If the Trump administration wishes to avoid war with Iran, whose willingness to escalate and whose Russian partner’s response the administration cannot ultimately foresee, it must devise a mutually complementary military-diplomatic strategy to more effectively engage the former. This will require the Trump administration to do what no administration before it has dared to do (at least as far as is publicly known): (1) fully account and offer amends for harms the United States has inflicted on Iran; (2) attempt to diplomatically engage Iran on regional policy disputes including the Israeli-Palestinian issue. By this point, many American readers familiar with the history of U.S.-Iran relations may have already scoffed that the Clinton administration apologized for the U.S.’s role in provoking the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hostility but that it disdained President Clinton’s diplomatic initiative. The argument could be made, though, that part of the reason the Clinton administration failed is because it was not bold enough. On March 17, 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered limited acknowledgement of U.S. harms against Iran. Her admissions, although unprecedented in the history of relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, omitted some of the U.S.’s most perfidious actions against it. Most egregiously, her reference to “regrettably shortsighted” U.S. policies toward Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War may have partly alluded to witting U.S. support for Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. This unacknowledged activity physically and psychologically scarred many Iranian military veterans and civilians for the rest of their lives (and later harmed many more American troops during the 1991 Gulf War). The decision continues to haunt the U.S. as it diminishes its moral authority to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention in Syria. Iran’s hypocritical declination to hold Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s military forces accountable for war crimes, aided and abetted by Russia, may have occurred regardless of U.S. actions three decades ago. The U.S.’s historical lack of moral leadership certainly does not help matters, however. Reversing this downward spiral will require America to hold itself accountable on this issue. This is not self-destructive flagellation compelled by some leftist guilt complex—it is strategically critical moral leadership. Words alone would not tip the balance toward moderation of Iranian foreign policy, however, given the psychological weight of this history in the minds of Iranian leaders. A substantive offer to make reasonable compromises on U.S. policy affecting Iranian threat perceptions and religious interests throughout the region, coupled with a commitment to fully lift U.S. sanctions if Iran implemented its side of such an agreement, would be required. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has periodically reiterated that Iran would judge the U.S. by its actions rather than merely its words and that if the U.S. changed its orientation toward Iran, Iran would reciprocate. The Trump administration should further explore what this could mean in tangible diplomatic terms. This would necessarily require challenging the powerful Israeli settler lobby, which currently dominates policymaking on the Israeli-Palestinian issue with the support of its Christian Zionist allies. It would also require imposing economic and military costs on Iran until it halts its military build-up in Syria in pursuit of its objective of annihilating the state of Israel and agrees to enter into negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Of course, all of this would be politically daunting to implement. It would be highly preferable, however, to exert military leverage in pursuit of moderate policy objectives rather than falling into the trap of viewing this as an inescapable existential conflict between two fundamentally irreconcilable ideologies. Indulging in the latter might feel more cathartic in the short term but in the long term it would prove much more costly and could very well lead to a highly dangerous scenario for the U.S., considering the uncertainty of Russia’s response. In The Fundamentalist Mindset, Charles B. Strozier et al. advise,

“When humiliated, individuals and groups seem to have a particular appetite for revenge. The self, it is feared, will never be the same unless such injustice is appropriately addressed.   

What is needed subsequent to an offense is a deeply meant apology, evidenced by signs that the perpetrator feels ashamed of his acts, and followed by actual compensatory gestures and behaviors indicating that such acts will not be repeated…. The only caution is that paranoid groups may not expect or accept forgiveness; it may not be enough to overcome the dualistic, apocalyptic, paranoid ideologies for such absolutist thinkers.

Because forgiveness is the biggest factor preventing aggressive retaliation, it is important to note that incomplete forgiveness, or pseudo-forgiveness, may be worthless at best and dangerous at worst. The more victims can identify with the type of offense on the basis of having committed similar offenses in the past, the easier it will be to forgive the offender.”

If there is any hope to be found in the moral black hole that the Syria conflict has become, it is in the reality there are no innocent parties among the regional powers.  Whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether driven by aggressive designs or flawed utilitarian moral calculations, all sides have contributed immensely to the suffering of the Syrian people. Iran, for much of the 20th century subject to foreign machinations, has finally descended to the same moral depths in Syria that it has deplored the United States for. Israel, with U.S. support, is doing in slow motion to the Palestinians what Iran aspires to do to Israel. More bloodshed is undoubtedly ahead. The question is how much of it will Americans, Israelis, and Iranians tolerate before they compel their respective policymakers to change course.  

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.