National Security & Defense

How to Push Back on Iran

An Iranian flag flies at the Sorough oil field in 2005. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
A comprehensive strategy for reining in the Islamic Republic

Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared at AEIdeas, a public-policy blog published by the American Enterprise Institute. It is reprinted here with permission.

For any strategy to be worth its salt, it needs to be comprehensive and integrated. It’s not enough for each piece to make sense on its own merits. All of the pieces need to work in unison. Seeing the whole of the strategy is also the only way to understand how to prioritize objectives and actions designed to attain those objectives. It’s also necessary to understand the sequencing of the various actions — which ones need to come first to enable those that should come later. Finally, gauging the resources that will be required for the strategy to have a reasonable prospect of success requires both a detailed assessment of its components and a broader perspective on the totality of the effort.

So for all of those reasons, the most important next step is to sketch out the broad brushstrokes of the strategy.

Critical Assumptions

Every strategy, every policy, rests on a set of key assumptions that then determine the objectives of the wider approach, and the means of achieving those objectives. It is always a mistake to leave those key assumptions implicit. Typically, that leads to confusion and goal displacement, where a country ends up pursuing an intermediate objective as if it were the ultimate goal. Often in those cases the country loses the ultimate goal as a result. What’s more, if you don’t share my assumptions, you probably won’t agree with my proposed course of action.

So here are the key assumptions that inform my approach to pushing back on Iran:

1. Iran will fight back. One of the most important things we need to recognize is that Iran will not just shrug off a more confrontational American strategy. It will look for ways to counterattack, and in the past it has been reasonably smart about trying to do so at times and in ways where it has advantages. Iran has responded to real and imagined American threats in the past with terrorism, unconventional warfare, and cyber-attacks against the United States and our allies. The more that we can tie Iran down, put it on the defensive, and force it to commit its resources in areas where we have the advantage, the less able Tehran will be to strike back at us. That, too, necessitates a coordinated strategy in which we think through where to strike and where to defend — and whento strike and when to defend, which again raises the importance of sequencing.

2. Allies are critical. Iran is not mighty, but neither is it weak. It does have some dangerous weapons at its disposal, weapons whose bite we want to avoid. Moreover, the American public will want its government to do all of this as cheaply as possible. I have repeatedly arguedthat the United States has set the bar too low when assessing the resources that will be needed to address Middle Eastern problems, and the result has been that avoidable troubles were allowed to fester and metastasize, requiring much more expensive cures later. While I continue to believe that to be the case, including with Iran today, I do agree that the threat from Iran does not justify a massive commitment akin to the U.S. reconstruction of Iraq, and therefore it is appropriate to try to keep our own costs down. That’s the first reason that pushing back on Iran requires strong support from America’s allies — both those in the Middle East, and our wider coalition of friends in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America. The more that they contribute, the less we have to.

The more allied support the U.S. can count on in implementing such a policy, the more tools we will have available to employ against Iran and the more protection we will have from Iran’s inevitable responses.

But there is another reason that allies are critically important to a more confrontational strategy toward Iran. The more allied support the U.S. can count on in implementing such a policy, the more tools we will have available to employ against Iran and the more protection we will have from Iran’s inevitable responses. Many sanctions will only have an impact on Iran if they are adopted by large numbers of countries — and we don’t want unilateral U.S. sanctions to spark tensions or diplomatic ruptures with other countries, causing them to fight back against us.

There are some countries that have capabilities related to Iran that we don’t. If we ever feel the need to stir up Iran’s unhappy minorities, we will need the help of Iran’s neighbors to do so. The Israelis may be helpful in battling Iran in the cyber and covert realms, as they have in the past. The Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis might be helpful with energy markets — either to pressure Iran or prevent Tehran from trying to use oil prices against us. The Australians, Jordanians, Emiratis, and some of our NATO allies have useful unconventional-warfare capabilities. Likewise, if we are going to contest Iranian control of Syria or bolster an independent Iraq, the more we have regional and international support, the more military, diplomatic, and financial ways we will have to do so.

3. Our ultimate goal should be to diminish Iranian influence in the Middle East. We need Iran to stop threatening our allies, stop exacerbating problems that then require the U.S. to try to ameliorate or end, and stop taking actions that impede a peaceful transformation toward a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East. All of that is about reducing Iran’s influence and the harm it causes in the Middle East. That will be challenging enough, but it is important to specify because it excludes some even more ambitious, potential goals that the United States could adopt toward Iran, and that some highly intelligent and accomplished Americans advocate.

