'Pushing Back on Iran': One Expert's Strategy to Confront the Islamic Republic

Analysis: Examining a robust proposal to stop Tehran's drive for preeminence in the Middle East

Iranian surface to surface Ghasedak missile / Getty Images
April 19, 2018

Haunting scenes of children gasping for air during the suspected chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma earlier this month have prompted calls to punish Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Often lost in the fury over the attack, however, is the fact that Assad's war machine is entirely dependent on Iran (and, to a lesser extent, Russia). No country has done more over the past seven years to back the Assad regime's brutality than the Islamic Republic. It has provided billions of dollars annually and thousands of fighters to help the Syrian government defeat rebel forces.

Tehran's malevolent influence extends beyond Syria, as part of the Iranian regime's effort to achieve preeminence in the Middle East. American Enterprise Institute scholar Kenneth Pollack believes the United States needs to "adopt a more confrontational policy toward Iran" to thwart this effort. He recently published a comprehensive strategy to do just that. The strategy, titled "Pushing Back on Iran," is divided into six essays, each focusing on a different aspect of his robust but realistic proposal.

After the Douma attack, one can foresee the destruction that an Iranian-dominated Middle East would cause. It is time for the United States to counter Iran's expansion across the region to protect its interests and its allies. In this spirit, I have summarized Pollack's strategy below. While I have some criticisms and additions, which I intersperse throughout the summary, the strategy's framework is one the United States should seriously consider adopting.

 Why Push Back on Iran?

Pollack explains that he supported past attempts by U.S. presidents—including Barack Obama—to engage with Iran's leadership. "The failure of all of these bids to reach out to Iran, Obama's in particular, is my first rationale for backing a tougher line with Tehran," writes Pollack. "After all of these overtures, it is clear that the men who run Iran's foreign policy have no interest in a better relationship with the United States. They continue to define the United States as their enemy, and they treat us accordingly."

But why focus on Iran? Plenty of governments do not like the United States. Two factors make Iran different and worthy of a major pushback effort, according to Pollack. First, Tehran "actively threatens America's interests and allies in the Middle East." Pollack notes that Iran is determined to destroy Israel and backs terrorist organizations that seek the same goal. When Washington does not sufficiently address these issues, less capable allies that "often exaggerate the extent of the Iranian threat" can "overreact and tackle problems that are beyond their ability in ways that make the situation worse, not better" (e.g., Saudi Arabia's ongoing war in Yemen).

The second factor is that, as the Middle East is undergoing fundamental changes with an unclear outcome, Tehran "is actively struggling to push the transformation of the [region] in directions that best suit its interests, most of which do not suit the United States or the people of the [region]." Iran "backs virtually anyone willing to employ violence to subvert the status quo and/or fight the United States and its allies," working hard to "push an evolving Middle East into greater fragmentation and strife so that it will be less threatening and more subservient to Tehran."

 The Strategy

Pollack lists the key assumptions that "inform [his] approach to pushing back on Iran." First, Iran will not ignore a more confrontational U.S. strategy, but rather "look for ways to counterattack." In the past, Tehran has used terrorism, unconventional warfare, and cyber attacks against the United States and its allies. Second, allies are critical. Because Iran is a serious threat and the American public will only tolerate a limited commitment of resources to this effort, allies need to contribute. Additionally, with more allied support, "the more tools [the United States] will have available to employ against Iran and the more protection [this country] will have from Iran's inevitable responses." Third, Washington's "ultimate goal should be to diminish Iranian influence in the Middle East," rather than regime change (more on this later).

There are two categories under which the United States should look to push back on Iran: "(1) places where they are vulnerable and where we can cause more harm to them than they can to us, or (2) places where our allies are vulnerable and need help to fend off an Iranian challenge." Pollack argues that Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and the Persian Gulf are areas that meet one or both of these criteria, while the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and Lebanon are areas where Washington "should be thinking more in terms of defense than offense as part of a strategy of pushing back on Iran."

Pollack is correct, tragically, that Lebanon is somewhat of a lost cause—the terrorist organization Hezbollah, Tehran's chief proxy force, dominates the country's political system and is more powerful than the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Realistically, the United States will not be able to dislodge Hezbollah's influence anytime soon. But Pollack should have added that Washington can still foster tangible effects. It can at least reconsider supporting the LAF with money, weapons, and training given the military's relationship with Hezbollah. It can find ways to strengthen United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, adopted in 2006 to end the war between Hezbollah and Israel, to demand that Hezbollah disarm and that the Lebanese government exercise control over all Lebanese territory. And it can make the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon more effective and accountable as it ignores Hezbollah's arms buildup near Israel's border. These proposals would fit into a broader effort to counter Iran's aggression in the Middle East.

Pollack adds that the United States should "actively develop its capabilities to wage both cyber and unconventional warfare in Iran, but hold off on actively doing so," at least for now. Washington would develop "the capability to pursue regime change should [the United States] wish to do so—and hold it in reserve as a deterrent."

Delving into the strategy's details, "Syria is the ideal place for the United States to take on Iran," according to Pollack. In an interesting paradox, Iran's victories in Syria have "created a new kind of vulnerability for Tehran." Iran is pouring resources into Syria when its economy is struggling and its regime is increasingly unpopular at home. Moreover, Iran has no good option to leave. "If the war in Syria burns on, Iran is likely to remain committed, and if the war escalates, Tehran is more likely to double-down again than it is to fold." Syrian oppositionists are still fighting, so Iran will keep fighting.

"In effect, the Iranians have gotten themselves into the same sort of situation that the United States got itself into in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Soviets got themselves into in Afghanistan in the 1980s," argues Pollack. "The Iranians are caught in a war that is more costly than they want to bear, but is too important for them to want to leave."

To exploit this, Pollack proposes that "the right American response is to make sure [Iran is not] left alone to complete the pacification of Syria anytime soon—that their foes are armed, trained, and supplied to allow them to persevere and to keep bleeding the Iranians and their allies," writes Pollack. "This is precisely the strategy the United States pursued with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Soviets (and Chinese) pursued with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in the 1960s and '70s."

In Syria, this means providing "covert" assistance to a wide variety of Syrian opposition groups—weapons, training, money, and other supplies, "probably provided from clandestine bases in Jordan and Turkey." Pollack notes that this strategy means arming "all but the absolute worst Syrian opposition figures." Critics argue we would be strengthening Sunni jihadists, to which Pollack responds, "Americans endlessly make the mistake of assuming that … once someone takes on an extremist mantle he can never give it up. That once you go jihadist, you never go back. This belief flies in the face of every bit of evidence we have." Moreover, the more this country is involved with the Syrian opposition, the better able it will be to help moderate elements over extremist ones.

Pollack could have added that Shiite Iran's sectarian and otherwise destabilizing foreign policies—not to mention Tehran's willingness to work with Sunni jihadist groups when it is convenient—produce Islamic State fighters and other Sunni terrorists rather than stop them. Any comprehensive proposal to fight jihadists in the Middle East is doomed to fail unless it includes an effort to counter Iran and the Syrian regime it steadfastly supports—key forces that drive disillusioned Sunnis to take up arms.

Pollack writes that Tehran will likely respond to his strategy with violence. That may be dangerous, but not acting out of fear of Iranian reprisals would be far worse. "If we allow them to deter us from pursuing what is in our interest, then we are done," he warns. "Iran will have won, and we had best find ways to live with a Middle East increasingly dominated by Tehran. Confronting Iran means running these risks and absorbing a certain number of costs."

In Iraq, Iran is the most influential foreign power, with formidable tools to wield that influence. But Iran's hold on Iraqi political and military institutions is not absolute, and many Iraqis do not want Iranian domination. "The key limit to Iranian influence is therefore Iraqi strength and, at least among its Arabs, unity," writes Pollack. "Whenever Iraq is weak and divided, Iran can wield enormous influence.… When Iraqis feel strong and united, they do not need Iran because they do not fear one another."

Assuming the United States does not want to exert its influence like it did during the surge of 2007–2008, Washington must "play the long game, building up Iraq piece by piece, bringing Iraqis together, empowering their government to better their lives, and finding constructive ways to resolve differences." The broad contours of a strategy to meet this objective would be: security assistance, including "a residual American military presence, preferably on the order of about 10,000 troops for the next 5–10 years"; economic assistance "in virtually every aspect of its macro-economy"; diplomatic assistance; and political guidance to help foster "national reconciliation, formal or informal, that in turn produces a new power-sharing agreement to [include] all of Iraq's fearful communities."

The United States must be prepared to respond with "immediate cyber, covert, or direct military strikes against discreet Iranian military targets" if Iran responds to this strategy by targeting American personnel in Iraq.

Regarding the nuclear issue, Pollack says he was deeply disappointed with the deal the Obama administration struck in 2015. Pollack is critical of the agreement but believes it averts a crisis in the short term. With this in mind, he argues for a three-step approach toward the JCPOA.

  • The United States "should remain committed to the JCPOA, but ensure that it is strictly enforced. For now, it is useful and the best that we have."
  • The United States needs "to pursue the other aspects of [my] strategy. Doing so is not only critically important to reduce Iran's destabilizing influence in the Middle East, but can also help create leverage for a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA.… I suspect that Iran could be convinced to accept changes to the framework governing its nuclear program if it faced the loss of its regional position and key regional allies."
  • The United States should "offer Iran a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA.… That agreement ought to look very much like what the Trump administration is pushing for: It should eliminate the sunset clauses or push them much farther into the future. It should institute new procedures for inspections to diminish Iran's ability to delay or prevent them. It should eliminate the more dangerous aspects of Iran's research and development on nuclear energy. And it should probably limit Iran's pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles."

Notably, Pollack is critical of President Donald Trump's approach to the JCPOA, arguing we should not withdraw from the deal. Leaving the agreement now would likely cause more harm than good, but there is no doubt Trump's threat to withdraw, which the world saw as genuine, is what prompted the Europeans to begin negotiating a side deal with the United States to address Trump's justified concerns about the accord. And there is evidence the Europeans have made concessions to bolster some of the deal's many shortcomings. Pollack should give Trump credit here, though it would not make sense for Washington to scuttle the deal after the Europeans met the Americans partway.

Pollack's final essay addresses the prospect of regime change, and he states his argument up front: "I don't believe that regime change should be the primary goal of such a strategy or a direct aim of U.S. policy at present, although I think the U.S. needs to recognize a change in the regime in Iran is probably going to be necessary over the long term since the clerical regime continues to define itself as America's enemy and to act aggressively in ways consistent with that self-identification."

In other words, regime change is a long-term goal, not a concrete strategic objective—at least for now.

Pollack argues that regime change in the short term would likely require an American invasion and potentially a long-term military occupation. Short of that, a deliberate policy of regime change through cyber attacks, covert action to stir up domestic unrest, and other tactics would lead Iran to escalate significantly. Even if such escalation is tolerable, regime change, Pollack argues, is unnecessary to achieve the objectives he has defined. "It is entirely possible for the United States to accomplish the objectives of a pushback strategy without overthrowing the regime, and adding actions meant to overthrow the regime would undoubtedly cause Iran to fight back far harder against the strategy across the board."

Instead, the United States should keep regime change "as a deterrent," Pollack writes. Washington "should always hold in reserve the option of going after the Iranian regime hammer and tong to deter it from unconstrained retaliation for American actions elsewhere" and if we determine that "Iran intended to break out of the JCPOA and try to acquire nuclear weapons."

In sum, Pollack proposes the United States should "wage an Afghan Mujahedeen-style covert war against Iran in Syria, strengthen Iraq so that it can stand independent of Iran, broker a power-sharing agreement in Yemen to extract our [Gulf Cooperation Council] allies and help evict the Iranians, develop covert and cyber tools against Iran itself but hold them in reserve, all while looking to preserve but supplement the JCPOA."

This strategy is comprehensive but has a glaring omission: sanctions and other forms of economic warfare, which have been Washington's most commonly deployed tool to hurt Iran. Pollack only mentions sanctions in relation to the nuclear deal, but does not make them a coordinated aspect of his strategy. Surely Pollack recognizes the need for harsh sanctions for at least Iranian terrorism and human rights violations. Perhaps he made a conscious choice to focus on military and political tools rather than economic ones, but sanctions should play a prominent role in any strategy toward Iran (especially as the country is struggling through a currency crisis).

Pollack's proposal is in many ways a long-term containment strategy to stifle Tehran's expansionist foreign policy, awaiting the "break-up or the gradual mellowing" of the Islamic Republic's power, as George Kennan prescribed for confronting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Active containment and deterrence lead to pushback, which, over time, may lead to the removal of a murderous, anti-Semitic regime from this world.

The proposal is robust, practical, and smart. And despite certain changes that I would make, President Trump would be wise to seriously consider the strategy with his national security team.