After years of fruitless outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a troublesome question is now being discussed in Washington: What if the differences between Iran and the United States cannot be overcome with diplomatic mediation? Given our ongoing entanglements in the Middle East, neither the Obama administration nor the American public seems eager for another military confrontation, and even without those entanglements, war would be a terrifying prospect. Yet it is possible to disarm an adversary, pressure it into abandoning its ideological underpinnings, and even pave the way for its peaceful demise, all without firing a shot. To understand how this can happen to the Islamic Republic, one only needs to recall Ronald Reagan’s dealings with another ideological relic — the Soviet Union.
Reagan developed his ideas on how to confront the Soviet Union over a period of many years. Like other foreign-policy hawks in the 1970s, he wanted to rebuild America’s military and reverse a long period of Soviet and Communist expansion. Also like them, he viewed the Soviet regime as hostile, aggressive, and revolutionary in intent. Yet at the same time, he held a number of beliefs that were unusual among his fellow hawks. His aim was neither peaceful coexistence nor indefinite struggle, but instead the ultimate forcing of a worthwhile arms-control agreement on terms favorable to the U.S. He did not believe that the Soviet system could handle sustained economic, military, and technological competition with the United States, and he thought that exerting such pressure on the USSR and its proxies could force a capitulation. As he told his friend Richard Allen in 1977 when asked for his long-term ambition in relation to the Soviet Union: “We win and they lose.”