CIS scholar provides roadmap and rationale for US-Iran relations

April 15, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, MA—A months-long study of US-Iran relations concludes that a new diplomatic approach by the United States to transform the relationship with Iran could produce a breakthrough that will boost security and prosperity for the entire region.

The 50-page document by John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies provides a roadmap and a rationale for the new approach. Tirman, executive director and principal research scientist at the Center, recommends that:

  • President Obama must take the lead role in reshaping the bilateral relationship; as past diplomatic breakthroughs have shown, there is no substitute for presidential leadership

  • While the president is changing the language used toward Iran-a major step-he must soon follow with concrete actions, which Iranians have repeatedly called for

  • The most urgent and powerful actions, in sequence, would be:
    1. 1. a partial lifting of unilateral sanctions (those not related to nuclear development) and unfreezing Iranian assets
    1. 2. explicit US disavowal of military threats and regime change strategies
    1. 3. normalization of the diplomatic relationship
    1. 4. discussions on new security arrangements and cooperation in the region


The study also argues that this series of actions does not place U.S. security or interests in jeopardy should Iran not seriously engage. While calculations about Iran's likely response are speculative, it is likely they would enter into a productive dialogue with appropriate reciprocation.

Tirman stresses that the 30-year policy of coercion and isolation, occasionally accompanied by small diplomatic steps that made little or no progress, is a proven failure. More "carrots and sticks" ideas will also fail. The approach to Iran needs a complete overhaul. Tirman notes, for example, that "in current discourse, normalization is held out as a reward; it should instead be viewed as an instrument of sensible statecraft."

Sanctions are not working, as economic studies demonstrate. Iran has only grown stronger in the region in the wake of U.S. military ventures. The threats from the U.S. undermine the efforts of civil society activists in Iran; a number of prominent dissidents urge an new opening of the relationship.

On the nuclear issue, a better U.S.-Iran relationship, with security guarantees and recognition of Iran's role in the region, holds some promise for resolving the outstanding issues regarding Iran's nuclear development. A U.S.-Iran détente would markedly improve the security of Israeli and other states in the region. It would also benefit U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Small gestures and better language are an improvement over the disastrous Bush policies," Tirman says, "but small steps are not enough. We need bold diplomacy for a breakthrough, and we can do so confidently because U.S. security is not at risk. The benefits of a breakthrough would be colossal. President Obama can do this steadily over the coming months. But the time to start is now."

The study was supported by the New Ideas Fund. Tirman directs the Persian Gulf Initiative at MIT, which has worked on the history of the U.S.-Iran relationship, among other topics. He is author of 12 books on international relations, including (as coeditor and coauthor),Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts (Penn Press, 2007).

The Center for International Studies (CIS) supports interna­tional research and education at MIT. It is the home of MIT’s Security Studies Program; the MIT International Science & Technology Initiative, its pioneering global education program; the Program on Emerging Technologies; and seminars and research on migration, South Asia politics, the Middle East, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, and East Asia. The Center has traditionally been aligned with the social sciences while also working with MIT’s premier science and engineering scholars. CIS produces research that creatively addresses global issues while helping to educate the next generation of global citizens.