The Challenge of Containing a Nuclear Iran
Barring a great surprise, the Islamic Republic will get its nuke. How will the U.S. respond?
Start with a probable assumption: The Islamic Republic will soon be able to produce a nuclear weapon whenever the supreme leader decides to do so. A new atomic accord, currently being negotiated in Vienna, won’t change the fundamental atomic fact: Biden’s deal undoubtedly will leave in place Tehran’s progress with high-speed centrifuges and a loose inspection regime that doesn’t account for, let alone eliminate, Iran’s ample stockpile of the high-tech components and maraging steel needed for the production of advanced centrifuges. Removing Iranian surpluses of highly enriched uranium by allowing its export abroad to Russia—an embarrassing destination now for the White House and the Europeans—or to China doesn’t really matter so long as advanced centrifuges can produce bomb fuel quickly. Iran’s nuclear engineers have shown that they can build high-speed, sufficiently reliable, machines rapidly.
Barring a great, felicitous surprise, the theocracy, which has clandestinely and overtly striven at great expense to develop the bomb since the 1980s, will have its nuke. Which brings up the question of what a post-nuke Iran policy would look like—assuming those who still want America to confront the clerical regime are in power with sufficient will and means to do something more than sanctions. Let us take preventive war out of the equation since that’s certainly not happening with a Democratic president—even a hawkish Republican president likely wouldn’t strike, assuming Tehran doesn’t have the bomb by 2025 (would Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley want to start their term with another Middle Eastern war?). And the Israelis, too, are clearly not riding to the rescue: The current government of Naftali Bennett doesn’t nearly have the determination of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who tried and failed to get his cabinet to approve air raids against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites. Existential threat or not, senior commanders of the Israeli Defense Forces just don’t want to undertake this mission. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction is, by default, what Jerusalem will henceforth reluctantly accept.
So what’s actually left for those who oppose the Biden administration’s approach? It’s a conundrum since anything likely to prove effective would risk conflict. Most things that might matter, for example, in an aggressive containment/regime-change strategy, would oblige Republicans either to bluff or bring the military to bear. And if you bluff in the Middle East repeatedly, you’re likely to get called. A fresh round of Iranian terrorism—say a successful version of what could have happened in the exurbs of Paris in 2018, when the clerical regime tried to bomb an opposition rally that likely would have killed many Americans—might reignite an awareness that the Islamic Republic is irredeemable, possibly building the requisite volition for military action. When thinking about the ramifications of Iran’s long embrace of terrorism, however, it’s always worthwhile (and depressing) to remember the first mass-casualty event aimed at Americans: the Beirut barracks bombings in 1983.
That act was then extraordinary: 241 Americans died. Intercepts at the time and later writings by Iran’s ambassador in Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-pur, and the theocracy’s major domo, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, showed Iran to be proudly culpable. Although Secretary of State George Shultz strongly advocated for a military response, Ronald Reagan declined. A few years later, Reagan was trading arms for hostages. And to move forward: In Iraq, George W. Bush didn’t do anything serious against the Islamic Republic when it was killing American soldiers, even though we knew through Iraqi prisoners an impressive amount about its lethal operations. Military action against Iran, for its nuclear ambitions, terrorism, or imperialist designs, just seems unlikely. Covert action, however, like sanctions, offers the possibility of doing something for those who can’t countenance war.
Most large-scale anti-Iranian covert action would cost too much money and likely need to last too long for the programs to operate without bipartisan support. The history of non-lethal American covert action during the Cold War, against the Soviets, Communist Chinese, or on the periphery, against the Islamic Republic, isn’t particularly inspiring; the big programs that endured all had bipartisan buy-in, at least among senior members of Congress. Central Intelligence Agency funds that the head of the Directorate of Operations can use with presidential approval, which aren’t subject to a congressional veto or even, if the president wants to push it, congressional oversight, aren’t large. And any president today has to be aware that Langley will leak if it strongly disapproves of what a president is doing. Ditto the congressional oversight committees. Some programs collapse with leaks, others don’t. Given how much both political parties hate each other, it’s not inconceivable that a president who didn’t have sufficient support on the Hill could find himself facing impeachment if a significant, controversial covert action were undertaken without congressional support.
