An Operational Code Analysis of Foreign Policy Roles in US-Iran Strategic Dyads

Stephen G. Walker and Akan Mallei


In the summer of 2015, the United States and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was a major achievement and good for both sides. The United States could be certain that Iran’s nuclear program would be exclusively peaceful, while Iran would benefit from the lifting of United States and international sanctions. In January, 2017, President Trump succeeded President Obama, and the days of rapprochement were numbered. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric and his cancelation of the JCPOA led to mutual escalation between the United States and Iran, which came to an acutely dangerous point in early January, 2020. When the United States assassinated the top Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani while he was on a visit in Iraq, the two countries came to the brink of war before ultimately standing down after an Iranian retaliation in the form of missile strikes on a US military base.

While the immediate causes for this escalation lie in Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA, the ultimate reasons lie back much further in history. In this chapter, we employ the Verbs in Context System (VICS) of content analysis to identify the strategies of cooperation and conflict that mark crucial historical episodes in the relations between the United States and Iran. By crucial historical episodes, we mean time periods of interactions between states that appear to be so fundamental that they have the potential to (re)define the roles and corresponding relations between them (Malici and Walker 2017,4). These time windows and turning points are often conceptualized as military crises or diplomatic opportunities, in which relations between states present a threat of moving from cooperation to military conflict, or conversely, an opportunity to shift from conflict to cooperation (Hermann 1972; Snyder and Diesing 1977; Brecher and Wilkenfeld 2000; Walker 2002).

Three such turning points in US-Iran relations are Iran’s oil nationalization and coup crisis (1950-1953), the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis (1978-1981), and the US-Iran diplomatic rapprochement and detente period (1997-2002). The first two cases are periods in which

Iran’s relations with the United States oscillated toward conflict before returning to cooperation between 1950 and 1953 and then shifted decisively from cooperation to conflict between 1978 and 1981. The final case was a period of rapprochement from conflict toward cooperation before returning to conflict between 1997 and 2002. The immediate origins of these crises in US-Iran relations were changes in the leadership inside at least one of the members of this role dyad: the rise of Mossadegh in Iran and Eisenhower’s election in the United States in the first case; the exile of the Shah and the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in the second case; the election of Mohammad Khatami as the Iranian president in the third case. The expansion of the Cold War into the Middle East, the Iranian revolution, and the 9/11 terrorist attack, respectively, provided the different background conditions that either constrained or fueled the efforts of the new leaders in reshaping US-Iran relations.

While acknowledging that the identities of these leaders and background conditions are important in describing and explaining the interactions between Iran and the United States during these historical periods, we focus primarily on describing and explaining the effects of these interactions in defining Iran-US relations. We first identify different possible patterns of relations between the two states and then examine the macro-processes that define the transition from one pattern of relations to another over time, i.e., from cooperation to conflict or from conflict to cooperation. We describe these patterns and processes as exchanges of cues, i.e., the performance of particular sequences of social acts in the form of words or deeds to communicate information between Iran and the United States. We measure these cues with VICS indices from the operational code construct to identify these patterns and specify them as the enactment by Iran and the United States of roles that define their international relations within the context of binary role theory (BRT) as a social theory of world politics (Malici and Walker 2017).

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