The Iranian Paradox

In Chapter 1 of the CSIS International Security Program report, Deterring Iran after the Nuclear Deal, Jon B. Alterman examines the challenges that Iran's strategic orientation poses to crafting an effective U.S. Iran policy.

Iran’s politics are imperfectly understood, both in the West and in Iran itself. Yet, a basic outline does seem clear. The Iranian leadership is preoccupied with two things: regaining the grandeur that it believes is its national due, and overcoming the very weak hand that it holds in what it sees as an existential battle with a much larger power. In seeking to deter Iran, foreign powers risk exacerbating the very preoccupations that drive Iran’s hostile behavior. The question remains, however, whether Iran’s preoccupations can be assuaged.

It leaves us with a paradox: If Iran’s hostile actions elicit conciliatory responses from its neighbors and the world, it sends a message that those actions are working. Yet if Iran’s hostile actions elicit opposition, it reinforces Iran’s perceived need to act asymmetrically. President Rouhani suggested more than a decade ago, “Our skill, I would say our art, will be to choose the best time” to improve relations with the United States. Yet diminishing tensions between Iran and the United States will require considerably more art than merely getting the timing right.


Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program