With a bipartisan vote on Feb. 13 requiring Congressional authorization for military action against Iran, the U.S. Senate made official its view that the United States does not want a war with Tehran. But what does the United States want in regards to Iran, and how does it go about pursuing its objectives?
As we approach two months since the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, there are still two sharply distinct approaches: One comes from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It prioritizes sustained economic pressure on Iran and regional isolation. The alternative proposes renewed engagement with Iran that would begin by rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 accord on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Each approach has its moderate and extreme forms. Sustained pressure can be a way of containing Iran without force, inducing it to negotiate stronger and longer constraints on its nuclear program, as well as on its missile development and its destabilizing activities in the region. Or it can be the prelude for conflict, possibly driven by the goal of regime change.
Renewed engagement can mean a return to the cautious, eyes-wide-open detente of the Obama Administration -- matching hopes for incremental reform with continued scrutiny of Iran’s security-related posture. Or it can mean wholesale normalization of Iran, including the revolutionary concept that the United States should accept Tehran as a legitimate actor in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
In short, the choice is between one of skepticism, in which Iran is the party that must change course, or optimism, in which it is the United States that must change course, moving from exclusion to inclusion of Iran.
The Senate has spoken and Iran has just elected its next parliament, which makes now an opportune time to reflect. The question of what to do about Iran is particularly important for Democrats. There is a real risk of a ‘Trump in reverse’ dynamic taking over the party’s foreign policy platform, with reflexive demands to cancel the administration’s policies simply because they are hallmarks of the previous president. Instead of, for example, dialing back on Trump’s excesses with the Saudis and Israelis, and examining objectively the conduct and character of the Iranian regime, the temptation to embrace radical solutions could mount.
U.S. national security rests on a prudent assessment of American interests and ways to protect them, and Iran remains the most volatile challenge facing any American president. Here are four contradictions that undermine the case for a radical reversal of policy.
- ‘Iran can withstand the pressure campaign and will not collapse’ and ‘Iran cannot withstand the pressure and will be forced to strike again’
When it comes to the near-term impact of the pressure campaign, critics face a conundrum. On one hand, the Iranian regime is said to be able to ride out the sustained, devastating economic and social impact of sanctions, which have effectively denied Iran the ability to sell oil. On the other hand, the sanctions are said to have forced Iran into a corner, making further confrontation inevitable.
Can both propositions be true? Can U.S. pressure simultaneously fall short of its aims -- achieving neither a new negotiation nor regime collapse -- and also push Iran into war? Let’s consider what we know: Last spring, Iran reacted violently to new sanctions. They mined vessels in the Persian Gulf, downed a U.S. drone and struck two Saudi oil installations. Iran also began to back away from compliance with the nuclear deal, and it took a further step after the Soleimani assassination.
Last fall, sanctions forced the regime to raise gasoline prices. This sparked widespread protests. It took a lethal crackdown to subdue the protesters, itself causing unprecedented public outbursts and resentment. The Jan. 2 assassination of the iconic Soleimani then produced a massive outpouring, a display of reverence and support that Iran’s leaders underscored in taunting public statements aimed at the United States. However, even in the midst of this fervor, protesters returned to the streets when the regime refused to acknowledge culpability for the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. Protesters went well beyond complaints about economic hardship and directly challenged the regime’s legitimacy.
The Flight 752 tragedy may have wrecked the regime's ability to stoke nationalist anger at the United States over the 1988 downing of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes. Only two days prior to Flight 752 tragedy, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had invoked that incident in a riposte to President Trump, only to see Iran shamed by a similar disaster. (Unlike Rouhani in 2020, President Reagan in 1988 immediately apologized for the airliner tragedy.)
In February, Iran disqualified about 7,000 candidates from parliamentary elections for openly political reasons. This included almost 100 sitting legislators and prompted some opposition leaders to call for a boycott. Turnout for the elections appears to have measured at a historic low, driven there by dejection over the mass disqualifications as well by fears of coronavirus, a threat the regime had downplayed prior to the poll. Predictably, conservatives, including those associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were elected.
The net result is that two months after experiencing a shocking setback, the Iranian regime finds itself in a more precarious domestic position. At a minimum, the mass disqualifications of candidates prove the Soleimani assassination was not a windfall for the regime, which would have been expected to reap a bonanza at the polls over the slaying. Regime hardliners have strengthened their grip in parliament, but at the cost of weakening the regime’s legitimacy. There was little benefit to doing this, since the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council already wield ultimate control. The widening coronavirus epidemic will further test the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens it is meant to serve.
Meanwhile, the international status quo for Tehran remains in place, with U.S. sanctions curtailing its foreign trade and leaving Iran unable to sell its oil. To Tehran’s frustration, the European signatories of the JCPOA have not yet managed to devise an effective work-around for U.S.-imposed sanctions, and such efforts may be moot for some time. France, Germany and the United Kingdom had conditioned trade on Tehran’s removal from the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force. This multilateral body just extended Iran’s tenure on that list for failing to approve anti-terrorism legislation.
