Rethinking Iran: Restraint Through Reconciliation (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Scott McCann, Spring 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter stated the flow of Persian Gulf oil was a vital U.S. interest and that Washington would use “any means necessary, including military force” to protect it. The statement became known as the Carter Doctrine. The U.S. has been engaged in the region ever since. As part of the engagement, The United States’s grand strategy application in the Middle East accounts for Iran’s influence in the area. However, strategic decisions to isolate Iran have failed and only increased tensions. American hawks consistently cite Iran’s behavior to defend their commitment to lengthy military engagements and allies in the region. Those arguments often overlook the inflammatory actions of those vested in preserving hostility and exposing the two nations to a military confrontation.

This paper will argue that Iran is critical to U.S. grand strategy calculus, but incremental agreements meant to curb specific behaviors are vulnerable to political climate without solidified relationships. It will also contend that strategic restraint and an offshore balancing force posture best serve U.S. interests. Consequently, the paper argues that building multiple parallel paths of sequential steps towards normalized relations with Iran best serves U.S. interests. The report relies upon the economic peace theory premise. The goal is to use trust-building mechanisms to create an environment in which economic benefits heal open wounds. Then, pursue diplomatic and institutional relationships to cement a new era of cooperation.

The paper will proceed in three parts. Section one will argue that the heavily utilized sanctions policy of the United States is unreliable and counterproductive to U.S. grand strategy. Section two will identify two areas in which the U.S. and Iran can create a confidence-building partnership and construct a normalized relationship pathway. The first arena is energy cooperation with two sub-sections: fossil fuels and renewables. The second arena is maritime security. The paper will propose a security partnership with Iran that secures freedom of passage through the Strait of Hormuz as the U.S. endorses the Hormuz Peace Endeavor. Section three will begin with a single recommendation to formalize relations with Iran, then justifies its necessity and how it can help.