Magazine | March 7, 2011, Issue

Reaganite Iran Strategy

A multi-front attack can overcome the ayatollahs just as it overcame the Soviets

After years of fruitless outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a troublesome question is now being discussed in Washington: What if the differences between Iran and the United States cannot be overcome with diplomatic mediation? Given our ongoing entanglements in the Middle East, neither the Obama administration nor the American public seems eager for another military confrontation, and even without those entanglements, war would be a terrifying prospect. Yet it is possible to disarm an adversary, pressure it into abandoning its ideological underpinnings, and even pave the way for its peaceful demise, all without firing a shot. To understand how this can happen to the Islamic Republic, one only needs to recall Ronald Reagan’s dealings with another ideological relic — the Soviet Union.

Reagan developed his ideas on how to confront the Soviet Union over a period of many years. Like other foreign-policy hawks in the 1970s, he wanted to rebuild America’s military and reverse a long period of Soviet and Communist expansion. Also like them, he viewed the Soviet regime as hostile, aggressive, and revolutionary in intent. Yet at the same time, he held a number of beliefs that were unusual among his fellow hawks. His aim was neither peaceful coexistence nor indefinite struggle, but instead the ultimate forcing of a worthwhile arms-control agreement on terms favorable to the U.S. He did not believe that the Soviet system could handle sustained economic, military, and technological competition with the United States, and he thought that exerting such pressure on the USSR and its proxies could force a capitulation. As he told his friend Richard Allen in 1977 when asked for his long-term ambition in relation to the Soviet Union: “We win and they lose.”

Upon entering the White House in 1981, Reagan developed and implemented a comprehensive strategy for achieving this goal. The most obvious point of vulnerability for the USSR was its economic feebleness. Reagan was determined that the United States should stop subsidizing the Soviet economy. He looked to deny Western currency, trade, and technology to the Soviet bloc. And although such efforts met with only partial success among America’s European allies, Reagan’s policies of anti-Communist economic warfare had painful cumulative effects on the Soviet economic system.

Reagan also understood that after years of neglect, American power had to be revitalized. Under his persistent prodding, the United States undertook a major buildup in its armed forces, designed to reassure allies, deter Soviet aggression, and restore U.S. diplomatic leverage. This included a national missile-defense program and the deployment of multiple new weapons systems.

At the same time, Reagan began an ideological assault. To the horror of the West’s intellectual class, he openly described the Soviet Communist system as immoral, dysfunctional, illegitimate, and doomed. He extolled free markets and increased funding for practical methods of democracy promotion, such as the Voice of America and the National Endowment for Democracy. In this way he looked to delegitimize Communist rule in Eastern Europe, throw Soviet leaders on the defensive psychologically, inspire anti-Communist dissidents, and fight back in the Cold War’s propaganda struggles. Such measures were not limited to rhetoric, as the Reagan administration provided military and financial aid, weapons, training, and logistical support to anti-Communist insurgents in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa. It further provided covert aid to Poland’s Solidarity movement, in concert with the Vatican and U.S. labor unions.

#page#Finally, Reagan knew he needed to offer positive alternatives to Soviet arms-control proposals, in order to undercut international and domestic criticism of his hard-line approach. However, instead of seeking to placate the “nuclear freeze” movement, he made proposals, such as the “zero option” (withdrawal of all American and Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Europe), that were highly favorable to U.S. national-security interests, and he refused to settle for anything that was not.

All these forms of pressure — economic, military, diplomatic, covert, and ideological — were meant to work together, by exploiting Moscow’s vulnerabilities and imposing costs on the Soviet empire in every way possible. Yet Reagan’s strategy also involved certain self-imposed and sensible limitations. For instance, he avoided any large-scale, protracted, or direct U.S. military interventions against Communist countries, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, because he knew that they might undermine domestic support for his overall approach.

Soviet leaders were shaken and alarmed by that approach. By 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev had come to the conclusion that the USSR could not continue the Cold War competition in the traditional way, so he agreed to an intermediate-range nuclear-arms accord — the INF Treaty — that essentially granted the concessions Reagan had sought since the early 1980s. By the time Reagan left the White House, in 1989, he had achieved his main strategic goal. The collapse of the Evil Empire followed almost immediately.

The case of Iran today is certainly different from that of the Soviet Union, although not so different as to render Reagan’s example irrelevant. The two most striking differences are probably, first, that Iran is smaller and — especially because it does not yet possess nuclear weapons — less heavily armed than the Soviet Union was, and second, that Soviet decision-making turned out to be fairly cautious when it came to the possibility of a nuclear exchange. We don’t know whether Iran’s current rulers would be similarly cautious. So if anything, the arguments for an American strategy of comprehensive pressure against Tehran are even stronger than they were against the Soviet Union, while the risks associated with a direct U.S.–Iranian military confrontation — while very serious — are less than they would have been with the USSR.

