Research reveals sweet spot in US-election cycle for US-Iran diplomacy

Professor Louise Fawcett and Dr Andrew Payne have traced the last 40-years of US-Iran relations, to uncover how geopolitical conditions interact with the US election cycle to limit and create opportunities for progress between the two states. 

From the hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war, through to the events surrounding 9/11, the Iraq War, Arab uprisings and beyond, Fawcett and Payne show how US-Iran relations have become embedded in a complex landscape of regional conflicts and rivalries, involving shifting alliances between states and non-state actors. 

The paper, ‘Stuck on a hostile path? US policy towards Iran since the revolution, identifies how three key stages in the US election cycle encourage breakdown of—or enable breakthrough in—US-Iran relations: 

  • The ‘honeymoon’ phase—the first year of any new US president’s term in office—creates a space for pragmatic foreign policy, however this is severely time-limited and influenced by the inherited diplomatic relations. 

  • The ‘re-election’ phase, which builds with intensity as an election draws closer, makes US-Iran cooperation increasingly less likely—and punitive measures and hostile rhetoric increasingly more likely—due to a heightened perception of political risk. 

  • The ‘second term’ provides the re-elected president an opportunity to review and reassess their original plan with the wisdom and experience of one term under their belt. This period may provide the best opportunity for diplomacy—yet even “lame duck” presidents may face domestic obstacles to progress. 

US policymakers are bound by this series of domestic political constraints, they write, which can seriously limit their ability to respond to geopolitical events in a wholly rational or strategic way. 

This makes change very difficult. However, the hostility that has built up over four decades is not irreversible, the authors argue. 

Drawing on previously classified source material and providing case studies for each ‘key stage’ in the US election cycle, the study of US-Iran relations places current events in their historical context. In analysis recently published in The Conversation, the authors draw on their findings to shed light on the prospects for a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

Co-author, Professor Louise Fawcett comments: "A lasting departure from the default posture of hostility is possible but it will require a favourable alignment of conditions on both the international and the US domestic level.” 

Co-author, Dr Andrew Payne adds: “These windows of opportunity are rare, but if seized, have the potential to transform one of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East.” 

The paper marks a new collaboration between Professor Louise Fawcett, who is a specialist in International Relations in the Middle East, and Hedley Bull Research Fellow Dr Andrew Payne, who specialises in US foreign policy. Dr Payne previously completed his doctorate under the supervision of Professor Fawcett at the Department of Politics and International Relations.  

This research paper was presented at the International Relations Colloquium series in Hilary 2021. 

“Windows of opportunity are rare, but if seized, have the potential to transform one of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East."
Dr Andrew Payne