America Can Face Down a Fragile Iran

The regime is dangerous, but it isn’t nearly strong enough to withstand a prolonged confrontation.

Outlet: Wall Street Journal

Date: June 16, 2019

By: Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh

In the U.S. and Europe, much of the mainstream media has swallowed a narrative about Donald Trump and Iran. While Iran is an aggressive authoritarian state, the story goes, it is nonetheless a victim of American belligerence. Tehran was adhering to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, negotiated by the Obama administration, when the truculent Mr. Trump abruptly abandoned the accord. For more than a year, according to the narrative, the mullahs have shown patience by continuing to abide by the agreement, even with the resurrection of punishing American sanctions.

Iranian patience has run out, critics complain, because of the Trump administration’s recent announcement that it will try to drive the Islamic Republic’s oil exports to zero. Tehran’s “hard-liners” now have the upper hand. Washington’s economic warfare, the narrative goes, may provoke the clerical regime into a military conflict. And if war comes, the mullahs are ready to trap America in another Middle Eastern quagmire.

The narrative misses a key point. Iran is in no shape for a prolonged confrontation with the U.S. The regime is in a politically precarious position. The sullen Iranian middle class has given up on the possibility of reform or prosperity. The lower classes, once tethered to the regime by the expansive welfare state, have also grown disloyal. The intelligentsia no longer believes that faith and freedom can be harmonized. And the youth have become the regime’s most unrelenting critics.

Iran’s fragile theocracy can’t absorb a massive external shock. That’s why Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has, for the most part, adhered to the JCPOA, and why he is likely angling for negotiation over confrontation with the Great Satan.

The ruling clerics, Mr. Khamenei in particular, are competent strategists. They appreciate the need to enhance their leverage before any talks. Terrorism has always been the regime’s preferred method of inflicting pain on adversaries. Assassination attempts orchestrated by Iranian “diplomats” in Europe are on the rise. These thwarted operations, which could have killed many people, appear to have inclined the Europeans toward more dialogue with Tehran, not less.

The regime also has at its disposal foreign militias such as Hezbollah, which it uses to target regional foes without admitting direct responsibility. And there are more-direct means to increase negotiating leverage. The attacks in recent weeks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman are probably the handiwork of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s naval units, which train regularly in the use of mines. The most recent shipping attacks have had their intended effect. European officials, Democratic politicians and much of the American press are pleading for dialogue.

The key to dealing with the Islamic Republic is to appreciate that it is an exhausted regime, perhaps well on its way to extinction. A vulnerable, resentful enemy is a dangerous one. The U.S. should shore up its military might in the region and harden defenses around bases and diplomatic compounds. But the regime’s essential weakness means it can’t muster sufficient strength for a prolonged conflict with a determined superpower. The mullahs’ clenched fists, slogans of martyrdom, and staged demonstrations shouldn’t be confused with real power. The Trump administration’s strategy of maximum pressure shouldn’t be diluted as the two sides edge closer to the negotiating table.

Despite the criticisms from Democrats and Europeans, Mr. Trump’s Iran policy has had considerable success. He abrogated a deficient agreement that was smoothing Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. He restored sanctions, which many Iran-deal partisans insisted couldn’t be done effectively. The economic pain Tehran feels today is as great as when the Europeans implemented their oil embargo in 2012. Iran’s oil exports have contracted rapidly, denying the regime billions of dollars in hard currency. The key challenge for the Trump administration now is to sustain its strategy as the Iranians start dangling the possibility of a diplomatic opening.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s most important contribution has been to dispense with the once-popular notion that the nuclear issue can be separated from the clerical regime’s regional ambitions. His May 2018 “12 points” speech sensibly posited that the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism shouldn’t possess a nuclear arsenal. The administration has developed a containment strategy that is unconventional and restrained—Iran’s expeditionary forces and allied militias in the northern Middle East haven’t been targeted—but still punishing. As long as Mr. Trump is willing to respond to a direct challenge, conventional or nuclear, and Tehran is convinced of the president’s mettle, time is on Washington’s side.

America’s Iran problem will remain until the theocracy cracks. Given the regime’s inability to escape the contradictions of its own making, that day is drawing closer. The U.S. needs stamina—and a clear understanding of how the enemy sees itself.


Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.