Mechanisms of an Iran-US Rapprochement: Lessons from the Past

31 March 2014

Starting with a discussion of the 1970s Soviet-American and Sino-American rapprochement efforts, this report examines the factors which caused the first to fail and the second to succeed. The key difference is the former was based on an effort to control nuclear arms, while the latter was based on an effort to unify against a common geopolitical threat. In light of these findings, the report makes predictions about the likelihood of success for the current Iranian-American rapprochement efforts and concludes that in the event Iran reneges on any deal it signs with the US, any future efforts at rapprochement will necessarily require larger concessions from Iran.


Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, several attempts have been made to improve Iranian-American relations, but these past efforts all failed.  However, the present effort to do so since Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in late 2013 appears to be far more serious.  An important catalyst for the rapprochement process is that both presidents Obama and Rouhani want to pursue it. Yet despite some significant progress on the nuclear issue, there are many important differences between the US and Iran that are still outstanding, as well as a long history of mutual animosity.  This being the case, what are the prospects for success or failure of the ongoing Iran-US rapprochement effort?

The answer to this question in not yet clear, and may not be for some time.  There have been past cases in which rapprochement efforts were undertaken between the US and governments with which it long had acrimonious relations.  Two of the most noteworthy of these efforts occurred in the 1970s between the US and the USSR on the one hand, and between the US and China on the other.  These two attempts at rapprochement had very different results:  the USSR-US rapprochement effort was short-lived and led to a period of very hostile relations between Washington and Moscow.  The China-US rapprochement effort, though, was highly successful in establishing relatively good working relations (though not a close alliance) between Washington and Beijing.

This paper will discuss the bases of both the Soviet-American and the Sino-American rapprochement efforts of the 1970s, identify the factors that led to failure in the former and success in the latter, briefly look at whether these factors were present in other rapprochement attempts, and in light of all this discuss what lessons these previous rapprochements may have for the ongoing Iranian-American rapprochement effort. 

1970s era Soviet-American rapprochement effort

The main basis for the Soviet-American détente of the early 1970s was a mutual desire to limit the nuclear arms race and reduce the prospects for a devastating nuclear war.  While the US had had a larger nuclear arsenal than the USSR from the outset of the Cold War until the late 1960s, America was bogged down militarily in Indochina as well as other distractions, allowing the Soviet Union to catch up with and (by some measures) even surpass America in terms of nuclear weapons.  Washington, then, had a strong incentive to reach an agreement limiting Moscow’s growing nuclear arsenal.  The Soviets, for their part, were well aware that the US was ahead of them technologically.  Thus, Moscow had a strong incentive to prevent Washington from eventually capitalizing on this advantage by reaching an agreement limiting the American nuclear program.

From November 1969 to May 1972, the American and Soviet negotiators engaged in Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).  On May 26, 1972, these negotiations culminated in the signing of the SALT I agreements which placed limits both on American and Soviet strategic offensive—intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM)—and strategic defensive—anti-ballistic missile (ABM)—arsenals.  This gave rise to great hopes for the emergence of a less hostile and more cooperative relationship between the two superpowers not just in the nuclear sphere, but more generally. 

Problems soon emerged.  Many in the US Congress were upset that SALT I allowed the USSR to have more offensive nuclear missiles than the USA.  Washington and Moscow agreed to rectify this, and later in 1972 embarked on talks aimed at achieving a SALT II agreement in which the two sides would agree to equalize and reduce their nuclear arsenals.  Further, it soon became clear that détente did not extend to what was then known as the Third World.  While the American military withdrawal from Indochina in early 1973 marked the end of the US’ large-scale Cold War era intervention in the Third World, it also ushered in an era of interventionism on the part of the USSR and its allies there, including in Angola (1975), the Horn of Africa (1977-78), Cambodia (beginning 1978), and Afghanistan (beginning 1979).

Soviet support for Cuban intervention in Angola, the Soviet-Cuban intervention in the Horn of Africa, and Soviet support for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia all caused tension in Soviet-American relations, and each of these events interrupted the ongoing SALT talks.  Nevertheless, an elaborate SALT II accord was negotiated and signed by President Carter and Soviet leader Brezhnev on June 18, 1979.  Ongoing Soviet-American tensions (including ones related to Marxist interventionism), though, served to delay ratification of SALT II by the US Senate.  And when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Soviet-American tension increased dramatically.  President Carter withdrew SALT II from Senate consideration.  Rapprochement was dead and the Soviet-American Cold War resumed in earnest.

