US Foreign Policy toward Iran 1990-2003


A review of The Iran Narrative: Ideas, Discourse, and Domestic Politics in the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy toward Iran, 1990-2003, by Christopher Joseph Ferrero.

Christopher Ferrero, currently at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, completed his dissertation in 2011 at the University of Virginia. Before arriving in Charlottesville, Ferrero spent four years as an intelligence analyst at the Departments of State and Defense. He thus brings the eye of an analyst and a scholar to the study of recent U.S.-Iran relations.

Ferrero argues that the growing estrangement of the United States and Iran is a consequence of the “Iran Narrative.” In the author’s formulation, “The Narrative constitutes the vast collection of frames, themes, myths, caricatures, news reports, ‘expert’ analyses, and ideas about Iran that cohere and portray Iran as a uniquely evil, hostile, and irrational enemy of the United States” (p. 28). Contributors to the Narrative have included the presidential administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush; the U.S. Congress and powerful interest groups in Washington, D.C.; think tanks, especially the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and the Brookings Institution; policy stakeholders and scholar-experts “who are at the center of discourse and on the fringes of government” (p. 126); and the media. While Ferrero points to the hostage crisis (1979-1981) as the “Big Bang” that “unleashed a universe of ideas, stereotypes, and interpretive habits with regard to Iran in American political life and discourse” (p. 29), the dissertation begins with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989 and ends with the collapse of the “grand bargain” proposal of May 2003.

Ferrero’s argument builds on and adds to the literature on international relations theory. His liberal-constructivist argument explains the lack of American enthusiasm for seeking rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. The mix of domestic politics, ideas, and institutions that lend power to the Narrative has repeatedly won out in policymaking circles over realists who see Iran’s interests as legitimate, its actions as rational, and its objectives as being similar to those of most nation-states. His evidence substantiates the Governmental Politics Model of Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, along with Andrew Moravcsik’s liberal theory of international relations.

The dissertation is also in conversation with the literature on U.S.-Iran relations and scholarship that deals with relationship between culture and power. To date, individuals such as Kenneth Pollack who migrate between the think tank and policy-making worlds have produced some of the most comprehensive accounts of U.S.-Iran relations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Ferrero scrutinizes the assumptions and record of Pollack and his colleagues, while pushing forward the scholarly debate by engaging with authors such as Trita Parsi. However, the dissertation parts from Parsi’s geopolitical emphasis to address questions similar to those asked by William Beeman to explain how and why the United States and Iran have demonized each other since the revolution. It is here that Ferrero offers a valuable contribution to the literature on the relationship between culture and power. He accomplishes a difficult task by linking ideas, discourse, and culture to the formulation of policy.

After the introduction and literature review, the author hits his stride in a chapter on media content analysis. Ferrero demonstrates convincingly that the Iran Narrative does indeed exist. He makes smart use of political communications literature on framing and narrative construction to make sense of sampling units from print and television media in the United States. To process a representative sample of U.S. media reports on Iran, Ferrero identifies “codes” that include references to Iran’s “fanaticism,” support of terrorism and hostage-taking, opposition to the Middle East Peace Process, its nuclear program, and other threatening behavior. These codes reveal the dominant tropes of the Narrative. Taken as a whole, 84 percent of the author’s samples conform to the Narrative (p. 76).

Chapters four, five, and six form the core of the dissertation. Ferrero devotes each chapter to a particular moment when three successive presidential administrations failed to take advantage of a shifting geopolitical map to launch a policy of constructive engagement with Iran. Chapter four parses the decisions of the George H.W. Bush administration during the “New World Order Moment.” Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq’s swift defeat in the Gulf War, the moderate leadership of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Iran’s assistance in securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon, Brent Scowcroft’s National Security Council (NSC) concluded in April 1992 that the American political arena would not allow for a policy of engagement. Ferrero contends that Bush 41, the quintessential realist, was surprisingly beholden to the Narrative.

Chapter five turns to Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, who took an even harder line on Iran during his first term. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake put forth the intellectual framework of “rogue states” in Foreign Affairs in 1994, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s (WINEP) co-founder Martin Indyk, also a special assistant on Near Eastern Affairs on Lake’s NSC, helped craft the strategy of “dual containment.” Individuals such as Indyk are central actors in Ferrero’s story because they helped construct the Narrative and “internalized it normatively” (p. 219) before “activating the narrative” (p. 185) to formulate domestically palatable policies that sounded better on Capitol Hill than in Tehran. All of this meant that the Clinton administration was slow to respond when the reformist President Mohammad Khatami called in 1998 for a “dialogue among civilizations.”

