America Must Have a ‘Regime Collapse’ Strategic Goal for Iran
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated ten days after the January 3, 2020 strike that killed Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, “We have re-established deterrence.” Still, he correctly acknowledged, “we know it’s not everlasting, that risk remains.”
Indeed, America’s salutary killing of Suleimani marked the first direct U.S. military confrontation with Iran since 1988, and the first time the Trump administration added a military dimension to its “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. After long believing in U.S. fecklessness – encapsulated in Khamenei’s January 1 taunt that America “can’t do anything” – Tehran now fears military escalation with the United States. But how long that fear will last, and whether it will yield any benefit to the Unites States only time, and U.S. policy can tell.
Thus far, the administration’s strategy toward Iran has been admirable but muddled; its rhetoric remains unsteady. Unless the killing of Suleimani becomes a major inflection point in America’s approach toward Iran, the strategic benefits of this singularly gutsy action will soon ebb.
The administration should seize this moment to clarify and strengthen U.S. strategic goals and policy toward Iran, adopting a goal of “regime collapse” and pursuing it by avoiding negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and embracing a policy of “comprehensive pressure.” This would include not just economic, but also military, diplomatic, political, and informational components. This new approach would be consistent with what the Trump administration appears to seek with Iran, as well as its intent to reduce American boots on the ground in the region.
I. Muddled Goals & Policy
Before January 3, U.S. goals toward Iran were unclear but its policy was rather consistent. There are arguably three main elements to U.S. considerations about Iran: 1) nuclear; 2) internal behavior, viz. treatment of its citizens, and 3) external behavior, viz. terrorism and regional expansion.
The Trump administration has been generally clear and consistent about the nuclear dimension. President Donald Trump declared on October 13, 2017, “we are determined [Iran] will never obtain nuclear weapons.” And on January 6, 2020, the President tweeted emphatically, “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!” Sometimes the administration has drawn a stricter line, at nuclear capacity, such as when Secretary Pompeo declared at the JINSA dinner on October 10, 2018, that the administration seeks a “permanent solution to ensure that Iran never has the capacity to have a nuclear weapon for all time, in any form.” The administration has also been clear about what it would do if Iran rushed to develop nuclear weapons. In summer 2019, in response to Tehran’s steps away from the JCPOA, Trump stated “I’m not looking for war, and if there is, it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that. But you can’t have a nuclear weapon.”
The Trump administration has also increasingly spoken up against Tehran’s repression of its own citizens. When widespread protests broke out around Iran in late 2017, Trump tweeted “The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations.” After renewed protests erupted in late 2019 and in the wake of demonstrations following the downed Ukrainian airliner in January 2020, he reiterated this warning, telling “the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTORS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you….the USA is watching.” He offered support directly “to the brave, long-suffering people of Iran: I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my Presidency, and my administration will continue to stand with you.”
The administration has been less clear about its goals and policies toward Iran’s external activity. Its goal has basically boiled down to Iran acting like a “normal nation,” which Pompeo most recently repeated on January 13, and which also could apply to Tehran’s domestic behavior. But his immediate rejoinder, “Just be like Norway, right?”, which drew laughs, suggested, correctly, the unreality of this goal.
Nor is it clear that the administration is committed to making Iran behave like Norway, or significantly changing its behavior at all. The policy toward Iranian aggression and terror has been limited and focused on maintaining the status quo. In May 2018, Trump said America planned to “block” Iran’s “menacing activity across the Middle East. At the United Nations, in September 2018, Trump asked world leaders to “isolate Iran’s regime.” In May 2018 Pompeo stated that America aimed “to deter Iranian aggression,” and in June 2019 he again said, “We are there to deter aggression.” All these words – “block,” “deter,” “isolate” – accept the status quo of Iranian influence but resist its further expansion. That seems an unambitious objective, especially considering both the mounting pressures the Iranian regime is facing and Iran’s startling regional expansion in the years immediately preceding the Trump administration.
Until January 3, the administration’s policy tools had been limited to economic ones, despite the “maximum pressure” mantra. The sanctions-only policy had the virtue of insulating the administration from having to clearly define its policy objectives. Whatever it might want to accomplish, it can claim sanctions were instrumental, whether by pressuring the regime to negotiate, depriving it of resources for external aggression or heightening domestic Iranian dissatisfaction with the regime. Because the administration can claim sanctions accomplish all these things, it has not had to prioritize or be explicit about its goals. It could just sit back and see which affect the sanctions would have first.
