America Must Have a 'Regime Collapse' Strategic Goal for Iran

March 25, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: IranRegimeSanctionsEconomyCollapse

America Must Have a 'Regime Collapse' Strategic Goal for Iran

One cannot know when that spark will arrive in Iran, but it is incumbent upon the United States to hasten its coming, so that that evil regime collapses, as Soviet rule did, and like all evil regimes eventually do. The longer it takes, the more lives will be endangered and the more U.S. interests threatened.


To refresh and clarify U.S. policy, the administration should make “regime collapse” the clear, explicit and overarching goal for its strategy toward Iran. Clarity matters in strategy and international relations, not only to explain ourselves to our allies and enemies, and to build support among the American public, but also in directing and coordinating the various arms of the U.S. government to pursue coherent and effective policies. Trump certainly seems to value clarity and cutting through the fog of obfuscations.

Furthermore, “regime collapse” captures what the administration appears to truly want. Secretary Pompeo’s reference to Iran behaving like a “normal nation,” on top of his speech in May 2018 outlining demands on Iran, correctly implies that the Tehran regime cannot reform itself, as many on the American political left have believed for decades. And, as the failed experiment of the JCPOA has proven, inducements and goodwill will not lead Iran to unclench its fist. Instead, the only way to transform U.S.-Iranian relations and reduce the threat from Iran is for the Islamic Republic to go away. Trump has properly ruled out “regime change,” an Iraq-style invasion, which leaves “regime collapse” as the most realistic objective. 


Regime collapse is not a historically radical strategy. In fact, it essentially was a goal of the containment strategy devised for the Cold War by the creator of State’s Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan. In his “X” article for Foreign Affairs Kennan thusly diagnosed the Soviet Union in 1947:

“[The] population is physically and spiritually tired. The mass of the people are disillusioned, skeptical and no longer as accessible as they once were to the magical attraction which Soviet power still radiates to its followers abroad.… It is difficult to see how these deficiencies can be corrected at an early date by a tired and dispirited population working largely under the shadow of fear and compulsion…. Meanwhile, a great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union…. The possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”

To exploit these internal tensions, Kennan subsequently devised a comprehensive policy of pressuring Moscow economically, militarily, diplomatically, and politically. Through such application of “unalterable counterforce,” the United States could “increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

A strategy of regime collapse has the added virtue of relying on forces already at work. Indeed, Kennan and his successors articulated their strategy when Soviet power was rising. Though World War II imposed catastrophic damage on the country and was in a weaker state than U.S. policymakers realized, in the late 1940s Moscow nevertheless dominated Eurasia, including half of Europe, with ten million soldiers; it also was on the nuclear threshold and was emboldened enough to test American resolve in Berlin, Iran, Korea, and other flashpoints. Compared to later decades of stagnation, Soviet leadership was also relatively secure internally at this time, given the shared sacrifices and associated upswelling of nationalism and prestige following what they called the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-45.

By contrast, Iran is overextended internationally and economically weak, and its regime appears far more defensive, devoid of domestic legitimacy and vulnerable, even though its security forces are still willing to kill and imprison those who oppose the regime. The persistent protests in the country over the past few years have been driven in no small measure by the regime’s traditional support bases, many of whom—like those more antagonistic to the regime—are alienated and angered by the regime’s brutality, religious repression, waste of the country’s precious resources on foreign adventurism, rampant corruption, environmental mismanagement and poor governance more generally. The current “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions has only heightened these tensions, reducing the regime’s ability to buy political quiescence. And though one can’t know what sort of regime would follow in Iran, there is cause for optimism.

For this reason, the first policy implication of a regime collapse strategy should be to advance the political decomposition process already underway in Iran and do nothing to slow it down. To achieve regime collapse, the United States should implement a campaign to exacerbate the regime’s internal contradictions and domestic tensions so that it eventually collapses from within.

Yet, despite the difficulties facing the Iranian regime, the time between collapsing and collapse is unknowable; it can happen tomorrow or in ten years. In the Soviet Union’s case, it was forty years following Kennan’s diagnosis. Even with U.S. pressure, between now and its demise, the Islamic Republic will remain dangerous, perhaps increasingly so.

