Jon B. Alterman for Foreign Affairs: A Détente Option for Iran

America Needs a Simpler Policy—but Not Rapprochement

This commentary was originally published in Foreign Affairs on April 3, 2024.

On April 1, Israeli warplanes attacked a building in Damascus that is part of the Iranian embassy there, killing seven senior figures in the Iranian military. Tehran has yet to respond. But when it does, the scale and nature of its actions will help answer a basic question at the heart of many debates about the current situation in the Middle East: Has U.S. deterrence worked against Iran?

Washington has had its difficulties with Iran since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979, and since then, the United States has struggled to find a successful strategy for dealing with it. Despite the fact that the U.S. economy is more than 16 times as large as Iran’s and its military budget more than 100 times as large, Iran has consistently blocked U.S. efforts to create a stable regional order. Although it is hard to think of any measure in which Tehran is even vaguely competitive with Washington, all U.S. efforts to sideline Iran have failed for most of the last four decades. This presents a puzzle. The disparities between the two sides are so great that it could be supposed that deterring Iran’s malign behavior would be a straightforward question of properly calibrating U.S. policy and resolve. This was the logic behind the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign from 2018 to 2021, and it has also informed Washington’s course in the Middle East following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. But that assumption is mistaken.

The problem is not with deterrence. Rather, it is that Washington has been trying to do too much with Tehran, with too limited a set of tools, over too long a period of time. Although prioritizing U.S. objectives and adopting a more flexible set of responses will not fix the Middle East, it will certainly improve it. Iran may remain a challenge for U.S. policymakers—but it will at least become a more predictable one.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.

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