Evolving US Interests in Post-Revolutionary Iran

I found this interesting memo in George Washington University’s National Security Archive from 1985 that lists US interests in Iran after the Revolution. It’s interesting to see what’s changed–and what’s stayed the same.

Mourners attempt to steal pieces of Ayatollah Khomeini's burial shroud at his disastrous 1989 funeral. (Image via iconicphotos)

The first set of interests are “most immediate.”

1. Preventing the disintegration of Iran and preserving it as an independent strategic buffer which separates the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this interest has become dramatically less urgent. It would still be a bad thing if Russia were able to get access to a warm water port, and the US-Russia relationship still has a strong geopolitical element. However, the frontier of US interests has lurched forward into the former Soviet republics–see, for instance, the 2008 Georgia conflict.

2. Limiting the scope and opportunity for Soviet actions in Iran, while positioning ourselves to cope with the changing Iranian internal situation.

The only Russian actions in Iran that are of serious concern to the US now are arms transfers. The Iranians have been attempting to buy missiles of the modestly advanced S-300P family, which could have significantly improved their safety from aerial attack. US pressure has apparently blocked the deal. The US was unable to stop a Russian-supervised light water reactor at Bushehr, but it’s unclear how much of a proliferation risk it poses compared to the range of indigenous nuclear facilities in the Islamic Republic.

3. Maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil and ensuring unimpeded transit of the strait of Hormuz.

This is probably more crucial than ever. About 17 million barrels of oil are shipped through the Strait of Hormuz every day–20% of global consumption. Most of that oil isn’t going to the US–it’s going to places like Japan, India, and China–but the closure of the Strait would have dramatic effects on the global economy. The impact would be magnified by the loss of access to Saudi Arabia, which (in conventional wisdom) could produce more oil than it does, providing a buffer in the event of the loss of oil supply elsewhere. The oil market would tighten and supply would shrink significantly. Oil prices could spike $100 or more overnight.

Iran knows that and accordingly has developed a capacity to seal the Strait in order to deter outside intervention in its affairs–a fact that semi-official Fars News Agency reiterates about once every three days.

4. An end to the Iranian government’s sponsorship of terrorism and its attempts to destabilize the governments of other regional states.

We’re probably further from success than ever on this goal. Tehran is the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism, and has turned Hezbollah into a much more powerful ally than it was in 1985. Analysts suggest that Hezbollah’s Iranian-built missiles, acquired in large numbers after the 2006 war, can now hit all of Israel, and Hezbollah’s power means there is a very serious long term risk of renewed civil war in Lebanon.

The next set of goals is called “broad and important” but “less immediately urgent.”

1. Iran’s resumption of a moderate and constructive role as a member respectively of the non-communist political community, of its region, and of the world petroleum economy.

Non-communism is no longer a US foreign policy interest (although non-chavismo is). Iran definitely plays a destructive role in its region–while it is no longer exporting the Islamic Revolution, the sponsorship of terror discussed above and its growing conventional and nonconventional military might make it a destabilizing force. Iran also attempts to reactivate opposition to US ally Israel (an issue that’s gone quiet in the wake of the Arab Spring) as a way of improving its image in the Sunni world.

2. Continued Iranian resistance to the expansion of Soviet power in general, and to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in particular.

Iran actually plays a mixed role in the modern-day US occupation of Afghanistan. Iran doesn’t like the Taliban, either–they very nearly invaded Afghanistan back in the day to take them out. There are rumors that the Iran-Taliban relationship has turned a corner, but these are difficult to assess and a bit hard to believe.

3. An early end to the Iran-Iraq war which is not mediated by the Soviet Union and which does not fundamentally alter the balance of power of the region.

Iran and Iraq fought each other to exhaustion, so this goal was actually achieved. However, the US’s own actions would eventually fundamentally alter the regional balance of power, as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army, and the sectarian civil war gave Iran an enormous boost in relative power. The new Shiite-dominated political order in Iraq allows for more influence by Iran, but reports that Baghdad has become a proxy are exaggerated.

4. Elimination of Iran’s flagrant abuses of human rights.

It’s long been a matter of debate whether foreign domestic issues can be vital US interests. However, the US continues to document the mullahs’ excesses and sanction Iran for the most flagrant abuses.

5. Movement toward eventual normalization of US-Iranian diplomatic consular and cultural relations, and bilateral trade/commercial activities.

With Iran clearly in the process of developing some sort of nuclear weapons program, the US has imposed very strict sanctions and would regard any resumption of economic and diplomatic normalcy as a major concession. Iran would have to give something very big to get that out of the US.

6. Resolution of American legal and financial claims through the Hague Tribunal.

I’m not familiar with this issue at all, but I don’t think it’s any closer to resolution than it was in 1985. To my recollection, the US is still blocking Iranian access to some of the Pahlavi Dynasty’s riches, and that would have to stop for Iran to reciprocate.

7. Iranian moderation on OPEC pricing policy.

This is not an interest as much as it is a pipe dream. Even if Iran’s government were to be so pro-American that it was clamoring to become our 51st state, it would still have 72 million people to feed, house, and employ. To do that, it needs high oil revenues. To get those, it needs high oil prices. That’s why Iran has long been one of OPEC’s price hawks. The US has no hope of achieving success on this issue.

The document also contains some recommendations for US policy that I’ll discuss in a future post.

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