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.


Short of that, just conducting negotiations with Tehran could bolster the regime, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. As it has recently stated, the regime would only agree to negotiations if it received sanctions relief as a precondition. Even if the United States did not grant such relief, it might find it more challenging to enforce sanctions on non-American companies if negotiations commence. Either way, it would offer the regime an economic lifeline at its more desperate moment. Also, negotiations would demoralize Iranian protestors challenging the regime on the streets. Talks would signal that the United States accepts the legitimacy of, and is willing to work with, an Iranian regime that jails, tortures, and kills its own people, which the Trump administration has increasingly denounced.

Pursuing negotiations for a highly unlikely deal with Tehran could also pose real political risks for Trump. It is unlikely to mollify any of his critics, while it could raise serious concerns among his key supporters, especially in the Jewish and evangelical Christian pro-Israel communities for whom stopping Iran is both a pressing moral and strategic issue.

  1. Building Deterrence & Pressure

It is vital for the United States to cement the gains in deterrence and credibility accomplished by the Suleimani strike. Credible military deterrence historically has been the most reliable means of dissuading Iranian aggression and disincentivizing the regime from expanding its nuclear program. Establishing it requires clearly and unequivocally communicating that the U.S. will and resolve to use force to protect itself and its allies against Iranian threats. Effectively signaling to Tehran that the game has, indeed, changed will require both statements and actions.

Recognizing that Iran has been at war with the United States since the Islamic Republic’s inception, even if it wages that conflict primarily in the deniable and asymmetric “gray zone,” Tehran should be put on notice that the Suleimani killing was not an aberration. The Department of Defense should articulate clear redlines against nuclear escalation and be prepared to counter the use of force by Iran or its proxies, including, e.g., rocket/missile and drone attacks against U.S. forces. It should explicitly state that the United States will defend U.S. and allied forces and maritime traffic (including use of disabling fire and deadly force) against illegal and aggressive Iranian naval actions. The United States must also make clear it will retaliate against Iranian assets for Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. forces, personnel or installations. Targets of such potential retaliation should include Iranian military commanders operating on the battlefield outside of Iran’s borders.

The credibility of such statements can be further bolstered by clear demonstrations of U.S. resolve. The United States should maintain a limited military presence in Syria and Iraq, updating these forces’ rules of engagement to permit appropriately forceful self-defense responses to provocations by Iran or its proxies. It should also prepare and publicize viable contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities and coordinate with Israel and other regional partners against subsequent Iranian retaliation.

The great success the Trump administration is already achieving in the economic realm must be maintained. This requires the fuller implementation of economic sanctions on critical regime revenue sources, in particular oil, natural gas, petrochemicals, metals, and banking sectors.

It should also take the form of furthering Iran’s diplomatic isolation by coordinating with EU-3 partners Britain, France, and Germany to implement and enforce snapback of UN sanctions that were lifted or lessened by the JCPOA—a process already begun by the European parties to the deal. Snapback would effectively reimpose legally binding prohibitions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and prevent the looming end of a crucial UN arms embargo on Iran in October 2020. 

A regime collapse strategy should expand to encompass other elements of a pressure campaign that are currently missing. The United States must wage a concerted political warfare campaign targeting and exploiting Tehran’s growing domestic vulnerabilities and the regime’s rising internal illegitimacy. This could be accomplished through information operations highlighting for the Iranian public their regime’s abysmal governance; cyber operations targeting the regime’s ability to control and censor its domestic internet; and covert support for political, sectarian and ethnic dissidents, among other measures.

The United States might also seek to foment tensions within Iran, which has sizable Kurdish, Arab, Baloch and Azeri populations which have been at best marginalized, and often brutally persecuted, by the regime—in many cases prompting varying degrees of separatist movements. The regime’s sense of vulnerability is heightened by the fact that many of these groups’ strongholds are on Iran’s strategic frontiers—Kurds along the Iraq border, Arabs in energy-rich Khuzestan and Baloch along the vital Arabian Sea coastline.

