Iran: Change the regime or change the regime’s behavior?
Are the “correlation of forces” finally turning in America’s favor in the Middle East despite frustration over long continuous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? And what does that imply for American policy toward Iran — is it propitious for the United States to help lead a non-military campaign by the Iranian people to bring down the regime in Iran? After all, Iran’s economy is reeling, America has rightfully withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear agreement, and major new U.S. economic sanctions against Iran are in the pipeline.
Does Iran matter? Should we care?
Despite the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the Islamic Republic of Iran, born in 1979 with the fall of the pro-American Shah, saw the establishment in Tehran of a ruling class of mullahs literally devoted to “death to America,” which they often described as the “Great Satan.”
The mullahs, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, created Hezbollah in Lebanon; helped finance and arm Hamas and Islamic Jihad; cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and engaged in one terror attack after another against the United States and its allies, including killing and maiming thousands of Americans.
As Secretary of Defense James Mattis has correctly noted, Iran is in the “mayhem” business. We now have Iranian officials openly admitting they helped train the terror hijackers of 9-11, exactly what the 9-11 Commission report alleged.
Over the past nearly two decades, terror groups and militias, financed, armed and led by Iran, have: (1) maimed a thousand or more American soldiers with IED’s or improvised explosive devices in Iraq; (2) attacked in 1983 our Marine barracks and embassy in Lebanon; (3) bombed our USAF residences at the Khobar Towers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and (4) bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
U.S. Iranian policy has, understandably, been concentrated on Iran’s search for nuclear weapons. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) was a nuclear “deal” which ostensibly slowed down Iran’s enrichment of nuclear fuel, but which at best simply postponed the day on which Iran gets nuclear warheads. Most of the JCPOA’s key provisions expire within the next decade.
Unfortunately, the JCPOA also ignored or at least put aside other Iranian threats, including the Iranian terrorist campaigns in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is busy spreading its brand of mayhem. Also ignored was the growing Iranian ballistic missile threat and the missiles supplied to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis.
Dealing with Iran beyond the JCPOA
With the withdrawal of the USA from the flawed JCPOA, Iran has been robbed of its status as a partner and relegated to what it is: what former DCI Wolsey has described as a “genocidal regime.” They are not, as Dr. Henry Kissinger thought possible, just one of two hundred nation-states that have common rules of understanding of how the international system works.
Now critics will assert — erroneously — that all Iran wants is the respect of the USA and an end to the American hostile policy, including returning to the terms of the JCPOA.
Many analysts critical of the Trump administration continue to excuse Iranian behavior as based on a grievance over a 1953 American-led coup in Iran. Then the ruling Shah sought to remove from power the then socialist Prime Minister — a right the Shah had under the Iranian constitution. The issue? Prime Minister Mossadegh was busy turning over to the Soviet Union key oil resources as well as affording the Soviet naval presence on the Persian Gulf.
Back to deterrence?
Despite such erroneous excuses, the facts are clear: Iran accepts no widely accepted “rules of the road” in international affairs. Their attachment to terrorist groups is on purpose not by accident. It is a government-wide enterprise. The Iranians routinely describe the current set of American-led international rules as “the great arrogance.”
While deterrence or even Kennan’s containment were in part key watchwords of American security policy after World War II, those tactics with respect to Iran since 1979 did not stop serial Iranian attacks on the United States and consequently thousands of Americans casualties.
The real Iranian regime
In 2015, it was assumed the nuclear deal would elevate “moderates” to a position of power in Iran and gradually diminish Iran’s terrorist ways. But in fact, Iranian support for terrorism and internal repression has accelerated.
The regime is constitutionally dedicated to revolutionary “mayhem” and as such has no place in the home of civilized nations. It is not a coincidence that the most odious regimes in the world — North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and China — are partners with the Mullahs in Iran. And we know even following the 2015 JCPOA that the Iranian leaders announced relations with the United STates would “not change.”
The USA stood by in retreat in the 1970s as we watched Soviet forces on the march. We cannot again follow the path of détente and deterrence. What we face with Iran and its allies is not a clash of civilizations, as Sam Huntington assumed, but a clash between civilization on the one hand and barbarism on the other — as there is no better description of Islamic jihad and sharia law. General Joseph Votel, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, says Iran poses the most significant regional threat to the United States today. Can you imagine the threat from such a regime with nuclear weapons including the possibility of acquiring such warheads from North Korea?
