Over most of the past 33 years Iran and the United States have been entangled in what some analysts have dubbed as "U.S. Shadow Boxing with Iran".  After many failed attempts for reconciliation between the two countries in the past, there are hopes, arising from the new outlook of President Obama's second term in office for engagement and talks that could finally put Iran-US relations on the right track. 

Misconceptions and Mistrust 

In the tragic relations of Iran and the US, the misperceptions have aggravated the mistrust that itself overshadows these turbulent relationships. These misperceptions mostly trapped in the past timeframes have marred the objectivity that is much necessary in any political assessment for strategic calculations. Both countries have used media among other things to confront each other. But in that process they have been prone to become the victim of their own propaganda. Although the US has the upper hand in any 'media war' at the global level, but that also makes it more vulnerable to the delusions that might be created by the same media. The gimmick as experienced in the past works like this; usually some unfounded claims are repeated and recycled over the span of time, and are finally quoted by other media outlets as if they are pure facts. The vivid example is this kind of news surrounding Iran's nuclear program and two decades of propaganda about Iran's nuclear breakout policy, which of course were not true. The problem with this approach is that eventually the decision makers in Washington are detached from the realities on the ground, as the case of Iran shows; making precarious decisions is not only harmful for the US interests but also dangerous for peace and security in the region. 

 The simple truth about Iran is that this country is not seeking nuclear weapons. This can be verified easily by little research among documents that are publicly available. For example in the "Twenty Year Vision Document", a document considered in Iran as important as next to its Constitution, it is asserted that by 2025 Iran should be the leading nation in the region in terms of economic, scientific and technological achievements. It is clear in this document that Iran's ambitions are not focused on military superiority but to become one of the most advanced nations in the technological and economic fields. Iran has already embarked on this path with a successful record and as predicted at this rate of progress it could rank forth in the world in terms of research output by 2018. In the past few years, in spite of hard economic sanctions by the United States and the West, and their ban on transfer of advanced technology to Iran, the country has rapidly progressed on its own in science and technology. Iran's advancement is especially noticeable in new technologies like nano and stem cells; as well as in petrochemical, pharmaceutical, aerospace, and defense industries.

Interestingly, as acknowledged by Science-Metrix in the US and Canada, Iran's technology leap and emphasis on specific strategic subfields is attributed to Iran's nuclear program. And perhaps that explains why nuclear technology became indispensible in Iran's drive for primacy in economic and technological progress. In the economic arena, despite facing the challenges of the harshest sanctions any country has faced in the recent history; Iran has emerged as a new industrialized country with an upper-middle-income economy and high human development rate. Iran has also embarked, with initial successes in one of the most daring economic reforms, to eliminate subsidies, in continuation of a vigorous drive toward privatization and economic liberalization. 

According to a US government report “Global Trends 2030”, Iran, collectively with 10 other developing countries will overtake EU-27 in global power by 2030. Meanwhile, the notion that Iran would become a partner in some economic groupings such as the group of BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is not farfetched. As far as Iran's military doctrine is concerned a declassified report by the Pentagon in July 2012 is a déjà vu. The report says that: "Iran’s military doctrine remains designed to slow an invasion; target its adversaries’ economic, political, and military interests; and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities while avoiding any concessions that challenge its core interests."  The report further emphasizes that, "Iran’s unconventional forces are trained according to its asymmetric warfare doctrine and would present a formidable force while defending Iranian territory."

Some comparative figures on military expenditure display strategic priorities of Iran and some other countries in the region. According to the Yearbook 2012 of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a reputable source for world statistics on military spending, two of Iran's neighbors are among the World's top 15 military spenders i.e. Saudi Arabia that ranks 7th and Turkey ranking 15th. As for the military expenditures of each country, with regard to their GDP, the following data is interesting:

 Percentage of military expenditure to the GDP


1.8 %


2.4 %


4.4 %


5.4 %


6.5 %


6.9 %


9.7 %

Saudi Arabia   

10.1 %

Source: SIPRI Year Book 2012 

In addressing the issue of misperceptions from the Iranian side, it seems that the tendency to portray the US as a declining power tends to be exaggerated. In such perception, the US capacity for power projection seems to be underestimated; while the US capacity for peacebuilding in the world when it is oriented toward benevolent policies is tended to be ignored. On the future role of the US in world politics, the same report mentioned above, "Global Trends 2030" indicates that, "The replacement of the United States by another global power and erection of a new international order seems the least likely outcome in this time period.  No other power would be likely to achieve the same panoply of power in this time frame under any plausible scenario”.

