America Can Face Down a
The regime is dangerous, but it isn’t nearly strong
enough to withstand a prolonged confrontation.
Wall Street Journal
June 16, 2019
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.