To be sure, sanctions have meaningfully undercut Iranian resources and exacerbated internal tensions, but they are an indirect tool and alone are inadequate to fully address any of the administration’s purported concerns. In order to push back against U.S. sanctions and create its own form of leverage, the Iranian regime has systematically been ramping up its uranium enrichment program, in violation of JCPOA restrictions, bringing it closer to, not further from, nuclear weapons capability. Sanctions haven’t dislodged Iran from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. Moreover, as events since May 2019 illustrate, sanctions by themselves can provoke Iranian kinetic retaliation and nuclear aggression, but cannot deter or deny them. Nor has the regime’s treatment of its own people improved. To the contrary, public dissatisfaction, exacerbated by sanctions-imposed economic pressures, has been met with brutal violence.
With the killing of Suleimani, the administration added, for the first time, a military component to its “maximum pressure” campaign, implicitly acknowledging that economic sanctions alone are indeed insufficient. As senior Israeli defense officials told me, the targeted assassination of Suleimani was a “gamechanger.” Months of Iranian attacks against U.S. and allied assets, including the downing of the U.S. drone in June and the missile strike against the vital Saudi Abqaiq energy facility in September, surprisingly did not trigger a U.S. military reprisal. But, as these Israeli officials explained, Iran now understands that there are limits to U.S. patience, that the United States could eliminate vital Iranian assets at the time and place of its choosing. Certainly, Suleimani’s demise has changed the strategic landscape and upset Tehran’s confidence that it could easily deter Washington or even predict its response.
It is unclear, however, how long this landscape will remain changed. At a minimum, Tehran understands that there are redlines for its aggression against the United States – viz. the taking of American lives. However, there is a real risk that if the strike is left to speak for itself, Iran could well conclude that the administration continues to be reluctant to use force to protect other American interests, such as rolling back Iranian regional positions and protecting Saudi energy facilities. Indeed, Trump’s tweet following the Suleimani killing suggests as much: “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites….”
II. Strategic Goal of “Regime Collapse”
To build on the momentum generated by the strike against Suleimani, avoid Iranian misapprehension of U.S. resolve, and truly change the game in the Middle East, the United States needs both to sharpen and clarify its policy toward Iran by adopting the strategic goal of “regime collapse.”
The administration’s first effort to define its goals and policy in the wake of the Suleimani killing, Secretary Pompeo’s January 13 speech, did not do enough to clear up the muddle, even though parts of it were very strong. Here is a key passage:
“We put together a campaign of diplomatic isolation, economic pressure, and military deterrence. The goal is two-fold. First, we wanted to deprive the regime of resources, resources it needs to perpetrate its malign activity around the world. And second, we just want Iran to behave like a normal nation. Just be like Norway, right? (Laughter.)”
The first stated goal is actually a means, not an end, and the second stated goal is vague. The latter merely repeats statements made by Secretary Pompeo prior to the Suleimani strike – reminiscent of the May 2018 speech listing a comprehensive set of twelve expectations for Iran – and does nothing to refine U.S. objectives or specify how they will be pursued in the new strategic landscape created by the administration’s audacious action.
To refresh and clarify U.S. policy, the administration should make “regime collapse” the clear, explicit and overarching goal for its strategy toward Iran. Clarity matters in strategy and international relations, not only to explain ourselves to our allies and enemies, and to build support among the American public, but also in directing and coordinating the various arms of the U.S. government to pursue coherent and effective policies. Trump certainly seems to value clarity and cutting through the fog of obfuscations.
Furthermore, “regime collapse” captures what the administration appears to truly want. Secretary Pompeo’s reference to Iran behaving like a “normal nation,” on top of his speech in May 2018 outlining demands on Iran, correctly implies that the Tehran regime cannot reform itself, as many on the American political left have believed for decades. And, as the failed experiment of the JCPOA has proven, inducements and goodwill will not lead Iran to unclench its fist. Instead, the only way to transform U.S.-Iranian relations and reduce the threat from Iran is for the Islamic Republic to go away. Trump has properly ruled out “regime change,” an Iraq-style invasion, which leaves “regime collapse” as the most realistic objective.
