Key point: Both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards know that they are largely unpopular inside Iran.
Iran and the United States are as close to direct conflict as they have been for three decades, since Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 which was, at the time, the largest surface naval engagement since World War II.
A lot of ink has been spilled and oxygen expended discussing the matter, some of it good and some of it simplistic. Here a few thoughts, informed by being lucky enough to spend close to seven months studying in the Islamic Republic while finishing a doctorate in philosophy on Iranian history. I worked on the Iran desk at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, frequently visit the Persian Gulf, and have followed Iran almost continuously for a quarter century.
1) Pressure can work on Iran. There has been, for more than a decade, a curious line of argument that pressure upon Iran is counterproductive. The Century Foundation’s Dina Esfandiary, for example, tweeted that “#Iran won’t talk as pressure increases because it would be suicide for the government. They will talk when they can get something tangible in return for concessions.” And, using numbers of centrifuges as a metric, Wendy Sherman, an Obama administration negotiator, has repeatedly argued that conciliation trumps coercion on Iran.
Both Esfandiary and Sherman are wrong, however, to downplay the importance of pressure. As I detail in Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, there is precedent to the Islamic Republic caving under pressure. For instance, in 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini released U.S. hostages short of achieving his full demands. He did that not because of the persistence of diplomacy, but rather because Iran’s isolation had become too great to bear, especially against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War.
Khomeini also accepted a ceasefire in 1988 and let Saddam Hussein remain in power in Iraq, something he earlier swore he would never accept. The reason? To continue the Iran-Iraq War was too much for Iran’s economy and put the survival of Iran’s revolutionary regime at risk.
During the Obama administration, President Hassan Rouhani came to the negotiating table because of economic pressure after the Senate unanimously passed unilateral economic sanctions—a measure the White House initially opposed but then for which it took credit.
As for Sherman’s citation of centrifuge numbers, she misunderstands the broader context. Between 1998 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran nearly tripled and the price of oil quintupled. Iran’s ballooning centrifuge numbers, therefore, had less to do with coercion but were instead the result of too much diplomacy.
Iranian authorities are sophisticated, however, and they do understand U.S. politics. The fact that Iran has become a political football in Congress and on cable news may encourage Iranian aggression, especially if Iranian authorities conclude that they can precipitate or further aggravate political crises in Washington. This is why, for America, there is no substitute for unity.
2) Personnel is policy. In the U.S. military, most admirals and generals hold specific jobs for just a couple years. Few flag officers remain in their position longer than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who serves a four-year term. In Iran, however, senior officials serve longer.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Mohammad Ali Jaafari, for example, served almost twelve years before Hossein Salami replaced him earlier this year. Moreover, Ali Fadavi was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Navy for eight years, before stepping down last year in favor of Alireza Tangsiri. (Fadavi subsequently received an appointment to serve as Salami’s deputy). And, late in 2017, there was a change in command at the top of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, shaking up that organization after more than a decade.
When changes of command occur, especially in the Islamic Republic, the successors have to prove their revolutionary mettle. The U.S. Navy may not have liked Fadavi when he headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Navy, but they had come to understand him. And, despite the diplomatic vitriol between Tehran and Washington, the U.S. Navy long had cordial and professional relations with their regular Iranian counterparts. All that is history, now, as the new Iranian commanders try to test long-established redlines.
3) We could be witnessing the death throes of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic is in a perfect storm, and sanctions have hurt their economy. Tehran’s hopes that European and Asian countries would ignore U.S. sanctions have fallen short, as businessmen calculate that they cannot risk U.S. penalties regardless of what their own governments wish. Politicians and diplomats trade in words, but businesses must be beholden to their shareholders and bottom lines. None of this should surprise, of course, as the same exact debates occurred against the backdrop of President Bill Clinton’s 1994 and 1995 executive orders and the passage the following year of the Iran-Libya Sanction Act. The only difference between then and now is that Iran’s currency is also in freefall.
The problem is not just economic, however. The Islamic Republic’s old guard is dying of old age, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei realizes he may not be far behind. Unlike in 1989—the last time Iran had a leadership transition at the very top—there is no clear successor nor confidence within the system that transition will be smooth. More likely is a stalemate or even a military coup which would subordinate the clerics to the generals. Islamic Republic or not, that has been the norm throughout the bulk of modern Iranian history.
Both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards know that they are largely unpopular inside Iran. But, as Iranians resent the ruin brought to their country by forty years of clerical rule, they remain fiercely nationalistic. Khamenei and the IRGC, therefore, might try to precipitate a crisis with which they can rally Iranians around the flag.
That is the dynamic which should most concern the Trump administration now, for it is essential to maintain the pressure on Iran without playing into the hands of a regime that may want conflict. Let’s hope President Donald Trump is wise enough to allow his “maximum pressure campaign” to work without giving authorities in Tehran either a diplomatic out or resorting to military force that will backfire in the long-term.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. (This first appeared in June 2019.)