Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a research fellow at Hoover Institution.
A perilous impasse exists between the Trump administration’s strident policy of “maximum pressure” and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s no less strident policy of “no negotiation” with the United States. One way out of this fraught situation is a policy that appears to be a lose-lose for both sides but, in reality, is a win-win for all sides.
The Trump administration must take a page from the diplomatic playbook of the Reagan-Shultz team in the waning days of the Cold War. There is much that connects Iran’s current regime with the then-moribund Soviet empire. Like the Soviets, Iran is an economically weak, ideologically sclerotic regime run by septuagenarian men, punching above its weight internationally and given to bullying its own people and the international community, averse to accepting even the most obvious defeat unless it can sell it as an ideological victory at home and to its proxies.
The genius of the Shultz-Reagan strategy was the recognition of these realities and the fashioning of a policy that never involved bragging about a U.S. success, or humiliating the “Evil Empire” even if that empire accepted a serious rollback on an issue.
The historic context of this policy was the containment strategy that had guided U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union since the end of World War II. According to that policy, the Soviet Union would die of its own incompetence and inertia, and the U.S. must contain and confront the regime’s inexorable expansionism but also adopt strategic patience to allow for the regime to inevitably wither away under the weight of its own incompetence. All the while, the U.S. never lost sight of the regime’s human rights abuses.
The successful end of the Cold War was due in no small measure to the result of this strategic wisdom and patience. The Reagan-Shultz policy allowed the Soviets to quixotically announce victories at home as they made serious concessions in key areas.
So far, with the exception of President Trump’s announcement of his willingness to negotiate unconditionally with Iran, his administration often seems to be following a policy of not just maximum pressure but maximum humiliation. The policy is sure to fail.
Maximum pressure applied unwisely can beget maximum disaster.
The shooting down of a drone that came dangerously close to a U.S. vessel (the U.S. said it was Iranian, but Tehrān denied ownership) is only the most recent manifestation of the perils of the situation.
The U.S. has declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) a terrorist organization, which prompted Iranian regime to declare U.S. forces in the region and commanded by Central Command (CENTCOM) to be terrorists. Yet, there has been no major military confrontation because Trump does not want a war and Khamenei can’t afford one.
Iran clearly wants to negotiate, but only if allowed to sell that to its dwindling base at home, and to its proxies regionally, as a victory for the supreme leader’s “wise” policy of “resistance” and “no negotiation.”
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