The recent development in the U.S.’ relationship with Iran, according to Northwestern political science professor Will Reno, is largely a reflection of the U.S. government and how its strategic goals in the Middle East have shifted over various administrations.

On Wednesday night, Reno, the political science department chair at Northwestern and an expert on armed conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, joined about 10 students to discuss the current situation in Iran. Earlier this month, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, heightening regional tensions in the Middle East.

At the event, co-hosted by Northwestern University Political Union and College Democrats, Reno explained the past and present relationships between the two countries and the questions raised by the Trump administration’s unexpected military action.

Photo courtesy of Yurui Wu / North by Northwestern

Delving into the history of the subject, Reno described the clear shift in U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War. Although the U.S. and Iran had an “adversarial relationship” in the 1980s, it was based on a “cynical definition of national interest,” said Reno. The U.S. was indifferent about its partners’ regime type as long as it suited the national interest to cooperate, as proven by the U.S. military’s assistance to Iraq in their war against Iran.

Under this framework, Reno believes that “it wouldn’t be beyond the pale,” to say the U.S. could have cooperated with Iran if it had suited American national interests.

However, after the Cold War, the U.S. started to “care about what kinds of government these countries have,'' said Reno. In this “human rights agenda,” the U.S. strategy in the Middle East was explicitly based upon trying to “coerce them into having a system of government that's like our system of government.”

Reno sees this change in foreign policy agenda as being across the “political establishment,” meaning it is shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. The military actions against Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya by the Bush and Obama administrations support Reno’s argument.

Soleimani’s assassination, according to Reno, is another example of Trump’s “America First” agenda, a worldview that is similar to that of the Cold War era.

“He identified, or at least his advisory board did, a considerable amount of anger about the costs of regime change to our society,” Reno said.

Reno explained that this means the American political establishment not only created conflicts in the Middle East over the past decades, but also no longer understands its own political system.

“One of the questions that I think is still relevant in terms of thinking about U.S. relationships with Iran is ... should we team up with democracies, or do we not care about what the domestic governance of the country actually is,” said Reno.

Sarah Bryant, the director of external events for Northwestern Political Union, said they originally asked Reno to speak because they wanted to understand Iran in light of the assassination. However, Bryant  learned many new pieces of information, including the “really scary idea” that foreign policy is being dictated by domestic policy.

For Weinberg second-year John Magloire, the biggest takeaway of the night was that “we are not sure what’s next.”