America can do better than continuing isolation of Iran

Nearly 40 years ago, Iranians took American embassy officials in Tehran as hostages. Should that guide American policy today? Let me add that it is my understanding that Americans connected to a presidential campaign communicated with Iran and convinced them not to release the hostages until Jimmy Carter was out of office. If they were promised any benefits, that fits the definition of treason. Some of you will not believe that happened, but even assuming it did, what should that mean about our decisions today, when everyone involved is either dead or out of office?

I want to focus on what happened afterward. The United States likes to isolate governments it dislikes. Sometimes that works, although in the case of the Soviet Union, it meant decades of the Cold War with nuclear weapons aimed at each other in a stalemate known as mutually assured destruction. Thank heavens we survived the Soviet Union. But isolating an adversary has consequences, like having nukes aimed at American cities, that may not be pretty. Countries experience isolation as a threat to their security and they go looking for responses. In the case of the Soviet Union, it was the Cold War. In other cases, it is about looking for allies.


The United States spent decades isolating Iran. As serious scholars of the Middle East have pointed out, that meant Iran has contended with hostile regimes on all sides. There was a religious difference. There were strategic differences, some of which persist to this day. Iran nevertheless made overtures to the United States, offering to negotiate the whole panoply of differences between our countries. A succession of American administrations ignored their overtures to seek commonality.

In response, Iran did its best to ingratiate itself with its neighbors in the Middle East. That included supporting their efforts against Israel. Let me be clear that was not the first tactic Iran used. Israel and Iran cooperated and collaborated until the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq changed the balance of power in the Middle East. At that point, both Israel and Saudi Arabia decided that they needed a new regional enemy in order to keep the United States tightly bound to them. Iran was handy.

Enmity between the United States and Iran was never inevitable. Iran is one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East, and despite the harsh language of the clergy there, the Iranian people kept voting for leaders who were prepared to improve relations with the United States. They have had democratic institutions there for well over half a century, but they function alongside the Guardian Council that is ruled by the clergy, not the Iranian people. Theirs is a mixed government system.

A wise American administration would have reached out to them, as Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKamala Harris makes history — as a Westerner Poll: 15 percent of Democratic voters want to eliminate the filibuster Donald Trump has done more for African Americans than we think MORE did, and tried to resolve the disagreements that were making us adversaries in certain contexts. There was a lot of support from the Iranian people for that, but the decision was not theirs to make. Of course, now that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE has withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, it is unclear when they will trust us again.

Sometimes, as the late George H.W. Bush understood, total victory creates more problems than one wants to deal with. In the case of Iran, our foreign policy since 1979 has seldom been handled with intelligence. For those of you who would be interested in learning more, I would suggest “Negotiating with Iran” by John Limbert, himself one of the hostages, and “Losing an Enemy” by Trita Parsi, a refugee who grew up in Sweden. Both excellent books put the Iran nuclear agreement in the context of international diplomacy and cultural understanding.

Stephen Gottlieb is a constitutional scholar and the Jay and Ruth Caplan distinguished professor emeritus at Albany Law School. He previously served on the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union and volunteered for the United States Peace Corps in Iran. He is the author of “Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics.”