Thus, by not taking into account some critical facts, there are risks that unrealistic policies might be adopted. In the same vein, one cannot ignore the fact that, since the end of the Cold War, the world geostrategic scene is rapidly changing. Yet despite some enthusiasm for a multipolar world, during most part of the past two decades a semi-unipolar world with the US at the helm of international affairs has prevailed. The US domineering position has been exposed in many areas especially in the Middle East, and also regarding Iran's nuclear file. The US has used its clout in confrontation with Iran in every arena, be it at international level such as the IAEA, or the UN Security Council, or through bilateral mechanisms for imposing unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Of course, such policies have not been cost free for the US, mainly with repercussions they have had for its relations with Iran. With the policy of isolating Iran, the US had to face many challenges by devising different mechanisms and allocating resources to prevent foreign companies from trading with Iran. In many cases it had to compensate them with costly incentives for keep them onboard for the sanctions, or to provide inducements to their respective governments in the political arena. These challenges have been more formidable when sanctions included companies from China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, who have previously protested and resisted to the policy of unilateral sanctions against Iran. Not surprisingly, China and Russia having special relations with Iran are seeking to maximize their strategic benefits from the US in this bargain. 

Nuclear Issue at the Core         

To many observers the crisis created on Iran's nuclear program is only superficially about enriching uranium, because Iran had demonstrated its readiness for cooperation by entirely suspending its enrichment program for nearly 3 years, from 2003 to 2006. Moreover, it accepted inspections on its nuclear activities that went far beyond its NPT obligations. But the US by imposing new demands kept moving the goalposts undermining peaceful resolution to this squabble.

Although Iran’s progress in nuclear technology has raised some concerns in Washington in terms of dual use application, with possible weaponization. But there are deep doubts about the US sincerity on the issue of nuclear proliferation. While Washington insists on Iran's nuclear transparency, it is silent about its allies, particularly Israel, putting pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to not inspect Israel's nuclear installations.

The above US policy, has led some experts to believe that the policy of engaging Iran for halting uranium enrichment was never a genuine plan; rather it was pretence of a good faith and a diplomatic effort by the US to keep the international coalition against Iran together. Washington's main complains about Tehran's policies presently focused on the nuclear issue, in reality stems from the Israeli anxieties about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran maintains that Israel's policies toward Palestinian question is suppressive and expansionist and has accordingly articulated its policies against it.  In reaction, Israel has utilized all leverages it has in the US, including its strong lobby in the US Congress to confront Iran. In practical terms, Israel is instigating the US policy against Iran. It is believed that in that process and as a result of those policies, strategic interests of the US in the greater region of the Middle East and North Africa have been compromised. The Israeli overt interference in American politics have steered some concerns and complains among political elites in the US. Recently, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a leading US strategist, rejected Israeli pressure to form American national security policy by beating the drum for war on Iran. He maintained that there is no "implicit obligation” for the US “to follow, like a stupid mule, whatever the Israelis do.”

It is likely that the main concern of Israel and its powerful lobby in the US is more than anything else a fear that new relations between Iran and the US would totally eclipse Israel in the American strategic calculus. Therefore, Iran's nuclear program has been targeted by the US and its allies as a threat toward peace, with the potential for proliferation. In this pretext, Iran is portrayed as an unpredictable state that would utilize its imaginary nuclear weapons against its adversary i.e. Israel. In a very absurd theory, Iranians who are famous for their political shrewdness and well known throughout their history of more than two and a half millennium as masters of stratagem of survival are portrayed as a nation that would clumsily expose themselves to nuclear retaliation and possible annihilation for alleged belief in the Armageddon. Unfortunately, that lousy cliché of considering Iran as irrational player in the world politics has been repeated and believed by some people especially in the US and Israel. Yet Iran's strategic behavior during the recent history is indicative of the fact that Iran has given priority to peaceful coexistence with its neighbors and other countries while other options were available to it.

There are many examples to present on this matter. For instance, at the time of the war with the Baathist regime of Iraq when chemical weapons were used extensively against Iranian troops and civilians, Iran restrained itself from retaliation, while it had the capacity to do so; because Iran ardently believed that weapons of mass destructions are the most inhumane of all weapons. There are other good reasons indicative of the fact that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons. In the view of some military experts, the nuclear weapons are increasingly becoming redundant and non-reliant because of their non applicability in the battlefield, and for the consequential retaliatory response and escalation to a total war with the risk of mutual annihilation. Meantime, improvements in the accuracy of conventional weaponry in the form of precision-guided conventional weapons such as modern cruise missiles with a high-explosive warheads and precision guidance systems are further de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons.

Based on above factors, one can safely conclude that besides moral issues that denounces the weapons of mass destruction as inhuman; the notion that strategic deterrence does not solely derive from nuclear weaponry was appealing to the Iranian strategists. Therefore, it is not surprising that they opted for advanced conventional systems that include among other things a variety of precision guided missiles as an effective deterrence. It should be immediately emphasized, however, that an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities may change that perception, altering Iran's present policy of nuclear abstinence.