To get sufficient funds to run significant operations lasting a few years requires the support of Democrats on the intelligence oversight committees. It’s a good guess that most Democrats are unalterably opposed to a regime-change policy aimed at the Iranian theocracy—unless the ruling mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards do something truly atrocious, worse than anything they have done so far. America-cocks-things-up-in-the-Third World is deeply rooted among progressives, who appear to have the party’s moral high ground. This has particular impact with Iran given the canonical role the CIA-supported 1953 coup has in the American left’s understanding of modern history (simply put: The coup, which supposedly aborted democracy, gave us the 1979 Islamic revolution). Many Republicans, both Trumpian and more establishmentarian, might also subscribe to this view, though there is a larger chance that some of them might be fibbing, proscribing regime change in public but willing to be a bit bolder in closed chambers.
It’s certainly possible to imagine more American support for Iranian human-rights organizations outside of Iran, provided these groups would accept official U.S. aid. Such efforts haven’t so far proven convulsive inside Iran, which is why many of these groups are located in Europe and receive some assistance from the European Union—they are considered non-threatening to the EU’s long-standing policy of engaging the clerical regime, commercially and diplomatically (France and Germany started their outreach in the early 1990s). They offer a means for European officials to feel a bit better about all that trade.
The Democrats, following the European example, could also likely find ways to support Iranian dissidents so long as serious sanctions weren’t used, which would undermine any nuclear agreement. Most Republicans would also support such dissident/human-rights aid since it’s morally compelling, doesn’t commit the United States to do anything on the ground, and doesn’t cost much. The rub would come with the CIA. Most Democrats would likely oppose having Langley involved; the operations directorate, which doesn’t much care for covert action owing to possible political blowback and because most case officers lack the background and languages to even pretend to do the work, would detail to Congress its reservations. The experiment during the George W. Bush administration, where aid to Iranian dissidents was open and administered through the State Department, wasn’t a resounding success, leading to the arrest of Iranians who briefly associated with these efforts. The Islamic Republic is much nastier internally today than it was then.
However, the dissidents themselves—at least many of them—might not have a big problem with CIA subventions. There has been something close to a sea change among many oppositionists, especially among the expatriates: They have realized that the Western left is unreliable owing to its almost monomaniacal preference for arms control over human rights. That doesn’t necessarily mean they would welcome association with the agency. It does mean, however, that they are less scared of American right-wingers who, not long ago, would have been socially unacceptable.
There might be some room for Langley to maneuver if a program developed to better organize the expatriate opposition in the United States and Europe. It’s remotely conceivable that Democrats might join Republicans in growing and organizing this opposition. Expatriates certainly need help: Their capacity to splinter remains profound. Secular liberal democrats, monarchists, fallen left-wing Islamic revolutionaries, Iranian-Americans, who are now more American than they are Iranian, Iranians in Europe, who have acquired all the pluses and minuses that come with Europe’s cultural and political diversity, the non-Persian ethnic minorities who want greater autonomy or outright freedom from Tehran—they all have a lot of things they all don’t like about each other and few personalities whom they all trust. Patient support from outsiders, either clandestine or open, could prove crucial in turning the overseas opposition into a more coherent, cohesive, influential voice against the theocracy. The same might be true in Lebanon, where a big slice of the Lebanese Shiite community, at home and abroad, seems to want distance from Hezbollah, Iran’s favorite Arab child of the Islamic revolution. Soft-power covert action might have a small but important role to play in advancing more Lebanese Shiite criticism of the clerical regime’s malevolent role in the Levant.
Although the Iranian opposition has become technically pretty savvy about secure communications, the opposition isn’t cash rich. The eye-popping success of many Iranians abroad, especially in the United States, hasn’t yet led to a reliable donor class willing to give tens of millions of dollars to support innovative ways to bring opposition groups and the Iranian people closer together. All of these things are easier to do if a foreign intelligence service helps. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is absolutely paranoid about an Iranian fifth column, which depending on the day, the cleric sees as a small, cancerous minority or a vast legion who’ve fallen irretrievably into the grip of Western culture. The echo effect inside Iran of a better organized expatriate opposition might be substantial.
Although Iranian expatriates love to focus on the deficiencies of the Persian services of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, and some of these deficiencies are serious, America’s official broadcasting in Persian probably doesn’t warrant much further attention—beyond giving it more money. Neither service by statute can become a vehicle for activists, outside of Iran or within, which is often what frustrated expatriates understandably want.
A lot of information gets into the Islamic Republic via all the Western news services broadcasting in Persian, through radio, the Internet, and TV; private services also have some influence and a following. The problem inside Iran isn’t the rapid conveyance of accurate information—that happens sufficiently. What doesn’t happen is what the human-rights activists and oppositionists want: reliable vehicles, with secure communications, to publicize immediately the human-rights outrages and help organize protests and other activities that confront the regime. Tech-savvy Westerners with a lot of money and desire—this would probably have to be sponsored by, or via, an intelligence service—might provide serious aid and comfort to those inside who are willing to risk imprisonment, torture, and death.