Regime collapse is not an historically radical strategy. In fact, it essentially was a goal of the containment strategy devised for the Cold War by the creator of State’s Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan. In his “X” article for Foreign Affairs Kennan thusly diagnosed the Soviet Union in 1947:
“[The] population is physically and spiritually tired. The mass of the people are disillusioned, skeptical and no longer as accessible as they once were to the magical attraction which Soviet power still radiates to its followers abroad.… It is difficult to see how these deficiencies can be corrected at an early date by a tired and dispirited population working largely under the shadow of fear and compulsion…. Meanwhile, a great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union…. The possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”
To exploit these internal tensions, Kennan subsequently devised a comprehensive policy of pressuring Moscow economically, militarily, diplomatically, and politically. Through such application of “unalterable counterforce,” the United States could “increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
A strategy of regime collapse has the added virtue of relying on forces already at work. Indeed, Kennan and his successors articulated their strategy when Soviet power was rising. Though World War II imposed catastrophic damage on the country and was in a weaker state than U.S. policymakers realized, in the late 1940s Moscow nevertheless dominated Eurasia, including half of Europe, with ten million soldiers; it also was on the nuclear threshold and was emboldened enough to test American resolve in Berlin, Iran, Korea, and other flashpoints. Compared to later decades of stagnation, Soviet leadership was also relatively secure internally at this time, given the shared sacrifices and associated upswelling of nationalism and prestige following what they called the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-45.
By contrast, Iran is overextended internationally and economically weak, and its regime appears far more defensive, devoid of domestic legitimacy and vulnerable, even though its security forces are still willing to kill and imprison those who oppose the regime. The persistent protests in the country over the past few years have been driven in no small measure by the regime’s traditional support bases, many of whom – like those more antagonistic to the regime – are alienated and angered by the regime’s brutality, religious repression, waste of the country’s precious resources on foreign adventurism, rampant corruption, environmental mismanagement and poor governance more generally. The current “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions has only heightened these tensions, reducing the regime’s ability to buy political quiescence. And though one can’t know what sort of regime would follow in Iran, there is cause for optimism.
For this reason, the first policy implication of a regime collapse strategy should be to advance the political decomposition process already underway in Iran and do nothing to slow it down. To achieve regime collapse, the United States should implement a campaign to exacerbate the regime’s internal contradictions and domestic tensions so that it eventually collapses from within.
Yet, despite the difficulties facing the Iranian regime, the time between collapsing and collapse is unknowable; it can happen tomorrow or in ten years. In the Soviet Union’s case, it was forty years following Kennan’s diagnosis. Even with U.S. pressure, between now and its demise, the Islamic Republic will remain dangerous, perhaps increasingly so.
Thus, the second element of a regime collapse strategy must be a “rollback” policy designed to weaken Iran’s power projection capabilities and evict its existing forces and proxies from critical points around the region. Rollback itself is a significant goal, a major strategic objective in its own right. It will also boost the costs of the Tehran regime’s external activities and accelerate its decline and demise.
Rollback was an early Cold War concept that sought to alter the status quo by actively compelling an adversary to change its behavior, such as by ceding territory or weakening control over satellite states. Rollback advocates, such as John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, conceived it as an offensive and proactive strategy in contrast to what they viewed as a more passive and reactive strategy of containment as conceived by Kennan.
Eisenhower did not really pursue such a strategy, but Ronald Reagan certainly did, if not explicitly, in what became known as the Reagan Doctrine. He eschewed a defensive posture in favor of an offensive strategy to undermine the Soviet Union by exploiting its most glaring, and growing, vulnerabilities. The Soviet Union itself was an artificial construct, as was its overextended empire, and both were vulnerable in any number of ways, including a decrepit economy, ethnic and religious divisions, military burdens – most notably in Afghanistan, but also increasingly unaffordable defense spending – and the advanced decline in legitimacy of communist rule more generally. Through activities like supporting indigenous anti-communist insurgencies and using strong public diplomacy to call out these weaknesses, Reagan was able to accelerate the Soviet Union’s implosion.
