A Comprehensive Strategy That Secures Real And Lasting Changes In Iran’s Behavior

Last month the Trump administration took the first concrete step in a new, potentially forceful approach to Iran by renewing sanctions and effectively departing the nuclear deal. Yet Tehran has responded with its usual defiance, including recently deepening its presence in Syria, threatening the Strait of Hormuz and reportedly putting missiles in Iraq. To truly be effective, the administration’s initial moves must become part of a broader strategy that utilizes all elements of American and allied power to compel real changes in Iran’s malign behaviors.

Amid widespread persistent demonstrations, sanctions appear better poised now than before the deal to starve the Iranian regime of precious resources for maintaining control at home and exporting its revolution.

But economic measures alone are unlikely to secure the administration’s demands that Iran roll back its nuclear program, support for terrorism and pursuit of Middle East predominance. Nor can they convince the regime its very survival could be at stake if its aggression persists. Added forms of pressure, including credible options for use of force, are needed.

The Gemunder Center Iran Task Force at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), which we co-chair, recently issued a report laying out diplomatic, economic and military measures to maximize the coercive impact of U.S. policy against the Iranian regime, including by targeting its underlying vulnerabilities.

Currently U.S. regional allies provide the readiest options to pressure Iran, given uncertainties about America’s willingness to remain engaged in the Middle East beyond defeating ISIS. Always proactive in self-defense, Israel is shouldering the burden of pushing Iran out of Syria and preventing proliferation to Hezbollah. The United States should ensure Israel has the proper tools to defend itself by itself, including precision munitions and missile defense interceptors, as well as unmistakable support for its redlines in Syria and Lebanon.

In addition to Israel, American policymakers should capitalize on growing coordination between Gulf allies against Iran by supporting their interdiction efforts and promoting maritime domain awareness in the Red, Arabian and Mediterranean seas. The United States, Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. should also pursue integrated missile defense and shared early warning systems, including joint command and control centers, and Washington should articulate explicit military backing for Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. against direct Iranian attack.

Support for allies against Iran is essential, but not an adequate substitute for credible U.S. commitments. The United States can pose real obstacles to Iranian expansion with help from partners on the ground in Syria and Iraq, chiefly the Kurds. It must make clear it will maintain a limited military presence, primarily special operations forces, in and over Syria and Iraq to preserve relations with partners on the ground, prevent the reemergence of ISIS – whose persistence only increases Iran’s influence in these countries – and maintain diplomatic leverage over Tehran’s efforts to dominate postwar Syria. Recent administration statements to this effect are steps in the right direction.

Going forward, the United States should bolster military support for Syrian and Iraqi partners, first and foremost the multi-ethnic, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and update rules of engagement to appropriately defend its forces, the SDF and other partners.

A concerted U.S. political warfare campaign can reinforce these measures and amplify the administration’s strong rhetoric criticizing the regime, by targeting growing fissures in the regime’s domestic power and exploiting its fear that the United States is making progress in undermining its security and longevity. Building from Secretary Mike Pompeo’s July speech at the Reagan Library, U.S. information operations, cyber, sanctions and support for dissidents could counter the regime’s anti-American propaganda, curtail its repressive powers and bolster the Iranian people and their demand for change by exposing the rampant corruption of the theocracy and the costs of its imperial adventures abroad.

Diplomacy is also vital to coerce Iran. The United States should explore areas of cooperation with European, Asian and Middle East allies to isolate Tehran and mitigate fallout from leaving the JCPOA. Proactive public diplomacy can expand on the strategic rationales already provided by the administration in announcing its new approach to Iran, and highlight Iran’s legally-binding non-proliferation obligations regardless of the nuclear deal’s fate.

Last but certainly not least, the United States must rebuild direct military leverage over Tehran. By updating contingency plans against Iran’s nuclear program and military forces – including ballistic missiles – American policymakers can strengthen their hand in pursuing the other elements of this strategy. With the potential for Iran to leave the JCPOA and resume nuclear progress, these preparations are also vital to deter or prevent Tehran from advancing toward nuclear weapons capability.

Having made initial moves to redefine U.S. policy toward Iran, the administration’s recent creation of a group to manage government-wide policy and coordinate with allies could be the next step toward a comprehensive strategy that secures real and lasting changes in Iran’s malign behaviors.

Originally appeared inThe Hillon September 19, 2018.