U.S.-Iran 2017: Engagement or Confrontation?

Blog | January 18, 2017


After nearly four decades of estrangement, U.S.-Iran relations have seen substantial progress over the past two years. The historic nuclear agreement, peaceful resolution of the U.S. Navy sailor incident, multilateral cooperation on Syria, the first-ever conversation between the two countries’ Presidents as well direct diplomatic engagement in other venues, all offer a promise of a potential constructive U.S.-Iran engagement. This is while Iran undeniably remains a major strategic challenge for the United States in the region and important differences remain on both sides. Despite whatever perspective one takes, U.S.-Iran relations remain an area of high policy and public concern for the coming administration in both countries.

This coming year offers a possibility to build upon this tenuous framework of engagement or once again—as done under the Bush administration and that of Ahmadinejad’s—ruin the foundations of what could be a promising bridge toward peace and stability for the United States, Iran and the wider region. The Trump administration is taking office at a unique time where it has an opportunity to significantly build on his campaign’s promise of domestic economic growth through commercial engagement with Iran while maintaining its reservations against the government of the Islamic Regime. This can be achieved through conducting U.S.-Iran relations through economic and people-to-people engagement. 

For many observers the economic interest in Iran is somewhat overlooked, but not by all. It is critical that as President-elect Trump takes office, he and his team don’t overlook the EU’s strong interest in economic engagement with Iran, a relatively large market of 80 million with a young population that sits in one of the most strategic hot spots in the world. Of course, “working with Iran” does not mean that the two countries are or should be “friends”. Rather, this could signal the mutual understanding that a coercive relationship between the two countries will prove more harmful to economic interests and regional stability than beneficial.

Importantly, the Iranian regime, under the government of moderate President Hassan Rouhani—who will be up for re-election in June 2017—has demonstrated interest in global engagement and working to demilitarize Iran’s image on the international stage. On the sidelines of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly in September, Javad Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister and Sorena Sattari, one of the country’s Vice Presidents, both emphasized Iran’s need to foster global economic engagement, use its large pool of young, highly educated human capital and diversify its economy away from hydrocarbon dependency toward trade, entrepreneurial opportunities and empowering the private sector.

And western commercial interests have responded. In December, U.S. aviation giant, Boeing, signed a $16.6 billion deal for the sale of 80 aircrafts to the Islamic Republic. In their long-term strategic planning, both countries should recognize that this deal goes far beyond a one-time business transaction. Rather, it’s the first step to a minimum 40-year-long economic and business relationship which goes beyond aircraft sales to include parts, maintenance and training. Such a relationship on this deal alone can create thousands of high-paying jobs in the U.S., an oft-stated priority for the incoming Trump administration. This is while France’s first Airbus was delivered to Iran this past week—marking the first step toward fulfilling a $25 billion dollars deal signed between the two countries.

While economic engagement with Iran—in a post “nuclear-deal” era—can be a win-win strategy for both adversaries, it is important to note that Iran continues to remain a mystery to most Americans—as does America to most Iranians. Long isolated from each other, the American and Iranian peoples’ perceptions of each other are fed by long-standing negative stereotypes and misunderstanding. Improved people-to-people connectivity offer a valuable means of helping reduce tensions and channeling future bilateral ties in a constructive direction. Dialogue and understanding are critical to building upon the framework that can—in the long-term—be more favorable for national and regional interests.

In sum, the administration has two potential policy planks—built upon engagement—that can advance American national interests far more than any policy based solely on confrontation. First, both sides would be well served to build an economic bridge to advance regional stability, encourage economic growth in the U.S., and build private sector growth in Iran and the region. Second, is facilitating engagement between the people of these two estranged nations to overcome legacies of the past, build mutual understanding, and to set up the foundations for a more constructive and stable future relationship.

Tara Kangarlou is a visiting scholar at the EastWest Institute. Kangarlou is an award-winning journalist and has reported from the United States and around the world. Her primary areas of expertise are the Middle East, socio-cultural affairs, foreign policy and women’s issues in developing countries.


Photo: "TEHRAN CITY OF LIGHTS (تهران شهر" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by arash_rk