The Obama administration has taken some steps toward a strategy of pressure against Iran. Most of them have focused on segregating the Islamic Republic from global financial markets in order to increase the stress on its already mismanaged economy. This has been effective to a degree, but since, as was true in the USSR, the cruel men who rule the country have little concern for the welfare of their population, more pressure is needed. The only way to extract concessions from the Islamic Republic is to imperil its existence.

Since its fraudulent June 2009 presidential election, the Islamic Republic has faced an acute crisis of legitimacy. An American president known, like Reagan, for his inspirational use of language should follow Reagan’s model and stake out a moral position. By insisting that the theocratic regime is bound to take its place in history’s junkyard, Obama can inspire a nation seeking to liberate itself from the clutches of clerical despotism. Reagan’s rhetoric was often mocked as naïve, yet we now know that his persistent denunciations of Soviet rule as a moral affront did much to sustain dissidents locked behind the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain.

The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia affirm Reagan’s judgment that democratic yearnings can penetrate even the most hardened dictatorships. As change spreads across the Middle East, Tehran’s theocracy may yet feel the contagion effect. Iran is in some ways even more vulnerable to popular uprising than was the House of Mubarak, since it has a well-educated population that has rejected the radical legacy of its revolution and is ready to respond to calls for genuine change.

#page#It is common to suggest that Iran’s anti-government Green Movement is all but dead, an unfortunate casualty of the Islamic Republic’s efficient and ruthless apparatus of suppression. But the Green Movement’s successes are noteworthy and continuing: It has not just fractured the state, with many of the regime’s staunch loyalists defecting to the opposition, but also captured the imagination of Iran’s youth and its burdened middle class. Popular agitation goes on, albeit on a smaller scale, as Iran remains a land of work stoppages and rebellious universities. As was true with Solidarity in Poland, Iran’s Greens are worthy of receiving material and moral support, which will have the twin advantages of paving the way for a democratic transition in the long run and providing Washington with a lever to temper Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the short term. As was true with the Soviet Union, we will never make progress on arms-control issues with the Islamic Republic until its grip on power seriously starts to erode.

Another feature of the pressure policy must be encirclement of Iran by American bases and allies. Efforts to turn the Arab Gulf states into an anti-Iranian alliance should be augmented with further deployment of American naval and military forces on Iran’s periphery. Instead of responding to Iran’s proxy war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan with pleas for cooperation, the administration should exclude Tehran from all conclaves and meetings plotting the future of that country.

We are in proxy wars with Iran not just in Afghanistan, but in many critical parts of the Middle East. The likeliest source of renewed tension is Lebanon. Attempts there to restrain Iran’s terrorist protégé, Hezbollah, will require assisting our democratic allies and supporting the special tribunal that will issue indictments of Hezbollah personnel for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, who had been the Lebanese prime minister. Washington should insist to both the Lebanese government and key regional actors such Egypt and Saudi Arabia that it will not allow the indictments to lapse.

In Iraq, our task is to press the Baghdad government into recognizing that it must choose between alliance with America and flirtation with Iran. To make this demand credible, the United States will have to remain engaged in Iraq, providing military training, financial assistance, and a commitment to the state’s rehabilitation. Despite rhetorical posturing, most Iraqi factions — whether Kurdish, Sunni, or even Shiite — prefer American patronage to Iranian mischief. We may not be able to completely expunge Iran’s influence, but by aggressively competing with it, we can further stress Iran’s resources and limit its reach.

As was true with Reagan, it is neither prudent nor judicious for the United States to eschew negotiations completely while pursuing these avenues. But the terms of diplomacy should move away from seeking a compromise and toward demanding submission. And the pressure should not cease until the Islamic Republic shutters its nuclear apparatus, abandons terrorism, and desists from abusing its citizens.

Hovering over all this is Iran’s nuclear program, whose progress has been somewhat slowed by a combination of sanctions and covert operations. Efforts at sabotage and economic pressure should continue and intensify as a means of delaying Iranian nuclear outbreak. As Iran is aggressively squeezed, it may return to negotiations in a more tractable mood.

The Islamic Republic is a second-rate autocracy, disdained by its people and distrusted by its neighbors. Ronald Reagan understood that a dysfunctional tyranny, however well armed, cannot sustain vigorous competition with a strong, confident, democratic power. President Obama, who has spoken positively of Reagan’s legacy and has reportedly studied his presidency, would be wise to apply these Reaganite lessons to our greatest Middle East challenge.

– Mr. Dueck is a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and the author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II (Princeton University Press, 2010). Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford University Press, 2009).

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