When it comes to the use of hard power against the clerical regime, the situation is more challenging. It is by no means clear that American military pressure, at least what might be remotely plausible, would now put that much strain on the theocracy. The Islamic Republic has deployed, at least since the Israeli Air Force, with its relentless bombing campaign, made a heavier footprint in Syria too costly, a light, coercive approach in Mesopotamia and the Levant. In Iraq, Iran’s lethal reach is executed almost exclusively through Arab Shiite allies. They are too insulated in the country’s complex matrix of domestic politics for the United States to actually hurt Iran through greater military pressure on those allies. And our presence there, which still has some significance for the country’s future, can no longer be increased without that country’s democratic, nationalist politics working against us.
If we borrowed a page from the clerical regime’s machinations against us in Iraq, then the CIA would develop a plan for American-led foreign assassination teams to take out Iranian personnel, especially Islamic Revolutionary Guard officers in Syria. Israel is already killing IRGC personnel routinely there. The agency probably can’t add that much to that effort, perhaps better targeting information coming from America’s unrivaled intercept capabilities, plus more lethal drones and cruise missiles. If we were willing to station CIA officers in greater numbers in a wider area in Syria, or work through the Turks or the Jordanians, Langley might be able to develop small operational Syrian cadres that would have the sole mission to find and eliminate IRGC staff. Langley’s paramilitary efforts with the Syrian opposition during Barack Obama’s years were nothing to write home about, but they would have provided some basic familiarity with possible players and their liabilities. Such operations likely wouldn’t have a shortage of Syrian volunteers. It would take time to get this up and running, but less time than non-military covert action, which is always, by definition, less concrete.
Syria is still the Wild West: The regime doesn’t have tight control over much of its territory. We just might discover opportunities to amplify significantly the damage the Israeli Air Force brings. These efforts certainly wouldn’t reignite the civil strife/civil war that our European allies, who fear new waves of Muslim refugees, dread. Obviously, no such program could develop under Democrats, and it would be a bold Republican president to take this on. And this is likely one of those clandestine efforts that leaks could kill.
Plus, the clerical regime has shown that it can absorb fairly significant IRGC losses and adapt. The only event that might bleed Iran dry, à la the Soviets in Afghanistan, would be the re-ignition of nationwide strife between the majority Sunni Syrian population and the Shiite Alawite dictatorship. It’s unlikely that there would be much political appetite in Washington, even among the most hawkish Republicans, for turning the Syrian civil war back on given the near certainty that it would restart refugees moving toward Europe.
In the southern Middle East, Washington could restore some of its support to the Saudis and Emirates in Yemen, but this isn’t going to rise to the level that could hurt Iran since the clerical regime risks little in its support to the Shiite Houthis. Playing on decades of internecine strife, the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah have encouraged the Houthis’ radicalization. Yemen is a low-cost blackjack game for Iran, one where it’s the dealer. Over time, it will always win. Probably not a lot but enough to be satisfying and easily worth the cost. Terrifying the Saudis and Emirates with missiles launched from over the border probably makes the Iranian elite just giddy.
Although we lack good information on exactly what transpires in Yemen, it certainly doesn’t appear that Tehran has a significant, perhaps not even a permanent, IRGC presence in the country. And the Sunni Gulf Arabs aren’t going to commit more to this cause than they already have; even without American pressure, Riyadh had been reducing its commitment; “Little Sparta,” a truly generous sobriquet for Abu Dhabi, keeps financing local proxies, with varying effectiveness, but is no longer deploying its own troops into harm’s way. The Saudi and Emirati militaries, not without their successes since the intervention began in 2015, certainly don’t evince any confidence now that they can win in Yemen. For cause: the Houthis are militarily too strong, geographically well-positioned, and represent the most organized religious and tribal groups in the country. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi now know they can’t possibly win the propaganda war since their bombing campaigns, which unavoidably are going to fall way short of First World standards, and impoverishing naval blockades play poorly.
Washington’s military aid to the Gulf States should focus on providing more and better means for intercepting medium and short-range missiles. Finding, let alone killing, IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives, who serve as the IRGC’s vanguard among the Arabs, would be extremely difficult. Yemen is just a perfect arena for Tehran to win at little cost; there’s little that the United States can do about it.
