Coercion, payment and attraction: The US “smart power” strategy toward Iran

The United States of America under the Barack H. Obama administration is confronted with major challenges in its foreign policy toward Islamic Republic of Iran today. While the administration decided to continue the US policy of containment toward Iran in 2009, it also took steps to engage in limited dialogue which it hoped would begin the process of resolving the abundance of issues between the two foes, the two most important being Iran’s nuclear program and its role in the region.

Yet a number of factors have compromised the US position in the Middle East and its ability to deal with Iran. Two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 Financial Crisis, and chronic budget deficits have limited its ability to project economic and military power in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has removed or weakened key regional allies, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, undermining US influence in the region. Finally, the inability to achieve decisive victory in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has cast significant doubt over whether those two countries will become long-term stable pillars of US military power abroad. The expiration of the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) in Iraq is a case in point. Although the Obama administration sought to maintain a sizable military presence in Iraq to ensure its regional influence – it was unable to.

The growing power vacuum in the Middle East has provided opportunities for Iran to expand its influence beyond its existing strongholds in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. For example, Iran is re-establishing diplomatic relations with Egypt for the first time in thirty years, aiding the rebels in Libya, and playing off the fault-lines created by the Arab Spring in places like Bahrain. The changing in the regional balance of power between the US and Iran has forced the latter to reassess its strategy toward Iran, and a new picture is quickly emerging.

“Smart power” strategy

The United States appears to be pursuing what leading International relations scholar Joseph Nye calls a “smart power” strategy, which he defines as “the ability to combine hard and soft power into a winning strategy”. He further defines hard and soft power as follows:

“Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. When you can get others to want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction. Hard power, the ability to coerce, grows out of a country’s military and economic might. Soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.”

The revelation of the Iran Terror Plot by the Obama administration, in which the US has accused Iran of attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, embodies the renewed US smart power strategy toward Iran. While the actual merits of the US accusations against Iran are still hotly debated, the case has served as a “warning shot” against Iran and forced it to redirect much of its diplomatic energy to deal with the matter. Furthermore, the case has also given the US a pretext to go on the offensive against Iran.

Hard power

The United States’ revamped hard power strategy vis-à-vis Iran appears to have two central elements: A strengthened security architecture in the Persian Gulf, and stronger economic sanctions.

With the US out of Iraq in 2012, there appears to be renewed emphasis on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) combined with a limited US military presence. The George W. Bush administration’s direct military intervention in the Middle East was in many ways a departure from American foreign policy in the region since the Second World War. Although the US did conduct limited military interventions during the Persian Gulf War and other junctures, it had for the most part relied on regional proxies to protect its interests in the Middle East. Under the Nixon Doctrine the US relied on Iran under Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi and Saudi Arabia to police the region. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Ronald W. Reagan administration backed the creation of the GCC as a bulwark against revolutionary Iran and followed a balance-of-power strategy in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), allowing neither combatant to become too powerful.

As the New York Times reported in October, the US appears to be seeking a new security architecture in the Persian Gulf with three main elements. First the US would enhance bilateral military cooperation with GCC countries, including arms sales and training. Second, the US would seek to enhance the GCC as a military alliance, better integrating air and naval patrols and missile defense. Finally, the US would build a limited military presence in GCC countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain which could be rapidly expanded and deployed if a crisis arose. This strengthened GCC would take on the task of dealing with Iran in the Persian Gulf, limiting both cost and exposure for the US while maximizing gains. Major General Karl R. Horst, Central Command’s chief of staff, has called the planning for the new US posture in the Persian Gulf “back to the future”, emphasizing its similarities with the pre-Bush administration regional strategy.

While it is uncertain if Qatar and Oman, which have good ties with Iran, will participate wholeheartedly in this enterprise, there is good reason to believe the rest of the GCC will. Saudi Arabia in particular has increasingly come into conflict with Iran over issues ranging from the Iran Terror Plot to influence in regional states such as Iraq, Bahrain and Syria. Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain earlier this year to protect the al-Khalifa regime from what is viewed as an Iranian inspired Shiite uprising, while its proxies have gone head-to-head with Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria.

While a revamped GCC will be better able to contain Iran in the Persian Gulf, the US also appears to be using the Iran Terror Plot as a pretext to impose potentially harsher sanctions, which would undermine Iran’s already precarious domestic economy.

Soft power

One of the main innovations of the Obama administration’s new smart power strategy toward Iran may be better utilization of soft power. The anti-Americanism of the generation of Iranian youth who carried out the Islamic Revolution in 1979 was one of the main reasons why US-Iran relations deteriorated so rapidly. This anti-Americanism was in part based on the CIA-backed coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq and US support for the dictatorial Pahlavi regime, which made the US an evil imperial power in the eyes of many Iranians of that generation. However given the brutality and failures of the Islamic Republic, which has been extremely anti-American during its entire existence, the Obama administration has keenly recognized that it can capitalize on the regime’s unpopularity and America’s appeal to foster pro-American sentiment, thereby enhancing its influence in the long-term.

In a public relations blitz on Farsi satellite television news programs in October, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out some of the key parts of this soft power strategy including the creation of a “Virtual Embassy” to provide Iranians with direct information on the US and its government, encouragement for Iranian students to attend US educational institutions, and building a greater relationship with younger Iranians:

“… What we’re going to do, despite the fact we do not have diplomatic relations, is I’m going to announce the opening of a virtual embassy in Tehran; the website will be up and going at the end of the year. We’re going to continue to reach out, particularly to students, and encourage that you come back and study in the United States, and we’re going to look for other people-to-people exchanges that will try to develop the relationships that I think are so important between the American people and the Iranian people for the 21st century.”

The Obama administration has been particularly sharp in recognizing the value of education for Iranians’, and the prestige of American universities in Iran. Iran’s best and brightest, for example at Tehran University and Sharif University of Technology among others, tend to look abroad for graduate studies and employment opportunities, above all the US. The Obama administration’s new approach would facilitate this process, bringing the crème of Iranian universities to the US. Many of these Iranians would then return to Iran after receiving an American education and likely end up in important positions in government, business, academia, media, the arts and other important sectors where they would influence society.


Given the many challenges for the US to maintain its hegemony in the Middle East vis-à-vis Iran, is the Obama administration’s emerging smart power strategy plausible? While the current strategy seems more cost efficient than the Bush administration’s hard power model, and thus better tailored to America’s situation, it puts greater weight on the GCC. Can this body carry the burden? The emergence of Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, a known hardliner, as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince makes this scenario much more plausible, but can these aging, corrupt, and dictatorial regimes withstand the winds of the Arab Spring?

Furthermore, while more stringent sanctions could weaken Iran domestically, particularly the “nuclear option” of sanctioning Iran’s central bank, can these sanctions be effective given non-compliance by key actors such as China and Russia? Would sanctions not go against US soft power aims by hurting ordinary Iranians?

Finally, although the new soft power strategy may be effective in increasing pro-American sentiment in the long-term, does it have any bearing on the present situation? Can soft power really influence the Iranian leadership and change Iran’s behavior? All of these questions and more cannot be fully answered until this smart power strategy as a whole is laid out and implemented.