Iran–USA Relations: From Exceptionalism to Containment Policy

AuthorUzma Siraj,Najimdeen Bakare
Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Iran–USA Relations:
From Exceptionalism to
Containment Policy
Uzma Siraj1 and Najimdeen Bakare2
Since making it out as the most powerful nation following the Second World War,
Washington has demonstrated and employed two independent yet interlocking
policies of Exceptionalism and Containment in its foreign policy. American
exceptionalism is ingrained in its pride as the most powerful military and
economic power, and a champion of democracy. While Washington sees itself as
exceptional, it also believes that the fruition of its national interest and strategic
objectives depends on bestowing friendly states with exceptional code. To place
the discussion in perspective, we take Iran as a case study and explore the
transition of Iran from being a recipient of American exceptional code, a strategic
tool of American containment policy, to becoming an object of containment itself.
The article applies George Kennan’s exceptionalism and containment strategy
on USA–Iran relations in both Shah’s rule and post-revolution era. We conclude
that decades of US exceptionalism in the region have multiplied into regional
challenges for the USA itself and raised the importance of Iran and increased its
security threats.
Exceptionalism, containment strategy, Iran–USA relations, exceptionalism in
American foreign policy
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(1) 99–121, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221076969
1 Department of International Relations, Federal Urdu University for Arts, Science, and Technology,
Islamabad, Pakistan.
2 Center for International Peace and Security (CIPS), National University for Science & Technology,
Islamabad, Pakistan.
Corresponding author:
Uzma Siraj, Department of International Relations, Federal Urdu University for Arts, Science, and
Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan.
100 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 9(1)
The idea of US exceptionalism is not new in the debate of international relations.
A nation that conceives of itself as the beacon of hope for humanity, the land
of the free, the leader of the free world, the most powerful nation in human
history, a strong nation endowed with every diplomatic tool, powerful enough
to compel and make others act against their will—these are but few among the
many personifications of US exceptionalism. Over the course of its history,
US exceptionalism has been demonstrated within its immediate geopolitical
hemisphere and beyond. At the global stage, the triumph of the Americans at the
dawn of the Second World War, the dramatic display of American hegemony—
dictating the end of war treaty and instrumentally responsible for the post-war
global institutions, hence the emergence of new power (Flint & Taylor, 2000),
is by all standards a demonstration of its exceptional quality. In the post-war
global politics, Washington was not just a forefront player, but it also steered the
world in its own image and desire. Concurrently, the end of the Cold War did not
prove unpleasant for the Americans but has largely been regarded as the end of
history for ‘other—ideologies’ and a victory for liberal democracy, supposedly
championed and led by the Americans (Fukuyama, 1992).
Since its pre-eminent visibility on the global political landscape, Washington’s
foreign policy has largely remained and has carefully been calibrated for select few,
whose interests converge, for the fruition of US national interest and the preservation
of its exceptional privilege. This, over years, has translated into and supported the
claim of the USA being the most powerful global actor. Yet, it is equally undeniable
that America’s global accomplishments are not independent of the support of others.
In fulfilment of its exceptionalism, the USA has given and transferred its ‘exceptional
code’ to other nations that are circumstantially in the good books of Washington or
have allied with Washington to promote and safeguard US interests the world over.
Any recipients of the US exceptional code are invariably exposed to certain perks,
benefits and dividends. By way of analysis and case study, we try to contextualise
how the code affects the behaviour of the recipient country and the degree to which
it shapes the regional and global attitude of the recipient. One other aspect that we
give attention to is the ramification(s) of being the code recipient. We argue that
enjoying the US code of exceptionalism prompts other countries to either extend
similar goodwill gestures or develop good relations with the recipient country.
Argumentatively, we liken the code to US foreign aid; received when in the good
books of Washington or enjoyed when the recipient(s) are either acting as a proxy
or promoting important facets of Washington’s agenda at a given point in time. We
also argue, by the way of analysis, that US exceptional code often translates into
containment code. The recipient becomes a tool of containment against any other
state that is considered by Washington as a potential and imminent threat to US
national interest. Like US foreign aid or other forms of assistance, the code can
cease to be relevant, halted and dysfunctional; it is directly proportional to the
relevance and utility of the recipient country to US interest. In the scenario where
the recipient becomes dysfunctional and irrelevant, Washington’s intentional
oversight—failure to notice or do something about what otherwise would have

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