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Does the U.S.-Iran Relationship Have a Future?

Forty years on, relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran remain a very fraught affair. The past tells a story characterized far more by confrontation and competition than cooperation, but that is certainly not the whole story. What of prospects for the future? Three veteran analysts and policy practitioners discussed the evolution of the relationship and where it’s headed.

Date & Time

Feb. 26, 2019
12:30pm – 2:00pm

Location

6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Does the U.S.-Iran Relationship Have a Future?

Forty years on, relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran remain a very fraught affair. The past tells a story characterized far more by confrontation and competition than cooperation, but that is certainly not the whole story. What of prospects for the future?

Three veteran analysts and policy practitioners discussed the evolution of the relationship and where it’s headed.

Selected Quotes

Robin Wright

“One of the other things that we haven't been paid a lot of attention to but, in many ways, is a real deal breaker, is the effort to get new banking regulations. It sounds really obtuse, but it’s actually tremendously important. And it’s trying to get Iranian banks to comply with the international banking standards that were imposed after 9-11 to eliminate money laundering and to get Iran’s banks to tell where their money came from, not just last transaction but all the way back. And this was critical in keeping the Europeans on board and sustaining the nuclear deal.”

“This is a time when, as they marked the 40th anniversary, that there are a lot of questions about the future direction of Iran. And this goes back to the early days of the revolution, and the question that was on the table--- Is Iran, after the ouster of the Shah , a country the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’, first and foremost, Islamic an Islamic state, or is it first and foremost, a Republic? And that debate is played out over the years in many ways.”

“The turning point of the deterioration of the relations [between the U.S. and Iran] was not the revolution itself, it was after the U.S. took in the Shah and there were fears in Iran among the revolutionaries at a volatile time, fragile state, that the United States was intent to putting the Shah back on the throne. So that’s the moment, and that’s where you find the tensions between these two countries have emanated.”  

Michael Singh

“And I think, importantly, this [Iran] wasn’t a region like Europe or Asia where gradually we’re sort of handing off responsibility to allies. It’s a region where largely we have had to do it ourselves for the most part and haven’t had those local allies to be able to sort of pass responsibility to, which is something kind of frustrates the past couple of presidents, I think in particular.”  

“When it comes to access for the United States in the region, obviously, the Iranians have talked about wanting the U.S. out of the region, and that’s about as diametrically opposed to what we’re trying to accomplish as you can get. So I think it’s less a matter of interests per se because often times, people in this relationship will talk about ‘why can’t we get along?’ Because we have these overlapping interests, things like-- counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, things like sort of ensuring that there’s stable government in Iraq or something like that. It’s less a matter of interest, and more a matter of how are we pursuing those interests?”  

“Frankly, not to sort of end on a pessimistic note but when you talk about the Middle East, it tends to be inevitable. I don’t see any real prospect for change here because what I think it will take is not just the United States deciding we sort of want to pull back and shift our attention elsewhere, it will take, I think, Iran, deciding that it wants to pursue a fundamentally different strategy in the region.” 

Robert Malley

“Both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in coercion and engagement, and both have failed. I mean, this is a clear case of bipartisan fail – the verdict is clear – if the goal was to have a normal relationship with Iran.” “There’s also a current dynamic and unique features of the region, and of Iran in the region, and the U.S. in the region… [It’s] a deeply polarized region… and a deeply polarized region in which Iran wants to play a bigger regional role... and a region in which the U.S. has deep strategic interests.... So you combine those three, and Iran being on the other side of the equation vis-a-vis the U.S. most of these issues. You don’t have that with North Korea.”
 “Right now, let’s at least prevent things from getting worse, prevent escalation, which to this day you could happen. I don’t think either the United States or Iran is pining for war, but in a state where we have no diplomacy, no diplomatic connections, with all the reasons I just described it – so polarized and so unified at the same time – anything could happen at any time, in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf… and could lead to confrontation that would involve the U.S. and Iran directly.” 

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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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