Today, Iran seems somewhat reminiscent of, or even in a more advanced stage of decline than, the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, given that many demonstrations against the regime taking place in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Iran’s military overextension in multiple intractable conflicts regionwide. There were no such demonstrations within the Soviet Union then – though the Solidarity movement in Poland signaled significant cracks in the empire, which were only to widen years later. Now is the time to be proactive in intensifying the pressure on the Iranian regime, roll back its footprint and ability to threaten, and hasten its demise.
Taken together, these two elements of a regime collapse strategy amount to a policy of “comprehensive pressure.” Such pressure must include robust economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, political warfare, and credible military threats.
III. “Comprehensive Pressure” Policy
The main implication of a U.S. strategy of regime collapse is a policy of comprehensive pressure – economic, military, diplomatic (public and private) and political. Some of it can be directly applied by the United States, and some indirectly, by bolstering support for Israel in its effort to roll back Iranian expansion on the ground. It need not require more American boots on the ground, nor need it conflict with an expected withdrawal of some U.S. forces currently deployed in the region.
A. No Negotiations
The issue of talks with Tehran has bubbled up at times, and Trump seems genuinely intrigued by the proposition. He was willing to participate in a phone call in September organized by French President Emmanuel Macron, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani refused to join. Following the Suleimani killing, negotiations seem far less likely, because Tehran does not consider negotiations in its current weakened state to be advantageous. Instead, the regime seems content at this point to wait and see who wins the U.S. presidential election in November while building its own form of leverage against the United States—increasing uranium enrichment, targeting U.S. assets, and pushing Iraqis to oust U.S. forces.
Diplomatic talks always seem appealing, especially when one’s adversary is weakened, but they must have a clear purpose, and the advantages must outweigh the disadvantages. Even if the objective is the collapse of the other party, negotiations might be advantageous if they seek to avoid a catastrophic war, or facilitate a more orderly or less dangerous regime demise.
Yet, in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, negotiations could well be counter-productive if not irresponsible, unless the regime radically alters its position toward its nuclear program, missile development and regional expansion. If Tehran approached the United States with an offer of complete dismantlement of its nuclear program, as former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did fifteen years ago, then we should certainly engage the regime in talks. But there is no evidence–which Israeli sources have corroborated–of any such Iranian interest in such a shift toward elimination of the JCPOA’s sunset clause, or severe restrictions on enrichment, let alone entertaining the Libyan model. And it’s highly unlikely the regime would move toward the Libyan model or anything close it. It saw what happened to Qaddafi after he eliminated his nuclear program. It also saw what happened to Ukraine, after it gave up its nuclear program as codified in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Perhaps only if it thought it was about to collapse or was veering toward collapse might the Tehran regime consider significant concessions over its nuclear or regional activities.
Short of that, just conducting negotiations with Tehran could bolster the regime, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. As it has recently stated, the regime would only agree to negotiations if it received sanctions relief as a precondition. Even if the United States did not grant such relief, it might find it more challenging to enforce sanctions on non-American companies if negotiations commence. Either way, it would offer the regime an economic lifeline at its more desperate moment. Also, negotiations would demoralize Iranian protestors challenging the regime on the streets. Talks would signal that the United States accepts the legitimacy of, and is willing to work with, an Iranian regime that jails, tortures, and kills its own people, which the Trump administration has increasingly denounced.
Pursuing negotiations for a highly unlikely deal with Tehran could also pose real political risks for Trump. It is unlikely to mollify any of his critics, while it could raise serious concerns among his key supporters, especially in the Jewish and evangelical Christian pro-Israel communities for whom stopping Iran is both a pressing moral and strategic issue.
B. Building Deterrence & Pressure
It is vital for the United States to cement the gains in deterrence and credibility accomplished by the Suleimani strike. Credible military deterrence historically has been the most reliable means of dissuading Iranian aggression and disincentivizing the regime from expanding its nuclear program. Establishing it requires clearly and unequivocally communicating that the U.S. will and resolve to use force to protect itself and its allies against Iranian threats. Effectively signaling to Tehran that the game has, indeed, changed will require both statements and actions.