What underlay the failure of this Soviet-American attempt at rapprochement were different expectations about what would result from it.  The American side expected that Soviet-American progress on nuclear arms control would lead to a more broadly cooperative relationship, including in the Third World.  The Soviet side, by contrast, saw détente as limited to the field of nuclear arms control (which both sides benefited from) while the overall Soviet-American competition continued, especially in the Third World.  From the Soviet viewpoint, the American withdrawal from Indochina and reluctance to intervene elsewhere in the Third World provided an opportunity to expand Soviet influence which Washington could hardly expect Moscow to forego.  Further, the event that ended this attempt at Soviet-American rapprochement—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—was seen in Moscow not as an offensive move but as a defensive one aimed at preserving an allied Marxist regime the West had seemed to accept when it came to power in the previous year. Finally, Moscow was truly baffled that the American response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan included Carter’s withdrawal of the SALT II accord from the Senate since this agreement was (in Moscow’s view) as beneficial to American interests as it was to Soviet ones. (1)

1970s era Sino-American rapprochement effort

Although China’s first nuclear test in 1964 and subsequent acquisition of nuclear weapons was of great concern to the US and other governments, the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s did not include a Sino-American nuclear arms control agreement.  Indeed, this Washington-Beijing rapprochement had nothing to do with nuclear weapons and was founded instead on joint fear of what appeared to be the growing Soviet threat to both.

It was also advanced by growing perceptions among American and Chinese leaders that the other country was not as threatening as previously feared.  The American withdrawal from Indochina served to reassure Beijing about American intentions.  Similarly, a Chinese shift from supporting anti-American to supporting anti-Soviet forces in the Third World helped assuage Washington’s concerns about Chinese intentions.  Once Beijing determined that it needed America as an ally vis-à-vis the USSR and that Soviet influence in the Third World was expanding, the Chinese decision to de-emphasize support for anti-American revolution made eminent strategic sense.

While important differences remained between them over the disposition of Taiwan as well as over continued tension between China and some of America’s Asian allies, Washington and Beijing basically agreed to contain these issues.  Sino-American cooperation was further solidified beginning in the mid-1970s by the decision of the new Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, to embrace the world market and by the dramatic growth in trade between China on the one hand and America and many of its allies on the other hand (including Asian allies with which China differed). (2)

By 1991, Chinese cooperation with America and its allies had grown so strong—especially in the trade realm—that Sino-American rapprochement was able to survive the end of the perception of a common Soviet threat which had been its initial impetus.  This process basically continued for the next two decades.  Recently, though, the US and others have become increasingly concerned about Chinese intentions toward some neighbouring countries, Chinese maritime claims to what America and many others regard as international waters and the rise of China generally.  (3) So far, Washington and Beijing have managed to contain their differences and continue their fruitful economic cooperation.  Yet, even if Sino-American relations do seriously deteriorate, the rapprochement between the two countries that began in the early 1970s has remarkably lasted for over forty years so far.

Reflections on rapprochements

A comparison of the 1970s-era Soviet-American and Sino-American rapprochement efforts suggests that rapprochement based primarily on an agreement to control nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction and does not include an end to ongoing competition for influence in third countries is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, rapprochement that begins with cooperation against a common geopolitical threat and includes a reduction in competition for influence in third countries as well as increasing trade relations is far more likely to succeed.  The question remains, however, whether or not outcomes of just two rapprochement efforts four decades ago serve as a useful guide to understanding what will succeed now.

As mutual fund prospectuses state, past performance is not an indicator of future performance.  Still, subsequent cases suggest that the factors determining the success or failure of these two 1970s-era rapprochement efforts were also at work in most other efforts in which America was a party.  The basis for the end-of-Cold War (late 1980s-early 1990s) Soviet-American rapprochement was far broader than nuclear arms control.  It was facilitated by Moscow withdrawing not just from countries in the Third World where it had been competing for influence with the US, but also from Eastern Europe and the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union which Washington had not expected Moscow to withdraw from simply.  (4) On the other hand, reaching additional Russian-American arms control agreements has not prevented the deterioration in Russian-American relations since the rise of Putin, under whom Moscow has resumed its competition for influence with Washington in several countries (albeit not as many as during the Cold War) and has limited Russian integration into the world market economy. (5)

By contrast, the successful Vietnamese-American rapprochement of the mid-1990s had nothing to do with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, but was based instead on the Vietnamese military withdrawal from Cambodia at the end of the Cold War, joint Vietnamese-American concern about the rise of China, and Vietnam’s growing integration into the world market economy. (6)

An attempt to achieve a nuclear accord was at the very heart of the attempt to improve American relations with North Korea.  This attempt at rapprochement, however, failed miserably as a result of Pyongyang going forward with its nuclear program, continuing its threatening behaviour toward two important American allies (South Korea and Japan), and Pyongyang’s fear that opening itself up to the world market would undermine its self-isolated regime. (7)

The Libyan-American rapprochement of the early 2000s involved both a Libyan agreement to renounce weapons of mass destruction as well as to halt its support of terrorism in other countries.  Washington’s rapprochement with Gaddafi ended, though, when America—along with some of its Western and Arab allies—intervened to support his opponents in overthrowing him in 2011.  (8) The Libyan-American rapprochement, then, does not quite conform to the pattern of success or failure found in other rapprochement efforts.  However, this is not surprising given Gaddafi was truly an outlier in terms of his behaviour.

