After almost eight months, the Trump administration has yet to come up with a comprehensive Iran policy. The White House has grudgingly abided by its predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran, while adopting a more hawkish tone toward Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Neo-conservative think tanks are pushing the Trump administration to adopt a more aggressive stance that would diminish Iran’s regional role and even seek the overthrow of the Iranian government.
Recently, Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote an op-ed on Wall Street Journal in which he called for a “Reagan way” of confronting Iran. In his piece, he selectively chose portions of the Reagan era National Security Strategy Decision Directive 75(NSDD-75), which addresses US-Soviet relations, to argue that the United States should “roll back” Iran’s expanding influence, in the same manner that the Reagan administration did to the Soviet Union. This argument is flawed for many reasons, and will certainly not enhance US national interests.
For one, Dubowitz omits the third task of the directive, which specifically called to “engage the Soviet Union in negotiations to attempt to reach agreements which protect and enhance U.S. interests…”
Dubowitz has been a strong critic of the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran, which led to verifiable curbs on the Iranian nuclear program and avoided a new military conflict in the region. We should keep in mind that while President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” he went on to negotiate a major arms control treaty with Moscow. In addition, while Reagan’s State Department was the first to designate Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, his administration secretly reached out to Tehran and sold weapons to the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war to “renew a relationship with the nation of Iran.”
Both cases demonstrate Reagan’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy and his priority on putting the interests of the United States first. In contrast, Dubowitz’s call for a unilateral US withdrawal and renegotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will certainly not enhance the US interests, as the European Union and others have stated their commitment to the Iran nuclear deal as long as Iran does the same.
Further, comparing Iran — which at best is a middle-sized power — with the Soviet Union is inherently flawed. The USSR was not only ideologically at odds with the United States but also capable of inflicting unacceptable losses on US cities and on US allies in Western Europe. By 1985, the Soviet Union was capable of delivering up to 11,000 nuclear warheads on American targets. Iran, on the other hand, as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as a signatory of the JCPOA, is legally required to remain a Non-Nuclear Weapons State.
While Iran seeks to limit the US presence in the Persian Gulf, it is mainly concerned with deterring an attack on the Iranian homeland and preserving its ties with Shi’ite partners such as Hezbollah. Unlike the Soviet Union, Iran’s conventional military is not an existential threat to the United States or US partners in the Middle East. It is noteworthy to mention that while Dubowitz calls for a strategy based on the Soviet experience, he fails to draw any logical comparison between Iran and the Soviet Union.
We should keep in mind that Cold War strategies do not fit with the realities of our time. Such strategies were designed to address a period when two superpowers were competing for power and influence around the globe. However, geopolitics has significantly changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Iran is not capable of – and does not seek — global hegemony; rather, it pursues a Middle East that protects its interests. Further, in the post-Cold War world, the threat of a nuclear holocaust is no longer imminent – North Korea notwithstanding – and Americans do not face an existential threat. Rather, the United States is confronting enemies funded and supported in many cases by its own partners, including Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies on the Persian Gulf. There is no question that Iran’s anti-Israel and anti-US rhetoric and its regional interventions are provocative, but Iran has also fought alongside the United States against Sunni Muslim terrorist groups that threaten the US and its European allies.
Dubowitz has a point when he calls Iran “imperialistic;” however, he misses the point that Iran’s “imperialistic” character has an ancient history. Iran was an imperial power when its neighbors were a collection of feuding tribes and has long cherished its independence.
This empire still lives in the hearts and minds of many Iranians, including its decision makers. Iranians are strongly opposed to foreign meddling in the affairs of their country even as they have interfered in the affairs of others.
For many Iranians, the 1953 coup that deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh is not just an unfortunate and distant event in US-Iranian relations; rather, it is a living memory even for those who were born long afterward. The coup, which was in part mounted to keep Iran out of the Soviet orbit and in part to protect British oil interests, led to future resentments and enduring mistrust.
Any new attempt to “peacefully” change the regime, in the unfortunate words of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, would only result in poisoning US-Iran relations for the foreseeable future. Iranians have been on a quest for democracy and freedom for over 100 years. The best way to “help” them is to let them accomplish this on their own.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83