U.S.-Iranian Relations at the Crossroads

The United States has not had diplomatic relations with the Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979-81. Washington’s relationship with Tehran in the decades that followed has been marked by enmity and suspicion. The two countries still consider themselves strategic adversaries in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East. Today, key areas of dispute include Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s support for Hezbollah, Iran’s hostility toward Israel, and Tehran’s role in sustaining the Assad government.

Three developments, however, suggest that there is scope, however limited, for a less contentious relationship between the United States and Iran. First, Washington and Iran find themselves de facto partners in combatting the threat of ISIL in Iraq. Second, recent progress in the international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program has raised the prospect of removing a major impediment to improved U.S.-Iranian relations. Third, the government of moderate Hassan Rouhini appears committed to easing Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation.

The Baker Institute’s Middle East Center will conduct an initial U.S.–Iran project that will have a one-day capstone workshop with experts who will discuss both the current state of relations and the internal Iranian dynamics shaping them. The research objective of the Iran program will be to (1) provide a forum for experts to discuss key issues confronting U.S. foreign policy, (2) determine where there may be common ground on certain contentious issues (e.g., Israel, Hezbollah, terrorism, relations with the Arab Gulf states), and (3) signal the Middle East Center’s commitment to U.S.-Iranian affairs as an important part of its research agenda. A conference in the spring of 2016 focused on critical topics such as:

  • Potential areas of cooperation between Iran and the United States,
  • Major stumbling blocks to improving relations,
  • The current political state of play in Iran, and
  • Broader trends in Iranian society and what they might mean for future U.S.-Iranian relations.