Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour has a really smart piece looking at the three most common historical models used to understand the nature of the Iranian challenge to U.S. foreign policy, Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union:
The chosen metaphor pretty much dictates the proposed response, and most prescriptions for U.S. policy have come down to one of these variations: attempt to coax the Iranian regime into modernity; forget the diplomatic niceties and “pre-emptively” attack it to prevent or delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons; or contain it in hopes it will change or collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.
Sadjadpour dismisses the China analogy, suggesting that Iran’s resistance to President Obama’s recent overtures have shown enmity to America is far more central to the character of the Iranian regime than it ever was to China’s, and thus no “grand bargain” is really in the offing. Likewise dismissing comparisons to Nazi German, Sadjadpour writes, “though the Iranian regime is homicidal toward its own population and espouses a hateful ideology, there is little evidence to suggest it is also expansionist and genocidal.”
Sadjadpour concludes — by way of George Kennan’s 1947 essay The Sources of Soviet Conduct — that the Soviet Union is actually the closest comparison to be made:
Like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home. Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran’s current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam.
I think this makes a lot of sense, but, having established a rough model for predicting Iran’s behavior, it’s necessary to go the next step and recognize that Iran is far, far weaker than the Soviet Union was, and doesn’t pose anything like the global threat to U.S. interests that the Soviet Union once did.
While Iran’s power in the region has clearly increased and the U.S.’s diminished as a result of the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. is still dealing from a position of considerable strength against a far weaker power in Iran, in a geopolitical environment that’s less conducive to the sort of power projection to which Iran seems to aspire. Clearly, Iran represents a challenge to a number of U.S. interests, but there are also areas of mutual interest to explore, such as its recent offer to help stabilize Afghanistan. So it’s important that we not allow ourselves to be talked into believing that the apocalypse is upon us.