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The complicated, often uncompromising relationship between the United States and Iran was the subject of discussion at the John F. Kennedy Forum, as experts gathered to discuss whether the two countries were destined for conflict, or possibly shared more interests than either cared to admit.
Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School; Ray Takeh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post; joined Graham Allison, Belfer Center director; and Steve Miller, director of the International Security Program for the event Wednesday.
“Atop the central challenges for American foreign policy today stands Iran,” said Allison as he launched the evening’s discussion.
The two sides have sparred undiplomatically for decades. Recently that has escalated due to what the United States sees as Iran’s destabilizing pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as Iran’s involvement in hotspots throughout the Middle East, including Lebanon and Iraq, and what Iran views as the United States’ pursuit of regime change.
Military action against Iran by the United States has become a topic of open debate among policymakers, and bookmakers on the Internet have put the chances of an attack by the United States at 21 percent.
But panel members said that while the relationship is thorny, conflict is unlikely to be the result of a deliberate policy. A direct attack on Iran would, logistical problems aside, carry a political cost the United States is unwilling to bear, Nasr said. And support for such a move would lack domestic, international and regional support, added Takeh.
But the United States’ large military presence in the region, and the two sides’ blustering foreign policy, could allow for crucial miscalculations, the experts agreed.
“There are so many points of conflict now that you can imagine things getting out of control...even if there wasn’t an intention to start a war,” Ignatius said.
Experts also warned against the dangers of the United States’ siding with Sunnis against Shiites in the Middle East, as a way containing Iran.
“If the United States takes sides in this, and itself adopts a sectarian foreign policy...it will entrench much more deeply the sectarian divide within the region,” Nasr said.
The paradox of the relationship between the two countries has been a recurring coincidence of interests, the panel noted. The United States has removed regimes opposed to Tehran in Iraq and Afghanistan and helped install governments friendly to Iran in those countries. Iran has also been the closest regional partner of the new Iraqi government.
“(U.S.-Iran relations) have oscillated between hysterical calls for war and a remarkable rapture of reconciliation,” Takeh said. Iran sees itself as a regional power, and the United States is not ready to recognize that, he said. But he believed it was possible for the two countries to establish a framework for relations that could avoid those two extremes.
Watch a video of the event at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum archive.
Photo: Mark Halevi