It is with all this in mind that the discussion can now turn to the ongoing Iranian-American rapprochement effort.

Present Iran-US rapprochement effort

Until recently, Iran-US rapprochement has more closely resembled the Soviet-American rapprochement effort than the Chinese-American one. What has allowed the degree of progress that has already occurred in the ongoing Iranian-American rapprochement effort has been an increased Iranian willingness to reach an agreement in the nuclear realm since Rouhani replaced Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in August 2013.  A secret Iranian-American diplomatic initiative led to an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) in which Tehran pledged to suspend enriching uranium above commercial grade and take other measures in exchange for some relief from international economic sanctions previously imposed on Iran.  (9) Negotiations are currently underway between Iran and the P5+1 on an agreement that would further resolve the nuclear issue as well as reduce international economic sanctions against Iran.

The main impetus for this Iran-US rapprochement effort is the Obama administration’s belief that Iran can be persuaded to forego acquiring nuclear weapons coupled with Iran’s desire to end economic pain resulting from the combined impact of increasing sanctions and misguided economic policies pursued by Rouhani’s predecessor, Ahmadinejad.  But like the Soviet-American rapprochement effort of the past, Washington and Tehran are far from completely resolving their differences over the nuclear issue.  As Fareed Zakaria noted after interviewing President Rouhani, “Iran and America have fundamentally different views about an acceptable final deal.”  (10)

Also like the Soviet-American rapprochement effort, the current Iranian-American one does not seem to extend to third countries where they have differences such as Syria and Lebanon where Iran continues to support its various allies.  (11) And while Iran would undoubtedly like to see international economic sanctions against it removed so that it can sell more oil and gas on the world market, the Iranian government has not shown any sign of being willing to restructure its non-oil economy to focus on exporting goods and services to the world market the way China did.

A continuation of this trend bodes ill for the prospects of the current Iranian-American rapprochement.  Very recently, though, there have been tantalizing signs that Tehran is sensitive to these concerns about third countries on the part of Washington and at least some of its allies.  In early February 2014, influential University of Tehran Professor Nasser Hadian asserted that Tehran “is increasingly concerned that Syria may not hold together if President Bashar Assad stays in power,” and that since there is no viable military solution for Syria, “Iran believes the most viable solution is an election—organized and supervised by the international community—to choose the next government.” (12)

In addition, Iranian officials have recently adopted a friendlier approach to America’s ally, Israel.  While Iranian officials have usually refused to participate in meetings where Israeli officials were speaking, the Iranian delegation remained present when the Israeli Water and Energy Minister spoke at the renewable energy conference held in Abu Dhabi in January 2014.  Furthermore, the Israeli government responded in kind when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row at a Munich Security Conference panel in which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke.  The next day while being interviewed by German television, Zarif (in notable contrast to Ahmadinejad who questioned whether it even happened) recognized the Holocaust and described it as a “horrifying tragedy.”  He also raised the possibility that if Israel and the Palestinians reached a peace agreement, Tehran might actually recognize Israel.  (13) Despite continued misgivings on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli defence and intelligence officials reportedly view these friendly Iranian overtures as genuine. (14)

Iran and Turkey have long been rivals in the region, and they have supported opposing parties to the conflict in Syria that began in 2011.  Despite this, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Tehran in January 2014 and Iranian-Turkish relations are now improving—especially in the trade realm.  (15) Iran also seems to be trying to exercise good relations with at least some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.  Tehran has long had good relations with Oman and Dubai.   Recently, Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi have appeared more optimistic (to varying degrees) about the possibility that their ties to Tehran can improve.  However, Iranian relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain remain acrimonious.  Riyadh and Manama both see Iran as a supporter of Bahrain’s Shia opposition against its Sunni monarchy, while Riyadh and Tehran oppose each other’s policies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  (16)

What all this suggests is that since Rouhani became president, Tehran has increasingly come to realize that if it really wants rapprochement with America, it must reduce tensions with most (if not all) of America’s allies in the region.  What remains to be seen is just how much Iran is actually willing to do this.  Are Tehran’s friendly overtures toward some GCC countries, Turkey, and even Israel a sign that it is now willing to pursue more cooperative relations with them permanently, or is Tehran just doing this temporarily until it can secure a nuclear agreement and sanctions relief? Even if Tehran genuinely wants to pursue improved relations or just lessen tensions with some of America’s friends in the region, is it willing to reduce its support to its traditional allies in Syria and Lebanon in order to do so, or does Tehran think it can somehow improve ties with America’s friends while simultaneously aiding the Assad regime and Hezbollah?  Finally, does Tehran hope that improved Iranian-American relations will eventually lead to improved ties between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic, or does Tehran think that improved Iranian-American ties will result in Washington being less supportive of Riyadh in a continuing saga of Saudi-Iranian competition in the region?

