On 8th May, the US President announced that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. The US would also be reimposing the sanctions on Iran that were in place prior to the deal. Essentially, we are back to a hostile Iran-US relationship after a short break where a change seemed likely. Now, this hostile policy orthodoxy in the US vis-a-vis Iran has sustained itself for nearly 4 decades. And one of the foreign policy mysteries for me has been: why is that the case?
After all, Iran is one of the most “normal” states in West Asia. It is also a regional power and now there is even some alignment between US and Iranian interests in Afghanistan and over ISIS. And yet, the foreign policy of the US towards Iran hasn’t change for nearly forty years. What are the possible reasons? I asked this question to my colleagues. I’m summarising some of their responses and my own views on them.
The oft-repeated reason given is the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. It is argued that this highly televised, 444-day imbroglio is the reason behind the perception of Iran as a ‘rogue state’ in the US. I doubt if that is the case. Even though this crisis might well be the reason that set the current policy orthodoxy in motion, it does not sufficiently explain why the orthodoxy would continue for four decades. In fact, in the same year the US embassy in Islamabad was burnt. Two Americans died as a result. And yet, there was no break in the US-Pakistan relationship. So, it doesn’t seem logical that another contemporary incident of a similar nature, one in which no American hostage was killed, can create and sustain a policy orthodoxy for four decades.
The second reason given is that the hatred towards Iran is sustained by Iran’s own acts of hostility towards the US. Indeed, Iran has often taken up the gauntlet on various occasions. But again, this reason doesn’t sufficiently explain why the policy orthodoxy did not change even after Iran demonstrated its willingness to change as part of the P5+1 negotiations. The North Korean example shows that the US that a change in relationship terms is possible even with a state belonging to the ‘axis of evil’.
The third reason given is Trump. That’s an easy one to contest though. Long before Trump came into the picture, this policy orthodoxy was still going strong.
The fourth reason give is “follow the money”. The argument is that pro-Israel and pro-Saudi lobbies in the US ensure that there is no foreign policy change in the US on the Iran issue. There is some weight in this argument and it could help explain the longevity of the policy orthodoxy. If that is case, the emergent hypothesis is that the policy change is incumbent on the Iran-Saudi Arabia-Israel triangle. Unless Iran can patch up with at least one of these two West Asian powers, the US will keep the heat on.
In any case, this question needs methodical research. I think it’s just one of those questions in foreign policy which is not raised enough. Someone should do a study of the kind Nicolas Blarel has done to explain the orthodoxy and change in the India-Israel relationship. Or perhaps, I have been ignorant. If you know of a study that tackles this question systematically, please point me to it!