Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How to Make a Lasting Deal With Iran

| Sep. 07, 2019

Maximum pressure won’t make Tehran capitulate. Letting it enhance its conventional military capabilities could convince it to rein in proxies and curb its nuclear and missile programs.

Despite the Trump administration’s assertions, it is increasingly clear that the maximum pressure approach deployed to force Iran to temper its behavior in the Middle East is not working. Iran has allegedly engaged in provocations in the Persian Gulf and has taken concrete steps to scale back its commitments to enrichment limitations under the 2015 nuclear deal. Meanwhile, it hasn’t limited its missile program and has doubled down on its reliance on nonstate actors throughout the region.

Tensions flared again in the Middle East late last month after Israel apparently launched strikes on Iranian forces and their proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. As this shadow war moves into the light of day, Israeli officials argue that these attacks are meant to curb Iran’s expanding regional influence through its support and training for nonstate actors—which is a growing threat from Israel’s perspective. The most recent exchange between Israel and Iran highlights the security challenges Iran poses to U.S. interests and partners in the region, and, more importantly, why the U.S. government needs a new and innovative strategy to effectively engage with Iran.   

While the United States and its regional partners have legitimate concerns about Iran’s exploitation of nonstate actors, they don’t appear to understand Iran’s motivations. Thus, they have adopted policies that have proved ineffective and counterproductive.

Today, Washington is seeking to force Iran to forgo all three pillars of its deterrent capabilities: its nuclear program, its missile program, and its proxies. But from Tehran’s point of view, forgoing all deterrent capabilities would leave the regime defenseless and powerless. It is similar to asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons up front with only limited guarantees by the other parties. No state would compromise what it perceives as its means of survival for purely economic benefits.  

Indeed, Tehran has not just refused to mitigate its regional activities but has pursued them even more aggressively. This is making Washington increasingly agitated. The question is: What, after decades of sanctions and pressure, would it really take for Iran to change its behavior in the region? 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rouhi, Mahsa.“How to Make a Lasting Deal With Iran.” Foreign Policy, September 7, 2019.