This essay is grounded in two basic propositions. The first is that the greatest strategic challenge facing the United States is extricating its foreign policy from a well-worn but deeply counterproductive quest for hegemonic dominance in critical areas of the world, especially the Middle East. The second is that Washington’s handling of its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran constitutes a crucial test of America’s capacity to put its foreign policy on a more productive and realistic trajectory. Since the Islamic Republic’s founding in 1979, Washington has refused to understand and accept the basic model underlying its political order—the integration of participatory politics and elections with principles and institutions of Islamic governance and a strong commitment to foreign policy independence. Today, however, the United States needs to come to terms with the Islamic Republic—not as a favor to Iran, but to save its own strategic position, in the Middle East and globally. Coming to terms with the Islamic Republic means accepting it as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests—and as a rising regional power unwilling to subordinate its foreign policy to American preferences. Accepting a rising regional power as a legitimate entity pursuing its interests in a fundamentally rational and defensive way is how President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger enabled America’s historic opening to the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and the four Iranian presidents elected over the course of Khamenei’s 24-year tenure as the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader have all said repeatedly that Tehran is open to better relations with America, but only on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and U.S. acceptance of Iran’s post-revolutionary political order—terms strikingly similar to those that Chinese leaders specified for Sino-American rapprochement. Achieving this kind of comprehensive, “Nixon-to-China” rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran is the biggest strategic challenge facing the United States today.
How Precipitous a Decline? U.S.-Iranian relations and the Transition from American Primacy, 2 Penn. St. J.L. & Int’l Aff. 328 (2013).
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