I feel that regime change in Iran would be desirable and eventually necessary, but it should not be the immediate goal of American policy. This Iranian regime has repeatedly proven itself to be so odious to us, to its neighbors, and to its people that the world would be best served by its demise. I will also note that if pursued diligently and competently, a strategy of pushing back on Iran could help set the stage for eventual regime change in Iran, by siphoning off the resources and legitimacy of the regime.

But regime change is not guaranteed, nor is it essential to the success of this policy. Moreover, the American public clearly does not want to have to invade and occupy Iran, so we should not push back on it in ways that run a high risk of forcing us to do that. Mucking around in Iran’s internal security or trying to spark insurgencies or a revolution in Iran could do just that. If we pursue regime change as our near-term goal, Iran will counterattack hard; they might mount a terror attack so lethal that, like 9/11, it pushes us into a massive military response. Alternatively, our regime-change efforts might succeed, the country could slide into chaos and civil war, and that too could push us to invade to stabilize it.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, we should not make our goal sitting down with the Iranians and negotiating an end to our confrontation with them. That, too, would be desirable, and it, too, could follow logically from a well-executed policy of pushing back on Iran (by forcing Iran to make painful compromises to avoid even greater losses), but it, too, is not essential for the United States to secure its interests. In most cases, it will be obvious when Iran’s influence has been diminished and when it is no longer able to cause problems in the region, and we don’t need a formal “surrender” on their part, or even a clear delineation of what they can and can’t do. Again, nice to have, but not essential and hard to get.

Where (and How) Do We Push Back?

Pushing back on Iran is an inherently offensive, confrontational strategy. So I want to start out by outlining where (and briefly how) the United States should seek to confront Iran to hurt it and reduce its influence. At the most basic level, the United States should look to push back on the Iranians in one of two categories of areas: (1) places where they are vulnerable and where we can cause more harm to them than they can to us, or (2) places where our allies are vulnerable and need help to fend off an Iranian challenge.

If the United States is going to push back on Iran, Syria is the best example of the first category — a place where Iran is vulnerable and where we can do more harm to them than they can to us. Mostly to protect Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon, Iran has tied itself to the unpopular and incompetent Assad regime, has invested huge amounts of blood and treasure in Syria (making it very unpopular with the Iranian people), and has tied its regional prestige to Syrian fortunes. Although the Iranian–Assad–Hezbollah–Russia coalition has made major gains in Syria because of the mistakes and neglect of the Obama and Trump administrations, Iran’s commitment and exposure render it highly vulnerable there. It can’t leave, but it has no good, cheap, or quick solution to the problem. The United States should exploit that predicament by ramping up American covert assistance to the Syrian opposition to try to bleed the Assad regime and its Iranian backers over time, exactly the way that the United States backed the Afghan Mujahideen as they bled the Soviets in Afghanistan — or as the Russians and Chinese did to the United States in Vietnam.

In the Persian Gulf itself, it would be useful and important for the U.S. Navy to more aggressively assert its freedom of navigation and the Law of the Sea.

Iraq is another country of great importance to Iran, which also makes it a significant potential vulnerability. Of course, Iraq is also more important to the United States than is Syria, and it is a very different state than Syria. That means confronting Iran there needs to look very different than it would in Syria. Ultimately, Iran has made sizable gains in Iraq, but its dominance is far from complete and there are still many Iraqis — including Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi — who don’t want to live under Iranian hegemony. The more independent Iraq is, the weaker Iran’s grip on the “Shi’a Crescent” and the less able it would be to use Iraq (and Syria) as conduits to the rest of the Arab world. If the U.S. is willing to make a long-term commitment to Iraq, including a large residual American military force and significant economic and technical assistance to empower those who would champion Iraqi nationalism, there is good reason to believe that we could help Iraq become strong and independent, which would greatly reduce (but not eliminate) Iran’s influence there.

Yemen is even tougher than Iraq, but it is another place where Iranian influence needs to be reduced. The problem is that the civil war has given Iran an entrée that it has used to try to hurt (or just scare) Saudi Arabia, and it has worked. The right answer for Yemen starts with ending the Yemeni Civil War. That has been hard so far, in part because America’s allies have taken a hardline with the Houthi-led (and Iranian-backed) opposition. It may well be possible to get a solution to the fighting through diplomacy, if our allies are willing to compromise on key issues like Yemen’s internal boundaries and a new power-sharing arrangement that would exclude some of their key proxies. Even if that works, it may require a peacekeeping force to help enforce the agreement and considerable inducements — positive and negative — to the Houthis to convince them to cut ties with the Iranians.