  1. Rollback

Still, the United States should go beyond just building pressure and deterrence; it should help roll back Iran’s outsized regional footprint and its ability to threaten its neighbors and even the United States. This alone is a major strategic objective. It would also raise the costs of Iranian aggressive activities while buying time and space for the Tehran regime to collapse. It would also hearten Middle Eastern allies uncertain about future U.S. intentions in the region.

For instance, the United States could interdict Iranian weapons supplies going through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon by land and air, and by sea to Yemen. It could also threaten Iran that it will shoot down any ballistic or cruise missiles fired by Iran or its proxies, in war or in tests, as a way to stymie its missile development in a way that sanctions clearly are not doing successfully. The same policy could apply to Iranian drones. None of these options requires new boots on the ground, but they do involve a new conception of the use of existing forces.

Certainly, the most impactful form of a rollback would be to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Such an effort, at least for a time, would eliminate one of the major rising threats to the American homeland and our assets and allies in the Middle East, and send a powerful message to North Korea. It would also likely deliver a punishing blow to the Tehran regime’s credibility in the Middle East, and its legitimacy among the Iranian people—thereby undermining its durability.

i.                Rollback by Proxy: Bolster Israeli Deterrence and Capabilities

Whether or not the United States pursues some or all of these direct measures, or even if it does not pursue any of them, it should most certainly strengthen its support for regional partners who are, or could be, committed to defending against and countering Iranian aggression. Primarily, that means beefing up Israeli deterrence and military capabilities in its campaign to roll back Iran on the ground and prepare for a major multi-front war with Iran/Hezbollah, which seems increasingly likely. Indeed, America should see Israel’s willingness to effectively defend against and push back against Iran as a way to advance U.S. interests, without using U.S. troops, and is perfectly compatible even with the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from the region. In fact, it seems the Trump administration is increasingly perceiving Israel this way.

It would broadly bolster Israeli deterrence if the United States concluded a narrow defense treaty with Israel, to be implemented in exceptional circumstances when Israel’s viability if not existence is threatened, as the leaders of the countries have begun to discuss. This would not only minimize the likelihood/risk of a major Iranian-Israeli war but could mitigate its severity and scope while limiting its impact on other U.S. interests and assets in the region. JINSA has conducted pioneering work on such a treaty and wrote a draft text.

Of course, it would be best for U.S. interests for Israel to always be able to defend itself by itself, as the Jewish state has done since its founding in 1948. To wit, it would advance a regime collapse strategy for the United States to frontload the 2016 defense assistance MoU to Israel, inked under President Barack Obama, without raising the total cost. This would mostly involve financing and permitting Israel to gain, in the next several years, greater amounts of precision-guided missiles (PGMs), KC-46 refueling tankers, F-35 combat aircraft, and other important weapons and platforms. It would also help to replenish and update U.S. prepositioned stockpiles of weapons in Israel, especially precision-guided missiles (PGMs). Also, the United States could by executive action raise Israel’s status as an ally to facilitate greater sharing of intelligence, military equipment and technology, assuming Israel addresses U.S. concerns about Chinese investment in Israel’s high-technology and critical infrastructure sectors.

ii.              Rollback by Other Proxies: Support Counter-Iran Regional Actors

Beyond Israel, the United States should implement something resembling the Reagan Doctrine by supporting those forces around the region that are opposed to Iranian domination and interference.

A principal vulnerability of Iran’s regional strategy is its dependence on brutal regimes to rule lands riven by ethno-sectarian fissures. The United States should exploit this by supporting or building up political or military forces in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen that oppose Iran’s domination and/or seek greater self-determination or independence from Iran’s weak clients. The result could be transforming these failed states into loose confederations or new countries with borders that more naturally conform along ethno-sectarian lines. Currently, these countries are not nation-states as Americans understand them but post-WWI artificial constructs mostly created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in a colossally failed experiment by international leaders.