Speaking Loudly and Carrying a Little Stick: The Myopic U.S. Debate about Iran


Following a political miscalculation on both sides of its political spectrum, Iran in the first days of the year experienced a large wave of protests in more than 80 cities. The street demonstrations have begun to wane in recent days, although widespread reports of anti-regime slogans and continued economic challenges have prompted questions about whether the drop-off in public protests is a pyrrhic victory for the regime.

According to The New York Times, the country’s principlists — its hard right — inadvertently sparked these protests through their efforts to undermine Iran’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani. The principlists organized a protest after Rouhani leaked elements of the state budget to the press, showing funding for the country’s religious foundations and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The demonstrations spun out of control, prompting a wider display of anger against the Iranian state and the way in which the country is governed.

The protests have prompted considerable speculation inside the United States about what role Washington can play in aiding the protesters and policy toward Iran more generally. The policy discussion is focused, narrowly, on whether the Iranian regime can reform itself or whether the current political system is incapable of changing from within. According to proponents of the former view, the proper U.S. role is to engage with Iranian “moderates” and to try and handcuff the “hardliners” as part of a carrot-and-stick approach to incentivize positive change. The latter group doesn’t think “moderates” actually exist, and therefore the focus should be on toppling the government from the outside as quickly as possible.

For example, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote about the need to “let loose a tsunami of sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards” to undermine Iran’s theocracy. This approach is based on the assumption that Iran cannot reform from the inside, and transition on its own from hostile theocracy to a more Western-friendly democracy. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens implored Americans to pay close attention to “what Iran is. This isn’t just about whether it’s a dictatorship. What kind of dictatorship? To get the answer right is to know what kind of pressure can change its behavior or break its back.”

According to this logic, U.S. interests can only be realized after the regime is toppled and the system changed. And so, the current protests provide the United States with an opportunity to weaken an enemy and advance its own interests in the Middle East. This debate is then linked to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and the Obama administration’s determination in 2009, during a different round of protests in Iran, to be less vocal in its support for the protesters. The Obama administration, we are led to believe, was weak and encouraged Iranian aggression. The Trump administration, then, has an opportunity to get tough, exacerbate fissures in Iranian society, and push the regime towards collapse.

Vice President Mike Pence, writing in The Washington Post, made this point explicitly:

The last administration’s refusal to act ultimately emboldened Iran’s tyrannical rulers to crack down on the dissent … Today, the Iranian people are once again rising up to demand freedom and opportunity, and under President Trump, the United States is standing with them. This time, we will not be silent.

A common thread among these arguments is the need for more aggressive American efforts to sanction Iran to “push back” against the regime. Yet the discussions dodge important and uncomfortable questions about how the United States would formulate a serious and coherent Iran policy, not just ad-hoc efforts to exacerbate fissures in Iran’s governance model with the long-term intent of changing the regime. A more serious debate would instead identify the limits of American power to dictate events in Iran, taking into account the challenges that have historically accompanied state collapse in the Middle East and how those challenges could impact broader U.S. interests in the region.

Admit It: This is About Regime Change

The internal U.S. debate over “what to do” about the protests should be clear-eyed about what the discussion, and the intent of American policy towards Iran more broadly, are actually about: how to change the regime, with the hope of empowering leaders more favorable to American interests and allies. Washington has come to rely on sanctions to try and change Iranian decision-making and foment discontent in Iranian society to put pressure on the government. The United States has had sanctions in place since the 1979 revolution, although they have increased in scope in successive years. The approach has bipartisan support.

It is easy to see why. Sanctions carry little political cost and risk no American lives, and are therefore politically easy for leaders. In Iran’s case, however, the sanctions debate is not really about the efficacy of using coercion to change the regime’s policy — it’s about how to change the regime. The Iran nuclear agreement is a perfect example. In reaching a narrow, arms-control focused agreement with Iran, the Obama administration made concessions, including the lifting of certain sanctions imposed for Tehran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a regime-change agreement, although it is subtler in its intent. The most important monitoring provisions on the nuclear fuel-cycle don’t expire until 2040. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is 78 years old. His death is expected to spark discussions about Iran’s political system and, specifically, the idea that the people should be ruled by a single custodian.

In theory, these debates about Iran’s future government will take place between younger, outward-focused Iranians who prioritize the country’s economic well-being over foreign wars. The death of the supreme leader, then, could be an opportunity to remake the current system without a shot fired. To support a Western-friendly outcome, the U.S. should try to empower outward-looking and more pragmatic Iranian political factions. To do this, good behavior should be rewarded with sanctions relief, as was the case with the nuclear agreement. This argument hinges on a key assumption: Iran can change from within in ways that are favorable to the United States. The European Union has adopted this approach, and in doing so is pursuing a course of action independent of the United States. This approach elevates the importance of the nuclear agreement as a pillar of the West’s Iran policy and shows why its preservation is important beyond a narrow focus on arms control.

This concept of longer-term engagement with Iran is completely at odds with proponents of the idea that Iran cannot change from within — and that the government will spend increased state revenues on foreign wars. Thus, Khamenei or no Khamenei, proponents of this idea believe the U.S. government should work to strangle the Iranian government’s finances. This is the position the Trump administration has, largely, adopted. Pence argued that the lessening of sanctions after the nuclear agreement has “flooded the regime’s coffers with tens of billions of dollars in cash.” The “infusion of cash” has allegedly saved the regime and funded its wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, meaning the JCPOA has supposedly handcuffed American policy by requiring the easing of sanctions. The assumptions here: Iran was on the verge of collapse, sanctions relief let the regime off the hook, and the regime will cheat on the JCPOA, or simply wait until certain restrictions expire and then continue to pursue a nuclear weapon. Therefore, to have a durable agreement, the regime must be changed.

The next step preferred by the administration and Iran hawks is to recreate the pre-JCPOA status quo, using sanctions to starve the regime of cash to topple the government. Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, made this point succinctly in a memo to the new administration just after Trump’s inauguration, writing:

Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power … The very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse.

The opposite poles of the Iran debate in Washington raise broader questions about strategy and the Iran question. The sanctions-heavy approach rests on two interrelated assumptions: first, that sanctions can “coerce democratization” and second, that a new regime will make policies more favorable to American interests in the region. In this view, the protests represent a real opportunity to increase pressure on, and eventually overthrow, the Iranian government. It also presupposes that the system in Iran cannot change without the toppling of the current order and the reformulation of the existing governance model. The use of sanctions for human rights violations and over the development of ballistic missiles, then, is part of a broader effort to exacerbate societal tensions in Iran, with the hope that the Iranian people will overthrow their leaders. This policy is not well thought-out and has proved ineffective in Iran and elsewhere. Sanctions have a poor track record of changing state behavior in places where they have been imposed, like Libya, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. Inward-oriented regimes often buckle down and absorb the sanctions without making the changes the penalties were supposed to compel.

A genuine strategy matches ways and means to achieve an articulated end. The United States has, to date, never committed the required resources to change the Iranian regime, which would require the use of military force. This is an unpalatable option and rife with risks. It is unpopular to say in Washington, but the facts are that U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Syria would be put at considerable risk should America get tougher with Iran. The United States is the stronger party and would win any battle with Iran. But a president would have to absorb the political and financial cost of even a low-level conflict with Iran. Is the president willing to do this? Probably not — and Iran knows this, no matter who lives in the White House.

And herein lies the problem: The U.S. policy of speaking loudly and carrying a little stick isn’t all that effective, and is mostly a political tool to bludgeon policies that one disagrees with back home. The debates about the “people in Iran” aren’t really about the people in Iran, but about how to use those people to achieve a desired American end-goal, without thinking through an actual policy for what that end-goal would look like and that end-goal’s broader consequences for the United States.

The Limits of American Power: Asking Uncomfortable Questions

The overthrow of regimes in the Middle East — either through internal protests or through externally aided regime change — has not resulted in circumstances more favorable to American interests. Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt attest to this. In the countries where regimes were overthrown during the Arab Spring, the United States had no real impact on the trajectory of the protests, nor on the re-entrenchment of authoritarian leadership, but was nevertheless left to think through the challenges of the post-2011 regional order.

The Islamic Republic is an enemy: It has killed hundreds of Americans and works to destabilize American allies. It is therefore easy to understand why many see the Iranian protests as an opportunity. However, the United States has emphasized human rights as the main focus of its criticism of Iran. This raises uncomfortable questions about whether Washington would be so keen to support a similar protest movement in an allied country with a similar disregard for liberal values as the Islamic Republic. Obviously not. Iran poses a unique challenge because it so nakedly exposes the contradictions in U.S, policy. It’s easy to attack Iran for its flagrant disregard for human life, but in fact it poses the same challenge as many of America’s friends in the region, who are similarly inclined to use lethal force when faced with street protests.

The prospect of destabilizing Iran — welcome as it would be for many — should prompt policy-specific and uncomfortable questions, independent of the narrow focus on the means (sanctions) to achieve a narrowly defined end (regime change). A clear-eyed approach to Iran would include a serious discussion about the implications of regime collapse for American interests. It would clearly be a good thing to undermine Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, but do state collapse and the potential for an internal, Khomeinist-inspired insurgency outweigh the immediate benefits of a new Iranian government? Does rapid state collapse really contribute to American interests? If the United States pushes too hard, what will the consequences be for U.S. military forces in Iraq and Syria, or transiting the Persian Gulf? Are these potential costs greater than the expected return? Is there domestic support for potential escalation? If not, can the White House galvanize that support?

These are uncomfortable questions, precisely because Iran is an American adversary and an odious regime — but they need to be asked in order to think through a strategy that matches ends with means. It is also unclear how a new Iranian government would view the United States, another reality that analysts need to grapple with. A policy of hoping the next guys will be better isn’t a real policy. As former President Barack Obama’s critics used to be fond of saying, hope is not a strategy. In this case, hope rests upon an assumption that needs to be tested before taking steps to rapidly empower “the other guys.”

The Iranian regime will be able to quell public dissent and take control of the streets. The state security apparatus is capable and American condemnations will not stop the Basij from killing people in the streets or carrying out mass arrests. Nor will American declarations of support for the protesters stop Iranians from feeling marginalized or snuff out the resentment that led to protests in the first place The U.S. policy options will remain limited to trying to keep channels of communication open in Iran and sanctioning individuals linked to human rights concerns. These policies are, at times, at odds with one another. The numerous sanctions already imposed limit U.S. tech firms from penetrating the Iranian market, and therefore limit access to the online tools the United States wants Iranian protesters to use. Thus, sanctions relief could actually enable protesters, though such action is at odds with the preferred posture of “getting tough.”

This speaks to a broader issue: Sanctioning Iran may make Americans feel good, but it may have the opposite of the intended effect, empowering the Revolutionary Guard Corps at the expense of the Iranian people. Yet as Jeremy Shapiro and Andrew Miller wrote recently, the U.S. government is rarely willing to “do nothing,” because “doing nothing is a politically and bureaucratically unacceptable answer.” The default policy response to the Iranian protests, then, may be more sanctions — continuing the status quo, while possibly empowering the people the United States is trying to topple.

Just as the protests in Iran are not about America, the debate in the United States is not really about Iran. The internal discussion in the United States is really about the United States and its own wishes for the regime. The domestic back-and-forth also sidesteps important questions about Iran and the consequences of state collapse or of a weakened regime remaining in power. The rabid, internally focused debate crowds out rational thinking about Iran, as both sides go after each other to score political points. No one can be seen as soft on Iran, a default position that prevents sound policy analysis, yet few are willing to expend the resources needed to actually get tough. That’s the fundamental contradiction underlying the narrowly constructed debate taking place in Washington right now.


Aaron Stein is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: VOA via Wikimedia Commons

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