Iran enjoys the sympathy of JCPOA signatories when it comes to the hardships inflicted by U.S. sanctions, but not when it comes to Iranian military reprisals. Tehran must be disappointed that its brazen September strike on two Saudi oil installations earned it a strong rebuke by London, Paris and Berlin, while Washington’s brazen assassination of Soleimani brought only concern and even limited support.
At the Munich Security Conference in February, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran’s reprisals over Soleimani were finished. However, he added that it was possible that Iraqis would seek their own vengeance for slain militia leader Abu Mahdi Muhandis. Zarif’s comment is a reminder that Iran’s formidable regional position remains largely the same post-Soleimani. Its prestige suffered a blow, but its proxies remain loyal and firm. After Soleimani, Iran moved swiftly, stepping up military activity in Syria and reaching out to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It may have persuaded Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to effectively shut down protests in Iraq -- protests in which Iran has become a primary target. Iran retains its dynamic relationship with Qatar. It still has open channels to Oman and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries in the region.
Tehran’s military options are more uncertain now, for several reasons. Iran now knows that Washington is willing to impose a serious cost for attacks against U.S. assets, if not for allied interests in the region. The congressional resolution, which Trump will veto, will probably not alter Tehran’s calculus. The resolution raises Trump’s political risk for acting against Iran without consultation, but Trump could also perceive political risk in failing to respond to any Iranian provocation. Tehran also knows that, contrary to the administration’s claims, Soleimani was not hatching a plot against the United States when he was hit. On the other hand, Washington had impeccable intelligence on Soleimani’s movements. The intelligence success of the United States, and Iran’s failure, could act as a deterrent. Further, the loss of Soleimani, Muhandis and another nine associates may have had an operational impact on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force.
In sum, maximum pressure leaves Iran facing an aggravated array of economic and social problems, with fewer options to address them. Regime survival may not be at stake, but Tehran can no longer rely on its usual demonization of the United States to subdue opposition. Repression carries its own risks of fueling further resentment. Hostile action, whether overt or covert, remains at Tehran’s disposal and may ultimately be its choice, but it carries greater risk after Soleimani.
2. ‘Regime change is an illusion’ and ‘Regime reform is plausible’
The very argument against sanctions-induced regime collapse -- that the regime is too impervious and entrenched to be displaced -- also undercuts the notion of incremental regime reform in Iran. A government that can comfortably and consistently manage unrest is also unlikely to undertake significant political reform -- a step that authoritarians typically take only when forced to.
Because the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, the question remains open whether the envisioned opening of Iran to improved economic conditions, trade and investment would, over time, have brought political liberalization and less noxious regional behavior. The limited empirical record is mixed. No doubt President Rouhani and his allies were strengthened in the initial period after the deal was signed when hopes for change were high. He was then weakened when expectations were not met. The Trump withdrawal exposed Rouhani and Zarif to derision from skeptics who distrust the United States.
Externally, it is hard to identify significant shifts in Iran’s posture. Even during the final 20 months of the Obama administration, when the deal was largely in place, Tehran took aggressive steps. The same month the deal was finalized, Tehran tested the Emad, a medium-range, nuclear-capable missile. (The Obama administration swiftly imposed new sanctions on Iran and raised the matter to the UN Security Council.)
Would reform become possible if the United States rejoined the accord and dropped sanctions, opening up a new era of trade, investment and growth in Iran? There is no guarantee. China has shown that oppressive regimes can reform their economies and open them to foreign trade and investment without losing their grip on political power or on the ideology that undergirds their legitimacy.
A more relevant, less inflated comparison is with Vietnam, another one-party state that has liberalized its economy without broad political reform. Hanoi, largely on its own and without many grand gestures on the part of the United States, has moved past a devastating war that killed millions and has embraced a new, cooperative relationship with Washington.
Of course, Vietnam’s core ideology allows national pride over the long, bitter struggle to co-exist with a new era of mutual respect with the United States. In contrast, the core ideology of Iran’s regime, a sclerotic and corrupt theocracy, is centered on opposition to the United States. The redoubtable pragmatism of the Vietnamese is not detectable in Iran, even among reformists like Zarif and Rouhani. It may be that across the ruling spectrum in Iran, so-called resistance to the United States is perceived as essential to regime survival. In other words, the scope for reform in Iran may be inherently limited by the regime’s founding ideology.
It may also be that regime collapse is as chimerical as regime reform. In the end, the Iran we know is the one that we may have live with it indefinitely. In that case, skepticism, rather than optimism, would appear to be the prudent course.
This is the first of a two-part essay on the topic. Part II will be published on Tuesday, March 3.
Edward Joseph is senior fellow and adjunct professor in Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has served in senior positions in US and international missions in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the Balkans. The views expressed are the author's own.