To come out of the present deadlock on Iran's nuclear file, some practical steps have been suggested by experts. First, there should be a clear commitment by the US, although in stages, for total sanctions relief.  Second, while effective monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program with some limitation on the level of enrichment (say to the level of 5 per cent) might be acceptable to Iran but that is conditional to recognition of Iran's right for enrichment enshrined in the NPT. Once this issue is agreed upon, it seems that other measures for enhancement of confidence especially where it relates to Iran's present stockpiles of enriched uranium can be adopted more smoothly. One practical solution might be to convert the existing stockpiles or the future production of enriched uranium to fuel plates. This could be done by Iran or in a framework of an international consortium established in Iran; of course with the IAEA safeguards in place. It looks that an agreement modeled on these lines would also meet both the spirit and letter of the Non- Proliferation Treaty. Anyhow, Iran's nuclear program could hardly constitute the main concern of the US.  In essence, the issue relates to the recognition of Iran as a major player in the regional structure of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The real question is about Iran's aspirations for what it considers its rightful place in the world strategic scene that commensurate to its population, human and natural resources, geography, history and culture.

Hope for Optimism

With the reelection of the President Obama in the US, things seem to be taking a new spin and some reports indicate that President Obama is planning to propose to have direct talks with Iran. That is while during the past few months some major changes have occurred in the context of Iran –US relations that induce hope and with appropriate initiation it looks that there are chances for a genuine rapprochement this time. While Obama's choices in his first term in office for key figures in foreign/security policy were mostly dominated with figures that had a record of biased position regarding Iran, this time things seem to be changing for better.  Nomination of Senator John Kerry as next Secretary of State, and former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense by President Obama has been taken as a positive sign in Tehran. 

Concurrently, on the Iranian side, there seems to be readiness for a meaningful engagement stemming from self-confidence and the perception of being a regional power that among other amenities has the power to resist and withstand the pressures in the form of sanctions and a de facto economic blockade, intended to bring Tehran to its knees. However, behind the present skirmishes, there are geopolitical and geostrategic realities that compel both sides, for the sake of their own security and interests, to give rapprochement a new chance.

The increased regional volatility calls for more strategic flexibility and cooperation between these two major players. The prevailing crisis in Afghanistan and Iraq, neighbors to east and west of Iran, hangs on while the US and its allies are planning to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan in 2014. The crisis in Afghanistan is now as predicted before has spilled to Pakistan. Iraq is yet dealing with the aftershocks of the 2003 invasion and decades of dictatorial rule in that country. The past experience shows that without Iran's cooperation, the US is not in a position to handle the compelling problems that are acerbated by the new developments in the region in tandem with the Arab Awakening.

The turbulences that have engulfed the region tend to spread and reverberate for some time.  Therefore, it is vital for the US to cooperate with Iran in order to dispel the radical and extremist forces that are aiming to dominant the scene and further destabilize the region. Equally it is important that positive aspects of the revolutions occurring in the region such as the spread of democratic rule are protected and encouraged for its endurance. It is vitally important that the transformations take a peaceful course. That formidable task requires participation by all concerned parties, and that can hardly be successful with the US and Iran not acting in harmony.

The Iran – US relations suffers more than anything else from a crisis of trust that stems from deep-seated ideological disagreements and a geopolitical rivalry. Building trust can start with real practice of diplomacy. To begin, a cool- minded evaluation of the present geostrategic conditions needs to be done for planning of a road map. There is no doubt that the past 33 years of the bitter relationship have gravely impacted the mindset of both parties and it takes time with persistent efforts to restore it. Then of course is the role of spoilers, both inside and outside of Iran and the US reacting negatively to any sign of opening in these relations. Therefore, it seems that a major thrust in the initiative for a breakthrough needs to be at a level that could not be reversed once again by any spoiler.

Obviously, Tehran and Washington have potential common interests in many key areas like establishing peace and security in Afghanistan, Iraq and in a much wider scale in the Persian Gulf and West Asia. The first steps for initiating the breakthrough should start by the US demonstrating that it is no longer harboring hostile policy toward Iran. Meanwhile, "nation to nation contacts" can benefit both sides and remove misunderstandings that have been created during the past decades of estrangement. While Tehran could adopt a vigorous policy for restoring its international image, simultaneously it could utilize that as an asset in its talks with Washington.       

To realize that goal, it has been suggested for instance that a first meeting between the leaders of the two countries, a la Nixon - Zhou Enlai, would be useful for breaking the wall of mistrust that exists. However,  it is simplistic to think that the present dilemma in Iran-US relations could disappear over night unless it is given priority in substantial manner in the respective policy making apparatus of both countries. Without determined efforts to restore confidence and for working toward a comprehensive engagement through sound and professional diplomacy the risk that yet another opportunity might slip away should not be dismissed. There are all indications that, it is an opportune time for President Obama at the start of his second term in office to take a courageous step and fulfill his vow for a change in the US policy toward Iran.

* Nasser Saghafi-Ameri is a former senior Iranian diplomat, and a scholar and author in the fields of foreign policy, international security, and nuclear disarmament.