How US Republicans’ Iran policies compare to their rhetoric
The US decision to hit multiple targets in Iraq and Syria in recent days, following an attack on US soldiers in Jordan that killed three troops, reflected both foreign policy and domestic political realities. President Joe Biden faced criticism from Republicans for not acting more quickly and forcefully, while some Democrats called for caution. While the attack on US soldiers and the US response present new risks of escalation at a time of high regional tensions, the situation also reflects long-running political attitudes in Washington toward Iran.
Republican and Democratic politicians have mixed records in terms of policy toward Iran since the 1979 revolution. As Jay Solomon wrote in “The Iran Wars,” “Iran’s belligerence has inspired a schizophrenic US strategy toward Tehran over the past 35 years.”
Typically, Republicans have the most hawkish attitudes. Republican politicians have a long history of demanding that the US president show strength and force toward Iran. However, in reality, Republican policies tend to reflect both greater pragmatism and incoherence than their rhetoric.
When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was in the White House. His inability to free Americans taken hostage in Tehran contributed to his election loss to Ronald Reagan the following year. During the campaign, Reagan blamed Carter’s “weakness and vacillation” for leading to the hostage crisis and promised that “no dictator would dare” do such a thing if he were president. As a final insult to Carter, who many Iranians hated for allowing the deposed shah to enter the US and for an attempted military rescue in Iranian territory, the Iranian government released the hostages on the day that Reagan was inaugurated as president.
In reality, Republican policies tend to reflect both greater pragmatism and incoherence than their rhetoric
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Reagan came to power riding a wave of enthusiasm for American might, promising to forcefully defend US interests. However, during his two terms in office, his administration’s policies toward Iran demonstrated a willingness to quietly work with Tehran when it suited Washington’s interests. While the Reagan administration mostly supported Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War, and engaged in the Tanker War against Iran, it also secretly sold missiles to Iran in what became part of the Iran-Contra scandal.
In his inaugural address in 1989, George H.W. Bush said that the US would offer “good will” to those who would help to release “Americans who are held against their will in foreign lands.” As several Americans were held by Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, many took Bush’s words as an offer to extend goodwill toward Tehran if it would help secure the hostages’ release. Bush took a pragmatic approach toward Iran, but frustration over the Lebanon hostage crisis, US efforts to limit Iranian influence in Iraq after the first Gulf War and other issues undermined any conciliatory efforts. However, Bush showed no interest in attacking Iran.
In 2002, President George W. Bush famously labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea, and his administration included notable anti-Iran hawks. Some of the neoconservatives who served in or influenced his administration saw overthrowing the Iranian regime as the ultimate goal in the region and even believed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq would start a chain of events that would result in the downfall of the regime in Tehran. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly urged the president to consider hitting targets inside Iran in response to Iranian support for militants in Iraq who were attacking US forces. Bush also ordered the military to “study what would be necessary for a strike” against nuclear facilities in Iran.
However, the Bush administration did not directly attack Iran. Rather, the president reportedly stopped Israel from attacking an Iranian nuclear site. While the administration included hawks who wanted to hit Iranian territory, other senior officials feared that the consequences would run counter to US interests. The latter group preferred to focus on military action against Iranian-supported militants in Iraq, while using covert actions and economic sanctions against Tehran.
When Republicans control US foreign policy, they have so far avoided military strikes on Iranian territory
Kerry Boyd Anderson
While campaigning for president, Donald Trump disparaged President Barack Obama for making a “bad deal” with Iran when he agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and promised that he would take a tougher approach. While some of the Republicans around President Trump — notably John Bolton, briefly the national security adviser, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — wanted to take military action directly against Iran, Trump did not want to engage in another war in the Middle East. Trump was more focused on the idea that he could negotiate a far better deal with Iran.
Trump reportedly came very close to attacking sites in Iran in 2019 but then canceled the plans. His administration tightened sanctions on Iran and took military actions aimed at Iranian interests in the region — most notably the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in the last few days of Trump’s term — but did not attack Iran directly.
Today, Republican leaders are again calling for harsh action against Iran. Some — such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton and, once again, Bolton — are even calling for directly attacking Iranian territory. Hawkish rhetoric against Tehran is a frequent theme for Republicans, especially when they can use it to portray a Democratic president as weak. However, when Republicans control US foreign policy, they have so far avoided military strikes on Iranian territory.
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have been willing to engage in covert actions, war with Iranian proxies, naval confrontations and economic sanctions, but most Republican leaders — including the likely Republican nominee for president in 2024, Trump — do not want a direct war with Iran.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch