A History of What Works with Iran

| Michael Morell
Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA

The Trump Administration is correct that the U.S. should focus on the significant threat posed by Iran’s misbehavior in the Middle East. Luckily, history provides a guide on how we can change that behavior.

Some say that the threat from Iran’s malign behavior is overstated. Some say that the malign behavior itself is overstated. Not so.  Just look at the facts.         

The Iranians have two objectives in the Middle East. The first is to become the hegemonic power in the region. Tehran wants the ability to influence the policies of the other states.  Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei often makes reference to Iran’s desire for hegemony.  In a 2015 speech, an advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said “All of the Middle East is Iranian….My country plans to establish an Iranian federation in the region.”

This is not, as some see it, just the policy of the current clerical regime. It has been the policy of Iranian governments for decades, if not centuries. It was the policy of the Shah. It is also not, again as some see it, a Shia desire to dominate the Sunnis. No, this is a Persian desire to dominate the Arabs.      

It is not in the U.S. interest for any one power to dominate the region, an area that produces 35 percent of the world’s oil supplies and is home to one of our most important allies, Israel. It is also home to our Arab allies, our key partners in the fight against terrorism and those who stood with us in the struggle against Communism and the struggle against Saddam Hussein’s attempt to dominate the region.

Iran’s second objective is for Israel to disappear. The Supreme Leader frequently says that Israel is a “cancerous tumor” that needs to be removed.  In 2015, he wrote a book about Israel’s demise, and in 2014 he published a nine-point plan to “eliminate” Israel. Last September, in a speech, he said “God willing, there will be no such thing as a Zionist regime in 25 years.”

These two objectives are intertwined. Iran cannot achieve the hegemony it desires as long as Israel is on the map. But the destruction of Israel is not just a means to an end. It is a goal itself. To Iran, Palestine is the rightful owner of all of the territory that Israel now occupies. 

Iran is pursuing these two objectives through a variety of aggressive policies. Iran supports international terrorist groups. Hezbollah, whose stated purpose for its existence is the destruction of Israel, could not exist without the support it receives from Iran. Tehran also provides support, including missiles, to Hamas as well as at least three other Palestinian terror groups, all of who are Sunni groups.

Iran itself uses terrorism as a tool of statecraft, one of the only countries in the world to do so. Most of its targets over the years have been Israeli and Jewish, but Iran’s Arab neighbors have been targeted as well.  In 2011, the U.S. thwarted an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. 

In addition, Iran provides support to allied governments in the region and to armed insurgents trying to undermine and/or overthrow regimes that oppose it. This support includes the provision of money, weapons, training, and advisers in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. 

Finally, Iran has built a sizeable missile force, in part as deterrence against an inaccurate belief that the U.S. wants to overthrow the regime but also to project power in the region. Iran has the largest inventory of missiles in the region, and those missiles have the range to reach Israel, our key Arab allies, and U.S. military facilities in the region. Iran routinely tests missiles, thereby enhancing its capabilities.

Taken together, all of this is what is referred to as Iran’s malign behavior in the Middle East, much of it in contravention of international law and UN resolutions.  For Iran, these policies have paid off.  Tehran has been successful over the past two decades in expanding its influence. It now has significant influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Oman, while our influence and that of our allies is waning.

There is good news here, though. Iran has shown at least three times since the 1979 Revolution that it is willing to change strategic direction. Each time it has done so, the regime was under intense pressure. 

In 1988, then Supreme Leader Khomeini agreed to end the Iran-Iraq War because the Iranian economy was in shambles and because of growing internal opposition to the war. In 2003, Iran stepped back from specific work on nuclear weapons for fear that it (then surrounded by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan) would become a military target of the U.S.  And, in 2015, Iran agreed to major concessions with regard to its civil nuclear program because international sanctions had pushed the economy into a depression.

This would suggest that it is possible to achieve a similar strategic change in Iran’s regional behavior — if the right pressure is brought to bear. In doing so, we should focus on what hurts Iran, not on what makes us feel big and strong.  Big difference. 

We should again focus on raising the costs to the Iranian economy for the purpose of creating domestic political pressure on the regime. Sanctions that apply only to U.S. companies and sanctions that apply only to specific Iranian individuals or entities do little good. Sanctions need to be broad, and they are most effective if they interfere with Iran’s ability to sell oil or interact with the international financial system. 

The only way for sanctions to achieve our goals is for us to work with our allies around the world. This means tending to our key alliances, and encouraging our allies to broaden and deepen sanctions every time the Iranians misbehave. For those who believe that this is not possible, realize that the same was said when the Obama Administration started working to put together the nuclear-related sanctions. 

What not to do is as important as what to do.  Most importantly, we should not ignore Iran’s behavior in the region as successive administrations have done. We should also not threaten Iran militarily because it will cost us the support of our allies – who will fear that we are going down the Iraq road. Doing so will strengthen the position of Iranian hardliners and solidify the political position of the regime at home. 

We can take quiet, even covert, military action against certain Iranian activities in the region – for example, the shipping of weapons to insurgents in Yemen – and we should maintain our large force structure in the region, but publicly threatening Iran will be counterproductive.

The Obama Administration focused on the Iranian nuclear program and did a good job of putting it in a box for 15 years.  President Trump could also focus on the nuclear issue, but would not likely achieve a significant improvement over what President Obama achieved.  Rather, our national security would be better served by the new administration focusing on Iran’s malign behavior in the region.

The Author is Michael J. Morell

Michael Morell, the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of our nation's leading national security professionals, with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.  He has been at the center of our nation's fight against terrorism, its work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its efforts to respond to trends that are altering the international landscape—including the Arab Spring, the rise of China,... Read More

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