There are no clear answers to any of these questions yet.  Looking back at both the Soviet-American and the Chinese-American rapprochement efforts of the early 1970s (as well as subsequent ones), what does seem clear is that if Tehran seeks to resolve the nuclear issue while continuing to pursue policies that America’s friends in the region regard as threatening, then the ongoing Iranian-American rapprochement effort is not likely to succeed.  However, if Tehran seeks both to resolve the nuclear issue and either improve its ties or minimize its differences with America’s friends in the region, then the ongoing Iranian-American rapprochement effort is far more likely to succeed.

Recent Iranian statements and actions aimed at defusing tensions between Iran on the one hand and Israel, Turkey, and some GCC states on the other hand have raised expectations that Tehran may be pursuing genuine rapprochement that includes either resolving differences over third countries or at least de-emphasizing them.  However, if it turns out that Iran is only doing so temporarily for the purpose of getting Washington to sign on a nuclear accord and reducing sanctions against Iran that will enable it to more readily pursue policies that America’s friends in the region find threatening, then the ongoing Iranian-American rapprochement effort is likely to prove short-lived even if a nuclear accord is reached.  Indeed, the ensuing disappointment likely to arise in Washington over being duped by Iran will only mean that just like Gorbachev, Iran will have to make even greater concessions in order to overcome the legacy of a rapprochement effort that failed  if it later decides once again to pursue a successful rapprochement effort with America.

Mark N. Katz (Ph.D.) is Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University (USA) and writes on the international relations of revolutionary regimes.  His latest book is “Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).


(1) For a detailed account of the rise and fall of the 1970s era Soviet-American rapprochement effort, see Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1987).  For an account of the Soviet-American competition in the Third World during this period, see Peter W. Rodman, More Precious than Peace: The Cold War and the Struggle for the Third World (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994), 113-256.

(2) Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 758-96.  See also Stephen M. Walt, Revolution and War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 310-27.

(3)Hugh De Santis, “The China Threat and the ‘Pivot’ to Asia,” Current History 111:746 (2012): 209-15.

(4)Rodman, More Precious than Peace, 259-548; and Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994).  See also M.N. Katz, "Evolving Soviet Perceptions of U.S. Strategy,” The Washington Quarterly 12:3 (1989): 157-67.

(5) Angela E. Stent, “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

(6) Frederick Z. Brown, “Rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 32:3 (2010): 317-42.

(7) Emma Chanlett-Avery and Ian E. Rinehart, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation,” Congressional Research Service 15 January 2014, (accessed 13 February 2014).

(8) Yahia H. Zoubir, “The United States and Libya: The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy,” The Journal of North African Studies 16:2 (2011): 275-97; and E. Chorin, “Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution,” (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2012).

(9) Daryl G. Kimball, “Assessing the First-Phase Deal to Guard Against a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” Arms Control Association, 2 December 2013, (accessed 13 February 2014).

(10) Fareed Zakaria, “A Perilous Pathway to an Iran Deal,” The Washington Post 31 January 2014, A21.

(11) Will Fulton et al., “Iranian Strategy in Syria,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project/Institute for the Study of War, May 2013; Ali Hashem, “Iran’s Ties to Hezbollah Unchanged,” Al-Monitor 10 August 2013,
(accessed 13 February 2014); and Tasnim, “Iran Pledges Support for Iraq’s Fight against Terrorism,” Tasnim News Agency 14 January 2014, (accessed 14 February 2014).

(12) Nasser Hadian, “Nasser Hadian: Reasons Iran Wants Peace in Syria,” The Iran Primer 4 February 2014, (accessed 13 February 2014).

(13) Meir Javedanfar, “Iran, Israel and the Politics of Gesture,” Al-Monitor 5 February 2014, (accessed 13 February 2014).

(14) Ben Caspit, “Israeli Security Officials Recognize Change in Iran,” Al-Monitor 4 February 2014, (accessed 13 February 2014).

(15) Thair Abbas, “Iran-Turkey Relations:  Between Competition and Cooperation,” Asharq Al-Awsat 31 January 2014, (accessed 13 February 2014).

(16) Douglas Murray, “Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East’s 30 Year War,” The Spectator 25 January 2014, (accessed 13 February 2014); Al Bawaba, “What Will Qatar Get Out of an Iranian Nuclear Deal?” Al Bawaba Business, 12 January 2014, (accessed 14 February 2014); and Frank Gardner, “Gulf States Divided Over Iran Sanctions,” BBC News 13 January 2014, (accessed 14 February 2014).