In the Persian Gulf itself, it would be useful and important for the U.S. Navy to more aggressively assert its freedom of navigation and the Law of the Sea. In the past, the United States allowed the Iranian navies, particularly the Revolutionary Guard Navy, to get away with frequent, dangerous transgressions of both. While that avoided crises in the Gulf, it also convinced our allies that the United States was uninterested in standing up to Tehran, which fed their fears and encouraged their own overreactions. That should change. The Iranian navy has already reined in its horns in the Gulf as of last summer, but if it resumes, the U.S. Navy should make painfully clear to Tehran that its reckless actions will not be tolerated. If that results in a clash, so be it. And the United States needs to ensure that when that incident is over, the Iranians come away convinced that it was a mistake for them to have ever provoked us.

Where Do We Hang Back?

Pushing back on Iran does not mean aggressively attacking it everywhere across the board. Again, that’s not necessary to achieve the goals I laid out above, it won’t be possible given the limited resources the American public will be willing to commit (even if there is some discretion there), and just taking on the task I have outlined above will be enough of a challenge for this administration at this time. Consequently, pretty much everywhere else, the U.S. should be mostly on the defensive. That does not mean we should be passive, especially with regard to our defense of America and Americans, both of which could well become targets of Iranian retaliation.

That said, it is worth spelling out some specific areas where I think the U.S. should be thinking more in terms of defense than offense as part of a strategy of pushing back on Iran.

I remain convinced that it would be a mistake for the United States to unilaterally abrogate or violate the agreement.

The first and most obvious arena is the nuclear realm. I was deeply disappointed by the JCPOA, believing that the Obama administration could have and should have gotten a much more stringent deal. I also think that the Trump administration is right about its most important weaknesses: the sunset clauses that allow Iran to revive its nuclear program in 7–12 years, and a complex inspections process that creates lots of room for uncertainty. (I am less concerned about Iranian ballistic missiles, which I suspect will become less and less militarily relevant in the future as UAV technology progresses.) Nevertheless, I remain convinced that it would be a mistake for the United States to unilaterally abrogate or violate the agreement. Its flaws notwithstanding, we cannot lose sight of the fact that (a) the JCPOA has significantly constrained Iran’s nuclear activities, and (b) the rest of the world strongly favors it and could well break with the United States if we gut it. Given the critical role of our allies to make pushback work, that is a risk we should not run.

Lebanon is another place I would not take on the Iranians, at least not now and not until success in other areas has greatly reduced Tehran’s hold on Lebanon. Hezbollah is like a parasite on Lebanon and its long-term health necessitates removing that parasite, but only when it can be done without killing the patient. At present, Lebanon is too fragile, and too much under Hezbollah’s thumb. Challenging Iran there is likely to produce one of three bad outcomes: we lose, we break Lebanon, or both.

Finally, I think the U.S. should actively develop its capabilities to wage both cyber and unconventional warfare in Iran, but hold off on actively doing so. These will be seen as existential threats to the Iranian regime and it will retaliate in extreme ways — ways that might do severe damage to Americans and might demand a bigger American response than we really want to make. (See my comments about regime change above). But we want to have those capabilities at our disposal in case we need to use them. The Iranian regime has a long history of completely misreading the United States, and when it retaliates it sometimes goes overboard. As Michael Eisenstadt has cogently argued, the U.S. should develop these capabilities — indeed, the capability to pursue regime change should we wish to do so — and hold it in reserve as a deterrent. Even more than a nuclear attack or conventional invasion, if the Iranian regime knows that the United States has a strong capability to threaten its grip on power through covert means, that is likely to restrain it from becoming too aggressive in fighting back against a new American pushback strategy.

A Look Ahead

So that is a quick overview of what I envision this policy encompassing: The U.S. should wage an Afghan Muj-style covert war against Iran in Syria, strengthen Iraq so that it can stand independent of Iran, broker a power-sharing agreement in Yemen to extract our GCC allies and help evict the Iranians, and develop covert and cyber tools against Iran itself but hold them in reserve, all while looking to preserve but supplement the JCPOA. There is obviously far more that could be said and others might have useful additions or alternative versions of the same strategy. In the next few days I am going to lay out in greater detail what I have in mind for the Syria, Iraq, and nuclear components of the strategy, as well as come back to the issue of regime change and the role it should play.

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