Recognizing that Iran has been at war with the United States since the Islamic Republic’s inception, even if it wages that conflict primarily in the deniable and asymmetric “gray zone,” Tehran should be put on notice that the Suleimani killing was not an aberration. The Department of Defense should articulate clear redlines against nuclear escalation and be prepared to counter the use of force by Iran or its proxies, including, e.g., rocket/missile and drone attacks against U.S. forces. It should explicitly state that the United States will defend U.S. and allied forces and maritime traffic (including use of disabling fire and deadly force) against illegal and aggressive Iranian naval actions. The United States must also make clear it will retaliate against Iranian assets for Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. forces, personnel or installations. Targets of such potential retaliation should include Iranian military commanders operating on the battlefield outside of Iran’s borders.
The credibility of such statements can be further bolstered by clear demonstrations of U.S. resolve. The United States should maintain a limited military presence in Syria and Iraq, updating these forces’ rules of engagement to permit appropriately forceful self-defense responses to provocations by Iran or its proxies. It should also prepare and publicize viable contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities and coordinate with Israel and other regional partners against subsequent Iranian retaliation.
The great success the Trump administration is already achieving in the economic realm must be maintained. This requires fuller implementation of economic sanctions on critical regime revenue sources, in particular oil, natural gas, petrochemicals, metals, and banking sectors.
It should also take the form of furthering Iran’s diplomatic isolation by coordinating with EU-3 partners Britain, France, and Germany to implement and enforce snapback of UN sanctions that were lifted or lessened by the JCPOA – a process already begun by the European parties to the deal. Snapback would effectively reimpose legally binding prohibitions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and prevent the looming end of a crucial UN arms embargo on Iran in October 2020.
A regime collapse strategy should expand to encompass other elements of a pressure campaign that are currently missing. The United States must wage a concerted political warfare campaign targeting and exploiting Tehran’s growing domestic vulnerabilities and the regime’s rising internal illegitimacy. This could be accomplished through information operations highlighting for the Iranian public their regime’s abysmal governance; cyber operations targeting the regime’s ability to control and censor its domestic internet; and covert support for political, sectarian and ethnic dissidents, among other measures.
The United States might also seek to foment tensions within Iran, which has sizable Kurdish, Arab, Baloch and Azeri populations which have been at best marginalized, and often brutally persecuted, by the regime – in many cases prompting varying degrees of separatist movements. The regime’s sense of vulnerability is heightened by the fact that many of these groups’ strongholds are on Iran’s strategic frontiers – Kurds along the Iraq border, Arabs in energy-rich Khuzestan and Baloch along the vital Arabian Sea coastline.
Still, the United States should go beyond just building pressure and deterrence; it should help roll back Iran’s outsized regional footprint and its ability to threaten its neighbors and even the United States. This alone is a major strategic objective. It would also raise the costs of Iranian aggressive activities while buying time and space for the Tehran regime to collapse. It would also hearten Middle Eastern allies uncertain about future U.S. intentions in the region.
For instance, the United States could interdict Iranian weapons supplies going through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon by land and air, and by sea to Yemen. It could also threaten Iran that it will shoot down any ballistic or cruise missiles fired by Iran or its proxies, in war or in tests, as a way to stymie its missile development in a way that sanctions clearly are not doing successfully. The same policy could apply to Iranian drones. None of these options requires new boots on the ground, but they do involve a new conception of the use of existing forces.
Certainly, the most impactful form of rollback would be to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Such an effort, at least for a time, would eliminate one of the major rising threats to the American homeland and our assets and allies in the Middle East, and send a powerful message to North Korea. It would also likely deliver a punishing blow to the Tehran regime’s credibility in the Middle East, and its legitimacy among the Iranian people – thereby undermining its durability.
i. Rollback by Proxy: Bolster Israeli Deterrence and Capabilities
Whether or not the United States pursues some or all of these direct measures, or even if it does not pursue any of them, it should most certainly strengthen its support for regional partners who are, or could be, committed to defending against and countering Iranian aggression. Primarily, that means beefing up Israeli deterrence and military capabilities in its campaign to roll back Iran on the ground and prepare for a major multi-front war with Iran/Hezbollah, which seems increasingly likely. Indeed, America should see Israel’s willingness to effectively defend against and push back against Iran as a way to advance U.S. interests, without using U.S. troops, and is perfectly compatible even with the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from the region. In fact, it seems the Trump administration is increasingly perceiving Israel this way.