Northwest of Yemen, in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf, a Republican White House could make it crystal clear that the pre-Trump understanding about American naval intervention is back in force: We will protect all shipping that transits these waters and all ports and oil facilities along the littoral. That isn’t going to put much new pressure on Tehran, but it will check its appetite. And Washington can do this at relatively low cost and avoid the unhelpful, possibly dangerous, illusion that the Saudis and Emirates can do much on their own.
Certainly selling more advanced weaponry to these two states shouldn’t be part of any anti-Iran containment strategy. They can’t absorb and properly use the armaments that they already have. Both kingdoms are probably fragile—something their rulers likely know. Hence the “secret” messengers from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to Tehran whenever they are scared, which is often. Donald Trump had many bad foreign-policy ideas; imagining the Gulfies as America’s tribunes against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was among his worst.
The hostility that many Democrats have toward Saudi Arabia and the Jamal Kashoggi-butchering Saudi crown prince is overwrought, but it does keep Washington today from assigning Saudi Arabia and the Emirates destabilizing roles. The kingdom has enough to handle with Mohammad bin Salman’s modernizing, dictatorial ambitions—they could easily be too much for a deeply religious society in rapid transition. The Abraham Accords shouldn’t be viewed as the glue for a new Gulf-Israel-U.S. alliance; they are, first and foremost, the product of American weakness and a bipartisan desire to retrench in the region. Gulfie self-confidence and a final acceptance of the Zionist dream didn’t produce the accords; fear of Shiites did.
That fear is primarily and most easily countered by the U.S. Navy—always the cutting edge of America’s containment of the Islamic Republic. And the more present the U.S. Navy is in the Persian Gulf, the greater the opportunity for the clerical regime to do something stupid that might lead to a U.S.–Iranian confrontation that could seriously diminish the Islamic Republic’s armed forces. Any sensible containment strategy would increase substantially America’s intrusive presence there, reminding the Revolutionary Guards that the waterway is Persian in name only. Any nuclear accord with the mullahs ought to oblige the United States to “pivot to the Middle East” since Washington should want to reassure Israel, the Sunni Arab states, and Turkey, the most likely state to next go nuclear. It should want to show Tehran that America can quickly and decisively punish it.
Nuclear diplomacy should have meant, by definition, that the United States was gearing up for at least an expanded military containment of the Islamic Republic. The nuclear negotiations in Vienna are quite close to achieving their end if Washington can find work-arounds for Russia’s contributions and sanctions-avoiding trade with the Islamic Republic (certainly doable) and diplomatic legerdemain that neutralizes the Trump administration’s foreign-terrorist designation of the Revolutionary Guards (trickier but surmountable). A new deal will undoubtedly leave the Iranian theocracy with the means to produce the bomb and a lot of cash to buy conventional weapons.
The clerical regime has, however, survived American collisions before (see Operation Praying Mantis that left much of Iranian navy in flames in 1988). Outside of Syria, American hard power, if Washington can muster it, isn’t likely to add the kind of pressure that could fray Iran’s writ anywhere in the region.
By default, the American “containment” of Iran may remain limited to U.S. ground forces in Syria at Dayr uz-Zohr, the U.S. Navy and the Air Force in the Persian Gulf, and sanctions—whatever Republicans may reinstitute after they return to power. That’s not a particularly vigorous approach to constraining the clerical regime, but it’s helpful. In an utterly polarized Washington, where Obama’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and its imminent successor have become litmus tests for most Democrats, this may be all that Washington can do.
Once Iran has a nuke, the theocracy might let hubris get the better of it. America’s willpower and capacity may change. In the 1970s, when the United States was in a profound funk and the fall of Saigon and Henry Kissinger’s détente defined Washington’s declining capacity, an American resurgence seemed far-fetched. And yet, Reagan flipped the switch.
Such a change today vis-à-vis the clerical regime would require the theocracy to demonstrate that it’s a big league threat to America’s well-being or that it’s just too troublesome, with too much American blood on its hands, for a recharged liberal hegemon to tolerate. If the Islamic Republic were bigger and more dangerous or smaller and with fewer hopeful Westerners making excuses for it, then Washington would likely be much more forceful. The Islamic Republic is a talented, nefarious, oil-rich middleweight whose lethal machinations rarely get punished. Secretary Shultz was right: The United States should punish the theocracy routinely, harshly, and without exception. Malevolent habits will only grow worse with nukes to fuel the mullahs’ pride and mission civilisatrice.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.