By Mark Dubowitz
4th July 2017
One message of President Trump’s is popular at home with his political base and embraced abroad by key Middle Eastern allies: The Islamic Republic of Iran is imperialist, repressive, and—unless we adopt a new strategy—on its way toward possessing nuclear weapons. To keep the threat at bay, Mr. Trump should take a page from the playbook Ronald Reagan used against the Soviet Union.
In the early 1980s, President Reagan shifted away from his predecessors’ containment strategy toward a new plan of rolling back Soviet expansionism. The cornerstone of his strategy was the recognition that the Soviet Union was an aggressive and revolutionary yet internally fragile regime that had to be defeated.
Reagan’s policy was outlined in 1983 in National Security Decision Directive 75, a comprehensive strategy that called for the use of all instruments of American overt and covert power. The plan included a massive defence build-up, economic warfare, support for anti-Soviet proxy forces and dissidents, and an all-out offensive against the regime’s ideological legitimacy.
Mr. Trump should call for a new version of NSDD-75 and go on offense against the Iranian regime. The administration would be wise to address every aspect of the Iranian menace, not merely the nuclear program. President Obama’s myopic focus on disarmament paralyzed American policy.
Under Mr. Obama’s deeply flawed nuclear accord, Tehran does not need to cheat to reach threshold nuclear-weapons capabilities. Merely by waiting for key constraints to sunset, the regime can emerge over the next decade with an industrial-size enrichment program, a near-zero breakout time, an easier clandestine path to a nuclear warhead, long-range ballistic missiles, access to advanced conventional weaponry, greater regional dominance, and a more powerful economy, increasingly immunized against Western sanctions. You could call this scenario the lethal Iranian end-state.
A new national security directive must systemically dismantle Iranian power country by country in the Middle East. The Europeans, traumatized by foreign fighters returning from Syria and massive refugee flows, may support a tougher Iran policy if it means Washington finally gets serious about Syria. The early signs of the return of American power are promising: 59 Tomahawk missiles launched in response to the Assad regime’s most recent chemical attack, military strikes at Iran-backed militias in southern Syria, the downing of a Syrian fighter plane and Iranian-made drones, and 281 Syria-related sanctions in five months.
Washington should demolish the Iranian regime’s terrorist networks and influence operations, including their presence in Europe and the United States. That means working closely with allied Sunni governments against Iranian subversion of their societies. The American offensive has already begun: CIA Director Mike Pompeo is putting the agency on an aggressive footing against these global networks with the development of a more muscular covert action program.
All of Washington’s actions to push back against Tehran hinge on severely weakening the Iranian regime’s finances. Robust measures should target the regime’s praetorians, the Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a dominant force in Iran’s economy. New sanctions legislation designating the IRGC for terrorism—which the Senate recently passed with 98 votes—and the more than 40 Iran-related sanctions imposed this year are a good start. But much more is still needed: The IRGC’s transfer to Hezbollah of industrial-size missile production capability based on Lebanon soil could trigger the next Israel-Hezbollah war. Massive economic sanctions on Iran to stop these transfers may be the only way to head off this war.
Last but not least, the American pressure campaign should seek to undermine Iran’s rulers by strengthening the pro-democracy forces that erupted in Iran in 2009, nearly toppling the regime. Target the regime’s soft underbelly: its massive corruption and human-rights abuses. Conventional wisdom assumes that Iran has a stable government with a public united behind President Hassan Rouhani’s vision of incremental reform. In reality, the gap between the ruled and their Islamist rulers is expanding.
The odds that a moderate government will emerge in Tehran before the nuclear deal’s restrictions expire are poor. Washington needs to block the Islamic Republic’s pathways to gaining nuclear-tipped missiles. While aggressively enforcing the nuclear agreement, the administration should present revised terms for a follow-on deal. These must address the current accord’s fundamental flaws, including the sunset provisions that give Tehran a clear pathway to nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, and the inadequate access to Iranian military sites that blocks effective verification.
The administration should present Iran the choice between a new agreement and an unrelenting American pressure campaign while signalling that it is unilaterally prepared to cancel the existing deal if Tehran doesn’t play ball.
Only six years after Ronald Reagan adopted his pressure strategy, the Soviet bloc collapsed. Washington must intensify the pressure on the mullahs as Reagan did on the communists. Otherwise, a lethal nuclear Iran is less than a decade away.
Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.