It would broadly bolster Israeli deterrence if the United States concluded a narrow defense treaty with Israel, to be implemented in exceptional circumstances when Israel’s viability if not existence is threatened, as the leaders of the countries have begun to discuss. This would not only minimize the likelihood/risk of a major Iranian-Israeli war but could mitigate its severity and scope while limiting its impact on other U.S. interests and assets in the region. JINSA has conducted pioneering work on such a treaty and wrote a draft text.
Of course, it would be best for U.S. interests for Israel to always be able to defend itself by itself, as the Jewish state has done since its founding in 1948. To wit, it would advance a regime collapse strategy for the United States to frontload the 2016 defense assistance MoU to Israel, inked under President Barack Obama, without raising the total cost. This would mostly involve financing and permitting Israel to gain, in the next several years, greater amounts of precision-guided missiles (PGMs), KC-46 refueling tankers, F-35 combat aircraft, and other important weapons and platforms. It would also help to replenish and update U.S. prepositioned stockpiles of weapons in Israel, especially precision-guided missiles (PGMs). Also, the United States could by executive action raise Israel’s status as an ally to facilitate greater sharing of intelligence, military equipment and technology, assuming Israel addresses U.S. concerns about Chinese investment in Israel’s high-technology and critical infrastructure sectors.
ii. Rollback by Other Proxies: Support Counter-Iran Regional Actors
Beyond Israel, the United States should implement something resembling the Reagan Doctrine by supporting forces around the region opposed to Iranian domination and interference.
A principal vulnerability of Iran’s regional strategy is its dependence on brutal regimes to rule lands riven by ethno-sectarian fissures. The United States should exploit this by supporting or building up political or military forces in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen that oppose Iran’s domination and/or seek greater self-determination or independence from Iran’s weak clients. The result could be transforming these failed states into loose confederations or new countries with borders that more naturally conform along ethno-sectarian lines. Currently, these countries are not nation-states as Americans understand them but post-WWI artificial constructs mostly created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in a colossally failed experiment by international leaders.
For instance, in Syria, we could seek a more ethnically coherent loose confederation or separate states that might balance each other—the Iranian-dominated Alawites along the coast, the Kurds in the northeast, and the Sunni Arabs in the heartland. Of these groups, it is the Kurds we should most champion and help protect, and not only because we have worked for years with them in combating ISIS. They are our most natural allies, for blocking Iranian expansion—including delivery of weapons from Tehran to Syria—and containing Turkey’s, which poses an increasing challenge to U.S. interests. And they reside in oil-rich areas. Similarly, in Iraq, our most natural allies are also the Kurds.
Any redrawing of political relationships or borders is highly complex, and the United States cannot dictate the outcomes. But we can influence them. We would need to deeply examine each country for its unique qualities and histories, consulting closely with our regional allies before deciding upon a policy.
Some might argue this approach is impractical, destabilizing, and offering Iran new opportunities. Perhaps, but the region’s current trajectory is more dangerous. The burden is on the United States to adapt its policy to the dissolving of borders and Iran’s aggression. Further, artificial states have been divided or loosened before with some success, such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, all post-World War I formations. Bosnia and Herzegovina have also managed as a confederation.
Where sectarian groups have united in protests against Iran or its influence, such as in Lebanon and Iraq lately, the administration should continue to support the people any way we can. However, Iran will not easily loosen its grip in these countries, and in some ways is tightening it.
In 1949, Winston Churchill declared about communist regimes:
“Tyrannies may restrain or regulate their worlds. The machinery of propaganda may pack their minds with falsehood and deny them truth for many generations of time. But the soul of man thus held in trance or frozen in a long night can be awakened by a spark coming from God knows where and in a moment the whole structure of lies and oppression is on trial for its life. Peoples in bondage need never despair.”
One cannot know when that spark will arrive in Iran, but it is incumbent upon the United States to hasten its coming, so that that evil regime collapses, as Soviet rule did, and as all evil regimes eventually do. The longer it takes, the more lives will be endangered and the more our interests threatened. Adopting a “regime collapse” strategic goal and a “comprehensive pressure” policy will help do so, and offers the best and most realistic chance of advancing core regional and global U.S. interests and values.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Originally published in The National Interest.