Tackling the Iranian elephant in the room
US President Donald Trump’s combative rhetoric on Iran, a country that is the subject of an administration policy review, makes it look as though a new US stance has been designed to confront Tehran over strategic disagreements.
The international agreement intended to limit Iranian nuclear programme development — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — has received great attention since Trump labelled it the “worst deal ever,” committing to ending the pact. Iran and the other JCPOA signatories are not willing to renegotiate the agreement, leaving the United States isolated.
The greater point of contention between Iran and the United States is the regional role of Tehran in the Middle East. In Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and particularly in Yemen, Iranian influence has had a strategic effect on regional discourse and crossed several red lines for the United States and its international partners.
Broadly speaking, the United States has had four policy options with which to address Iran: economic sanctions, developing counterbalancing regional frameworks, encouraging regime change from within and direct military action. All four options have been mooted by Trump’s administration and all four remain on the table.
Sanctions on Iran are likely to meet strong opposition from US allies in Europe and Asia, who continue to support the nuclear deal. Challenging Iranian proxies and their influence throughout the Middle East is likewise problematic. There is little coherent, effective opposition to Iran within the region and this approach increases the risks of blowback to US forces in the region, pulling the Americans deeper into regional conflicts.
The alternative of direct military action against Iranian nuclear or military facilities could produce highly undesirable consequences, including a rapid escalation into a regional conflict. It could reinforce international perceptions that the United States cannot be trusted to uphold its commitments.
In case of such actions, Iran would likely launch retaliatory strikes against US bases and interests in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Iran’s Shahab-3 intermediate-range ballistic missile has a range of 2,000km and its Soumar cruise missile can hit targets as far as 2,500km, meaning all US forward bases in the Middle East and some bases in Europe are within range of Iranian conventional retaliation.
Retired US Air Force Lieutenant-General Thomas McInerney, writing in 2006, suggested one plan for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities that required a massive commitment of 700 aircraft, 500 cruise missiles and 28,000 bunker-buster bombs in the initial 48 hours. Following a similar war game in 2004, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner concluded that “there is no military solution” for Iran.
Thus, while targeted strikes could delay Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons by destroying infrastructure, they would probably incentivise Iran to redouble its enrichment efforts under the conviction that only a nuclear deterrent can ensure its survival.
As the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently acknowledged at the Aspen Security Forum, US actions against Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi made it clear to other countries, such as North Korea, that a nuclear deterrent may be the best way to ensure regime survival.
For years, the Obama administration oversaw not just the strengthening of the Iranian position across the region but also the alignment of US policy with Iran. Under President Barack Obama, US policy in Syria and Iraq assisted Iran in establishing a continuous geopolitical sphere of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Policymakers might believe that building up state institutions and denying Hezbollah and its sister groups “political legitimacy” over the long haul was the smarter, more sophisticated way to counter Iran. However, 12 years after this approach was tried in Lebanon, the result has been the consolidation of Hezbollah’s control, the total capitulation of its erstwhile political adversaries and the exponential growth of its military power.
Meanwhile, just as Hezbollah’s territorial control has expanded into Syria, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been lapping up real estate and state structures from Baghdad to Beirut.
In practical terms, scrapping and replacing the JCPOA is a non-starter, so the Trump administration will focus on countering Iran regionally and decide how it will respond when Tehran inevitably pushes back. The United States is keener than ever to deepen collaboration with regional partners to contain Iran and Arab Gulf countries have renewed optimism in the United States dispensing the role of a regional security guarantor.
However, the Saudi-led quartet’s dispute with Qatar and straining US-Turkish relations pose complicating challenges for the Trump administration in building effective regional opposition to Iran.
These challenges are at least partly symptomatic of the weakening of American political leadership in the world, arguably accelerating under Trump. Direct military action by the United States against Iran — despite its uncertainties and risks — thus remains plausible and would need to be designed around regime change goals.
It is within this context that the recent protests in Iran, which Tehran accused the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel of fomenting, represent a particularly welcome development for the United States because they illustrate that Iran is vulnerable and that regime change is once again a viable American policy option.