replicate in Iran the Iraq precedent of coercive nonproliferation through regime change, the Bush administration was caught in a dilemma, never resolving its own mixed message—whether the U.S. objective was regime change or behavior change.