Thus, the second element of a regime collapse strategy must be a “rollback” policy designed to weaken Iran’s power projection capabilities and evict its existing forces and proxies from critical points around the region. Rollback itself is a significant goal, a major strategic objective in its own right. It will also boost the costs of the Tehran regime’s external activities and accelerate its decline and demise.

Rollback was an early Cold War concept that sought to alter the status quo by actively compelling an adversary to change its behavior, such as by ceding territory or weakening control over satellite states. Rollback advocates, such as John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, conceived it as an offensive and proactive strategy in contrast to what they viewed as a more passive and reactive strategy of containment as conceived by Kennan.

Eisenhower did not really pursue such a strategy, but Ronald Reagan certainly did, if not explicitly, in what became known as the Reagan Doctrine. He eschewed a defensive posture in favor of an offensive strategy to undermine the Soviet Union by exploiting its most glaring, and growing, vulnerabilities. The Soviet Union itself was an artificial construct, as was its overextended empire, and both were vulnerable in any number of ways, including a decrepit economy, ethnic and religious divisions, military burdens—most notably in Afghanistan, but also increasingly unaffordable defense spending—and the advanced decline in legitimacy of communist rule more generally. Through activities like supporting indigenous anti-communist insurgencies and using strong public diplomacy to call out these weaknesses, Reagan was able to accelerate the Soviet Union’s implosion.

Today, Iran seems somewhat reminiscent of, or even in a more advanced stage of decline than, the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, given that many demonstrations against the regime are taking place in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Iran’s military overextension in multiple intractable conflicts regionwide. There were no such demonstrations within the Soviet Union then—though the Solidarity movement in Poland signaled significant cracks in the empire, which were only to widen years later. Now is the time to be proactive in intensifying the pressure on the Iranian regime, roll back its footprint and ability to threaten, and hasten its demise.

Taken together, these two elements of a regime collapse strategy amount to a policy of “comprehensive pressure.” Such pressure must include robust economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, political warfare, and credible military threats.

III.            “Comprehensive Pressure” Policy

The main implication of a U.S. strategy of regime collapse is a policy of comprehensive pressure—economic, military, diplomatic (public and private) and political. Some of it can be directly applied by the United States, and some indirectly, by bolstering support for Israel in its effort to roll back Iranian expansion on the ground. It need not require more American boots on the ground, nor need it to conflict with an expected withdrawal of some U.S. forces currently deployed in the region.

  1. No Negotiations

The issue of talks with Tehran has bubbled up at times, and Trump seems genuinely intrigued by the proposition. He was willing to participate in a phone call in September organized by French President Emmanuel Macron, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani refused to join. Following the Suleimani killing, negotiations seem far less likely, because Tehran does not consider negotiations in its current weakened state to be advantageous. Instead, the regime seems content at this point to wait and see who wins the U.S. presidential election in November while building its own form of leverage against the United States—increasing uranium enrichment, targeting U.S. assets, and pushing Iraqis to oust U.S. forces.

Diplomatic talks always seem appealing, especially when one’s adversary is weakened, but they must have a clear purpose, and the advantages must outweigh the disadvantages. Even if the objective is the collapse of the other party, negotiations might be advantageous if they seek to avoid a catastrophic war, or facilitate a more orderly or less dangerous regime demise.

Yet, in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, negotiations could well be counter-productive if not irresponsible, unless the regime radically alters its position toward its nuclear program, missile development and regional expansion. If Tehran approached the United States with an offer of complete dismantlement of its nuclear program, as former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did fifteen years ago, then we should certainly engage the regime in talks. But there is no evidence—which Israeli sources have corroborated—of any such Iranian interest in such a shift toward the elimination of the JCPOA’s sunset clause, or severe restrictions on enrichment, let alone entertaining the Libyan model. And it’s highly unlikely the regime would move toward the Libyan model or anything close to it. It saw what happened to Qaddafi after he eliminated his nuclear program. It also saw what happened to Ukraine, after it gave up its nuclear program as codified in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Perhaps only if it thought it was about to collapse or was veering toward collapse might the Tehran regime consider significant concessions over its nuclear or regional activities.