Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out the administration’s strategy toward Iran in a speech May 21 on the heels of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plane of Action (JCPOA).
The speech contains three parts: first, a list of the objectionable behavior of Iran’s clerical regime; second, the means by which the U.S. would put pressure on the regime; and finally, the reward and punishment for the regime for accepting the American demands or refusing them.
U.S. Objectives in Iran
Following the speech, Secretary Pompeo emphasized that the administration’s stated policy is not regime change. The twelve objections he listed in his speech had to do with the behavior of the regime, mostly related to its foreign policy. Three demands had to do with Iran’s nuclear program, one with missiles, and the rest with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) military operations in the region.
The U.S. policy is not to demand Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to allow free, democratic elections, or to hold a referendum whereby the Iranian people would vote to accept or reject the Islamic Republic. The demands are for the regime to behave like a normal state. There are about 194 member states of the UN. There is only one state that reportedly provides missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen to fire towards Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, an action that is prohibited by the UN Security Council resolution.
The U.S. policy is not to demand Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to allow free, democratic elections, or to hold a referendum whereby the Iranian people would vote to accept or reject the Islamic Republic. The demands are for the regime to behave like a normal state.
The Tehran regime is the only government that is providing funds, weapons, and logistical support to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. It is also one of the few governments in the world that has been providing weapons to Hamas and the Taliban. It is probably the only government in the world that has been providing assistance to violent extremist groups that want to overthrow the government of Bahrain.
The Iranian government is allegedly responsible for the assassination of several Iranian dissidents around the world, including in Europe. The fundamentalist regime and its proxies have been accused of bombing embassies in other countries, including Lebanon. It is also the only regime that has actually attacked and taken over foreign embassies on its own soil such as the U.S. embassy, the British embassy, and the Saudi Arabian embassy and consulate.
Inspections of suspected sites is spelled out in an ambiguous language in the JCPOA. The fundamentalist regime claims military sites are off-limits and that they will never allow any inspection by the IAEA, although the language of the JCPOA allows the regime to prevent that inspection for only 24 days. The Pompeo demand for “any place any time” inspections was one of the main U.S. demands during the nuclear negotiations, but was successfully buried by the Iranian negotiators.
In sum, the Pompeo demands Tehran behave like the other 190 or so governments around the world. Many observers consider these demands to be fanciful because for 40 years the regime has been pursuing extremist policies, supporting violent groups.
Trump Strategy on Iran
The Trump strategy is based on three means to achieve its goal: (1) economic sanctions; (2) military deterrence; and (3) support for the Iranian people.
The fundamentalist regime is an ultra-right wing totalitarian regime. There are great similarities between the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran (also al Qaeda and ISIS) and European fascism of 1920s-1945.
The Trump administration strategy is to use economic sanctions to weaken the fundamentalist regime. Speeches of President Trump and Secretary Pompeo seem to indicate that they believe economic sanctions would so weaken the regime that at a minimum, the dire economic situation would force the regime to scale back both its nuclear weapons program and its regional domination (e.g., retreat from Iraq and Syria).
The third leg of the strategy is to align the U.S. with the Iranian people. The administration knows that Iranians are one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East. The Pompeo speech, like that of President Trump, profusely praises the Iranian people, their culture, and history.
The reaction of the Iranian social media users was enthusiastic. So much so that #IranRegimeChange became a hugely popular hashtag. Lack of democracy, basic freedoms, human rights, and economic opportunities are major weaknesses of the regime. By publicly focusing on these, the U.S. puts great pressure on the fundamentalist regime. This tactic was also used during the Cold War as part of the containment strategy.
Analyzing American Strategy
What is the likelihood that this strategy would actually work? To provide an answer we have to analyze the nature of the fundamentalist regime, the global balance of forces, and the economic and military strengths of the U.S.
The fundamentalist regime is an ultra-right wing totalitarian regime. There are great similarities between the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran (also al Qaeda and ISIS) and European fascism of 1920s-1945. President Obama’s concessions to Khamenei, like Neville Chamberlin’s appeasement of Hitler, at best postponed the inevitable conflict. Trump’s strategy towards the fundamentalist regime is similar to Churchill’s reversal of Chamberlin’s policy toward Nazi Germany.
The U.S. destruction of the Islamic Republic’s rivals created openings that Khamenei used to expand his domination. The JCPOA not only did not succeed in appeasing Khamenei but it actually further fueled his expansionism.
From the moment Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini arrived in Iran in 1979, he began a violent process of creating a reactionary repressive regime that brutalized the Iranian people and exporting his violent reactionary ideology to the rest of the Middle East.
During the Cold War (1980s), the fundamentalists ruling Iran enjoyed a very favorable strategic environment. The biggest fear in Washington was the Soviet Union and local communists. The Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations took a lot of abuse from the ayatollahs, fearing that a strong response might cause their overthrow and replacement with communists.
This favorable strategic environment continued after the collapse of the USSR. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait diverted the attention of the U.S. from the religious reactionaries toward Saddam. Then, with the September 11 terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda became the main enemy. American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took their painful tolls in American blood and treasure. The rise of ISIS then diverted American attention from Iran.
The U.S. destruction of the Islamic Republic’s rivals created openings that Khamenei used to expand his domination. The JCPOA not only did not succeed in appeasing Khamenei but it actually further fueled his expansionism. The Islamic Republic’s never-ending appetite for domination has created a backlash in the region. For the first time since 1979, the strategic environment is not favorable for the fundamentalist regime.
The Trump strategy is the logical response to the fundamentalist regime’s threats to peace and security of the region. This strategy is strongly supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Israel.
Because of the highly ideological nature of the Tehran regime, there is a very high likelihood that the regime will refuse to accept the American demands to behave like other normal states in the world. In other words, Khamenei will continue his objectionable policies. He will try to counter the U.S. strategy in many ways.
First, Khamenei will try to use the Europeans against the U.S. Second, Khamenei will attempt to garner support from Russia and China. Third, Khamenei will attempt to avoid a direct war with the U.S. Fourth, Khamenei will attempt to avoid a major war, hoping that Trump will not be re-elected in 2020.
In the past two years, Saudi Arabia has carried out a highly successful diplomatic campaign against Tehran. It has convinced the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference to condemn the Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and to condemn the Islamic Republic’s interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia and its allies want to see the U.S. or Israel to use their militaries at a minimum to weaken the Islamic Republic or at a maximum to overthrow the fundamentalist regime. Israel, too, would like to see the U.S. use its military at a minimum to weaken the Islamic Republic or at a maximum to overthrow the regime. In 2018, Israel has made several military strikes on the IRGC bases in Syria, killing large numbers of IRGC personnel and those of its proxies. The U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia alliance is a powerful one.
Secretary Pompeo's speech articulates a strategy of containment. It is realistic, necessary, and bold. It has a very high likelihood of success. Due to its nature, the fundamentalist regime will not behave like a normal state. Therefore, we should expect to witness serious confrontations in the next year or two. The Iranian people have been the main victims of the regime. Their suffering will continue until this regime is replaced with a political system based on democracy, freedom, human rights, and pluralism. The more countries that support this strategy, the sooner we will see an end to the suffering of the Iranian people.