Dealing with Iran
By Jack Segal | Jan. 25, 2020
What is U.S. policy toward Iran? Since the Jan. 3 killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), we’ve seen a war of words between President Trump and Ayatollah Khamenei, missile strikes by both sides, and the murder of 176 innocent passengers on a Ukrainian airliner. In the 40 years since the overthrow of the Shah and the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, we had been in a state of “conflict short of war” with Iran. Are we now at war?
The Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has hit Iran’s economy hard: Prices have risen sharply — particularly since 2017, when new restrictions on Iranian oil exports kicked in. Since then, Iran’s oil exports have dropped by 75 percent, to less than 500,000 barrels per day. Unemployment is increasing, and people’s savings and buying power have plummeted.
Last year, ordinary Iranians began staging mass protests over their declining living standard and the rampant corruption and misplaced priorities of a regime that pursues nuclear research over food production. By mid-November, an overnight increase in gasoline prices triggered nationwide protests. The IRGC and police responded with deadly violence. At least 180 people (some reports say 450) were killed by regime forces in four days of violence, with over 2000 wounded and 7,000 detained.
No less a source than the regime’s own interior minister admitted that protests had erupted in 29 out of 31 provinces and 50 military bases had been attacked. Internet service was halted. When it resumed, opposition leaders bravely attacked the regime’s handling of the crisis — even denouncing the heretofore sacrosanct Ayatollah himself. A former presidential candidate who’s been under house arrest since 2009 compared the regime’s violence to a 1978 massacre by government forces that ultimately led to the downfall of the Shah.
That history might be leading the Trump Administration to believe that with another push from Washington, the Ayatollahs could be overthrown just as the Shah was in ’78. We should be careful what we wish for. A violent upheaval against Iran’s three centers of power could lead to civil war. Surely, Washington has learned by now that encouraging a revolt anywhere in the Middle East could produce wildly unpredictable results.
Where do we go from the current brinksmanship? Back in May 2018, after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, his administration publicized a list of 12 U.S. demands. One of them said we would not renegotiate the nuclear deal until Iran stopped destabilizing the Middle East through its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza. These proxies had been directed for decades by Gen. Soleimani. While Soleimani is quite dead, the IRGC is still very much alive, and acquiescence to our demands seems farfetched.
Under U.S. sanctions, the IRGC has morphed into a commercial enterprise, running factories that churn out local replacement goods for items blocked by sanctions. Most importantly, the IRGC also has taken control of all of Iran’s customs offices — precisely where smugglers must bring their illicit sanctions-busting trade. The flow of bribes has made the IRGC a profit center that helps finance proxy militias across the Middle East. The rest goes to the IRGC’s top generals, senior clerics, and friends of the regime.
Before Gen. Soleimani’s killing, Iran’s demonstrators were focused on protesting against their own rulers. With his killing, we temporarily redirected Iranians’ ire toward us, but that was abruptly reversed when the IRGC admitted to shooting down that Ukrainian airliner. That catastrophe underscored the ineptitude of Iranian civil aviation authorities, the IRGC, and the regime, again bringing thousands of demonstrators out demanding wholesale changes in how Iran is ruled. This discontent with the theocratic rule of the past 40 years should represent an opportunity for U.S. and allied diplomacy (if any diplomats are still working).
Is the Trump team capable of seizing this opportunity? A combination of pressure and discontent has now forced the regime to address the unrest, but neither can any dictatorship be expected to simply fold up their (luxury) tents and go away.
Any further actions by the Trump administration to challenge the already-weakened state structures is fraught with danger. We could end up shifting the blame for Iran’s woes right back on ourselves — exactly what the regime wants. The leaders of Iran’s three power centers need to be convinced that they could somehow survive regime change, at least by getting time to retire to their luxury villas in Dubai.
President Trump seems even more conflicted than usual. If he continues his tendency to allow “his” generals to maintain large “counterterrorism” forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf, he corners himself into precisely the indeterminate and undefined commitments he claims he wants to end. He also hands what should be a diplomatic task to a military that is poorly suited to the task.
I am reminded of Henry Kissinger’s 1964 observation on the nature of peace — and his warning against relying on military leaders to achieve it: “A man who has grown accustomed to command finds it almost impossible to negotiate. Because negotiation is an admission of finite power.” In other words, a military leader is conditioned to seek total victory, not compromise; anything less is tantamount to failure.
Certainly, a negotiated settlement with Iran (or ISIS, or Al Qaida, or the Taliban, for that matter) would amount to an admission that our “world’s greatest military” is not in possession of infinite power, that there are limits to our power on their turf. That bitter pill is one which our president has so far been unable to swallow.
Unless we admit to such limits, the consequence will be a continuation of our endless wars. The stars are aligned for making a deal with Iran that could transform the Middle East — if we can simply open our eyes to the opportunity.
Jack Segal is a former Army officer, a retired senior foreign service officer and a former consul general who served in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Russia. He teaches aspiring diplomats in Norwich University’s Graduate program and lectures at NMC, Ferris State University, and Rhein-Waal University in Germany.