After Iran’s turn from ally to enemy in 1978, the U.S. pursued a de facto Iran policy of containment, similar to the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union during Cold War. Starting with the Obama administration, however, U.S. policy has seesawed between appeasement and confrontation, leading to a dangerously volatile situation.
Though it was never formalized, the strategy that came together under the administration of George W. Bush (I served at the Pentagon and in the Senate during this time) had three pillars. First, impose prohibitive penalties on Iran’s nuclear advance. Second, bolster America’s allies on Iran’s periphery—and particularly America’s precious alliance with Iraq—to prevent any Iranian threat to their security and to our position in the Middle East. Third, encourage Iran’s pro-democracy movement to assert itself and claim its rightful place in the country’s government.
When Obama became president, this strategy of containment backed by deterrence was working about as well as could be hoped. The Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, which was supposed to be a worldwide revolution, had succeeded in taking root nowhere outside Iran except in Lebanon, in the form of the deadly Hezbollah. At that time, there were elements among the Shiite militias in Iraq that were known to be in bed with the Iranians, and Iranian IEDs and other weapons had flooded Iraq’s civil war, but the major political groupings in Iraq, including the Shiite parties, were still openly opposed to Iranian interference in their country. In fact, on the eve of the 2008 election in the U.S., the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri Al-Maliki attacked the Iranian-backed militias that had infiltrated the southern city of Basra.