New Iranian policy
Americans are not eager to find more dragons to slay around the world. Thus, the military counter-terror effort against the Iranian activity in Yemen and Syria and Iraq will ultimately be largely a local affair with diminished U.S. support.
However, whatever deterrent forces we continue to deploy, such as our much-improved missile defenses and Naval presence in the Persian Gulf region, we and our allies now have to take the regime down using whatever political, economic, diplomatic and commercial capabilities we have to help the people of Iran do the job themselves.
Can such a policy succeed? The signs are encouraging. President Trump has put together an emerging coalition to counter Iran that includes Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi coalition is now moving fast to take down the Iran-financed-and-armed terrorist Houthis in Yemen; ISIS has been largely destroyed by U.S. and allied forces; and Israel and the United States have taken out key Iranian military targets in Syria.
Correlation of forces against Iran
To go back to the beginning of our essay, what the Soviets in the 1970s called “the correlation of forces” is moving against Iran. That is due in significant part to the changed policies of the new American administration.
The Iranian currency is collapsing; capital flight has recently doubled; the middle class is rebelling, as are minorities; and government repression has accelerated including beatings, jailing, extrajudicial executions and arbitrary arrests.
Current U.S. sanctions have intimidated numerous multinationals from investing in Iran, and as a result, the oil and gas sector, the keystone of the entire Iranian economy, is suffering. We could, as we have previously done, impose serious penalties against European banks for facilitating illicit Iran-related financial activities.
A new policy and plan: Regime change
What then should be our plan?
First, of critical importance, Iran should be removed from access to SWIFT (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) so it cannot sell and purchase oil. SWIFT’s corporate rules prohibit its users from engaging in “conduct which is not in line with generally accepted business conduct principles.” In 2012, the European Union took exactly such action (but it was later rescinded in 2015).
Second, Iran’s oil exports should then be effectively embargoed, with concomitant steps taken by the United States and its allies to step up alternative oil production including ANWR and the Keystone pipeline.
Third, Iran should be removed from international forums and its embassies shuttered, even as we mount a campaign of public diplomacy to fully support the Iranian people in their struggle to be free.
Fourth, America and its allies should plan a fully funded program for stopping desertification and enhancing water supplies for the people of a new Iran. (Drastic water shortages are a serious threat to millions of Iranians.)
Fifth, a cyber-campaign should be implemented against Iran’s nuclear weapons program and rocket manufacturing facilities.
Sixth, the United States should announce that if Iranian jihadis want to harass American naval vessels, the watchword should be “sink ‘em.”
Seventh, our border security should be stepped up to better stop terrorist jihadis trying to infiltrate America.
Eighth, the United States should help Iranian dissident groups who go on a general strike, especially those in oil-producing regions, by providing them with “strike funds” including, for example, encrypted phones and other communications equipment, similar to the assistance granted to Poland’s Solidarity during the Reagan administration.
Conclusion: Hard choices
Iran is no true democracy. There are no moderates in power. Iran seeks no accommodation with the West, nor has the regime given up its quest for nuclear weapons.
In light of these truths, the inherited Iran policy must be junked. Unfortunately, changing U.S. Iran policy will not be easy. Critics of such a new administration policy say that proposing regime behavior change is a “pipedream” and, according to the New York Times, simply a demand that Iran “give up.”
Others warn the “regime change evangelists” are back in the White House. A New Yorker staff writer complained that of all Middle East problems, Israel’s nuclear arsenal was ripe for U.S. attention because it “feeds Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sense of impunity” and Israel’s wish to “dictate Mideast policy.”
Yes, the Middle East is far away, as former Congressman Ron Paul complained. He urged the United States to withdraw from the region, even as he blamed 9-11 on the United States for having military forces in Saudi Arabia.
Non-intervention sounds attractive, and it is a tempting path to follow. But what if Iran succeeded in its goal of becoming the hegemon of the Middle East, filling the vacuum that would be created by our complete withdrawal?
Such a power position would make Iran arbiter of the production and sale of what some estimate to be 70% of the world’s hydrocarbons, and would consequently give the mullahs huge leverage over the economies of all industrialized nations.
The choice before America and her allies is simple. Either help the people of Iran end the reign of the mullahs, or see a hegemon arise in the Middle East that is unconditionally opposed to all our collective interests and security.