Chapter six is an account of the first three years of Bush 43’s presidency. The period between 2001 and 2003 witnessed the “perfect storm of Narrative themes, neoconservative ideology, and domestic political rivalry [that] ultimately forestalled what might have been the greatest opportunity for rapprochement ever offered by the Islamic Republic” (p. 227). A central theme of the Iran Narrative during the first years of the “War on Terror” was the conceptual partition of all global actors into the polarized categories of “good” and “evil.” Nowhere was President Bush’s own contribution to the Narrative more evident than in the 2002 State of the Union Address that included Iran, a country that proved helpful to the Americans in neighboring Afghanistan, as part of the “axis of evil.” Ferrero argues that President Bush and his circle of advisers framed Iran as an irrational state-sponsor of terrorism pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as part of a misguided effort to remake the map of the Middle East. Ferrero also shows how administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conveyed the administration’s understanding of Iran to the press and in turn the American public. The ideological predispositions of the Bush administration led it to dismiss the unprecedented back-channel overture from Tehran known as the “grand bargain” that reached Washington in spring 2003.

Once this dissertation is published as a book, a wide audience will take interest in Ferrero’s larger points. The first takeaway is the power of the Narrative. The cultural construct of “Iran” has overshadowed the realities in the American imaginary and in policymaking circles. Ferrero makes clear that the Narrative is more powerful than any one man or woman. Since the end of the Cold War, all U.S. administrations have opted to put the Iran question on the back-burner. As Ambassador John Limbert stated in an interview with Ferrero, U.S. presidents from Bush 41 to Bush 43 ultimately concluded that “now is not the time,” or worse, “now is never the time” for the United States to engage Iran (p. 167). The Narrative makes it difficult, as was the case during the second Clinton administration, for presidents to act with the speed and confidence necessary to break the impasse.

A second major contribution of the dissertation is the author’s argument that the United States bears the primary responsibility for failing to break the impasse between the two countries. Ferrero is quick to note that America is not alone responsible for the chilly relationship. But as a scholar of American politics and U.S. foreign policy, he foregrounds the American experience. U.S. presidents and their political advisers know that the costs of rapprochement would be high. The irony is palpable. While Americans typically cast Iranian leaders as “irrational actors,” Ferrero shows that it is the Americans who display a penchant for fantastical myth-making. In comparison to other bilateral relationships, the author notes that the “discourse in the United States about Iran is uniquely emotive” (p. 101).

Despite the pervasiveness of the Narrative at the highest levels of power, Ferrero maintains that American presidents have the ability to reframe the terms of the debate. The dissertation encourages political leaders to contemplate the implications of their public statements. Off-the-cuff remarks on the campaign trail, at press conferences, and before other audiences can constrict the parameters of mainstream debate on Iran in the United States. Talk of “red lines,” which signal to adversaries the limits of “acceptable” behavior before resorting to the use of force to settle international disputes, limit the president’s maneuverability and can elevate the possibility of conflict. Statements that constrict action, especially those related to Iran’s nuclear file, minimize the chances that a second “grand bargain moment” will occur. As Ferrero makes clear, the payoff of a grand bargain would do more to enhance U.S. national security interests in the Middle East than virtually any other potential diplomatic breakthrough. It could reenergize the Peace Process, create opportunities for regional cooperation in the Persian Gulf and southwest Asia, ensure the unimpeded flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, scale back the regional arms race, resolve the nuclear issue, and, most important, avoid war. Because of the domestic factors on which this dissertation sheds expert light, rapprochement between the United States and Iran remains unnecessarily elusive.

Matthew K. Shannon
Assistant Professor of History
Emory and Henry College

Primary Sources

854 newspaper and television sampling units from the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC.
21 interviews U.S. ambassadors, government officials, and American and Iranian scholars.
WINEP “Policy Watch” reports and other contemporary publications.
Personal accounts of U.S.-Iran relations such as Giandomenico Picco, Man Without a Gun: One Diplomat’s Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War (New York: Random House, 1999); and Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2004).

Dissertation Information

University of Virginia. 2011. 355 pp. Primary Advisor: William Quandt.


Image: Mshake3, The Iron Shiek at WWE Raw. Bradley Center, Milwaukee, WI, 10 March 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like