6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Raised Stakes: U.S. Policy Toward Iran in 2018

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Webcast Recap

With the exception of North Korea, there is probably no higher foreign policy priority for the Trump administration in 2018 than dealing with Iran. Recent mass demonstrations in the Islamic Republic, Iran’s emboldened posture in the region, and the fate of the Iran nuclear agreement create uncertainty and raised stakes as the U.S. tries to define its approach toward the country.

Indeed, what is the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran and how is it likely to be implemented in the year ahead? Will 2018 see confrontation, compromise, accommodation or a hybrid?

This event is co-sponsored with the International Crisis Group.

Selected Quotes:


Jane Harman

“Iran is one of the great world civilizations. The Persian civilization was extraordinary. The Persian people are extraordinary, and understanding some of that and understanding Iran’s pride, I think is useful and helpful to an understanding of the region. That’s number one. Number two: there’s an enormous Iranian diaspora in the United States. I know that because I’m from Los Angeles. My congressional district was in Los Angeles which some call ‘Tehrangeles.” There are 800,000 Iranians living in Los Angeles, so there’s a huge connection in that way between Iran and the U.S.”

“People stress this but then people forget this. Our issues are with the government of Iran and its conduct, not with the people of Iran. And I think every way we can think that and say that helps to build bridges to a great civilization and an important population group in the United States.”   

Aaron David Miller

“This is just an observation that the administration’s policy seems, after a year, to be preternaturally guided by domestic politics, in large part by the desire of the President to be the un-Obama. I would argue also that TRUMP’S rhetoric by and large has exceeded action with respect to actually implementing a policy. When it comes to Iran, the point of departure appears to be that the JCPOA, which I would argue is functional but flawed, in the view of the administration is fundamentally and fatally flawed. And that it will not allow the nuclear agreement to hold its  Iran policy hostage if it wants to broaden U.S. policy to deal with other aspects of Iran’s behavior in the region.” 

Robert Malley

“Should the U.S. have done more in 2009? Should it do more now? I think people who know Iran well would say….it has almost no impact. I mean you could imagine U.S. intervention that would have a negative impact; it could be a negative American moment. The notion that if President Obama had said a little more or a little less or if President Trump had said a little less or a little more, that it would have any significant or measurable impact on the course of events in Iran is really to misunderstand what was happening there and again just a reflection of our sometimes very peculiar sport of American thinking that it’s all about us.”

“We have to put the Iranian threat in perspective and understand [it]…But then if we are going to handle it, let’s handle it in the right way. The worst way is to exacerbate conflict, to pour fuel on the fire whether it’s in Yemen or whether it’s elsewhere. That’s exactly what makes it easy for Iran because Iran knows the region better than we do…. All that makes it much easier for them to expand their influence when there’s conflict.”

“Anything that would be a violation of the JCPOA should be avoided at all costs by Europe and by Congress. In other words, what I think the President wants, and he’s made it pretty clear, is he wants Congress to agree on legislation that would automatically snap back sanctions even if Iran were complying with the deal but were doing activities that are permitted by the deal but Trump would not want them to do…so it’s not really a renegotiation of the deal but it’s a violation of the deal to the extent Iran was told…” 

Laura Secor

“The Iranian regime has two problems that are interrelated: one is political and the other is economic. In both areas the regime has come under considerable pressure. . . . What we do see is every decade or so some kind of protest movement. We do see the electoral landscape being shaped by a demand for greater openness politically and for the improvement in economic indicators that have been consistently declining or flat.”

“One sees one’s adversaries [as] all-powerful. But in fact this is a very volatile region. The fact that chaos has followed the Iranian presence in these capitals may not only be because Iran is so in chaos but it may be because Iran is in over its head. You could make a case that Iran has overextended itself in the region and will not have an easy time in sustaining its influence, particular in Iraq where you have sectarian problems that Iran cannot solve.”

“The deal was a major moment. It was also a major win for President Rouhani and the factioning government—which came not easily at the time. There was for that faction of the elite, prestige and credibility riding on not just concluding the deal but on the notion that the United States could be dealt with. The countervailing argument, coming from the hardliners and specifically from the Supreme Leader, was that…you could negotiate a deal if you like, but they won’t hold their end of it. Unfortunately, yes, the developments here have served the hardline narrative that the United States is not a trustworthy negotiating partner.” 

Ali Vaez

“I think that the protests have been contained, but the drivers of these protests have not. And that means unless the system in Iran agrees to some kind of evolutionary change, there might be more motivation within the population to move toward more radical revolutionary change because some of these issues cannot be resolved by their own or cannot be resolved by superficial reform; they really require structural reform that the Iranian people, by going to the polls over the past 25 years and voting for the reformists, have actually demonstrated that they would welcome gradual change to address some of these issues that have resulted in economic disgruntlement, chronic unemployment issues, etc.”

“These issues will require structural reform. The Supreme Leader is 80 years old at this stage and presiding over an 80 million [people] country. He might be reluctant to do structural change because structural change by definition could be destabilizing. Rouhani, too, I think might be reluctant because maybe he wants to become Supreme Leader and succeed the Supreme Leader, and as such doesn’t want to rock the boat.”

“Even if everybody was prepared to negotiate, what the President [Trump] said would be acceptable to him, which is unlimited restriction on Iran’s nuclear program, is just simply not in the cards. The Iranians will never accept that under any circumstances. I just don’t see where the give is unless the administration knows that this is not an achievable goal and wants to use this to say, ‘I gave you an opportunity to get a better deal, and you didn’t cooperate with me so now I withdraw from the deal.’” 


01-16-2018 Raising Stakes





  • Robert Malley

    President and CEO, International Crisis Group and former Senior Advisor to President Obama for the Counter-ISIL Campaign
  • Laura Secor

    Freelance journalist and author, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran
  • Ali Vaez

    Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group