Pushing Back Against Iran: Is It Time for Regime Change?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The last aspect of a pushback strategy toward Iran that I want to delve into in a bit more depth is the role that regime change should play as part of that strategy.

To give you my bottom line up front, I don't believe that regime change should be the primary goal of such a strategy or a direct aim of US policy at present, although I think the US 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.

Ultimately, the question is not whether we should desire an end to the regime in Tehran. After 39 years of living with the Islamic Republic's aggression abroad and corrupt repression at home, I think there is little doubt the United States, the Middle East, and the people of Iran would all be better off with a different political system and different political rulers there.

Instead, the question is whether the threats that we and our allies face from this Iranian regime justify taking the risks and paying the costs to change it.

The first reality we need to face is that implementing regime change toward Iran will be very difficult. As unpopular as the clerical regime may be, Iranians are very nationalistic and have traditionally rallied around their government whenever they felt it threatened from abroad.

Of even greater importance, the regime has the country wired tight. It has repeatedly crushed popular revolts with ease. It has likewise managed to roll up entire foreign espionage networks on a regular basis. And it has consistently moved to crush any unrest among its unhappy minority communities with similar success.

The only policy the United States could adopt that would be certain to result in the fall of the regime in Tehran would be to invade the country. But it seems exceedingly unlikely that the American people will have any interest in doing so.

Even setting aside the vast commitment of resources required to conquer Iran, an invasion would also require Iran's occupation and reconstruction to ensure that it does not fall into the same destabilizing cycle of chaos and civil war from which Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling to break free.

Iranian soldiers march in the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the start of Iran's 1980-1988 war with Iraq, on September 21, 2016, in the capital Tehran. CHAVOSH HOMAVANDI/AFP/Getty

Given that the American public has shown zero interest in invading and occupying Syria, a country with half the size and only two-thirds the population of Iraq, it seems utterly unimaginable that they would be interested in doing so for Iran. Iran has three times the population, four times the land mass, and five times the problems of Iraq.

In short, an invasion of Iran in pursuit of regime change is absolutely off the table, unless Iran does something so abhorrent to the United States — like a massive terrorist attack along the lines of 9/11 — that the American people suddenly decide that its regime must be destroyed no matter the cost.

If we aren't going to invade Iran, then we are talking about a very different kind of effort to try to bring about regime change. Such a campaign would likely involve aggressive cyber-attacks, covert action to stir up domestic unrest and convince Iran's minorities to launch insurgencies against the government, large-scale information operations to discredit the regime, and possibly new sanctions to increase the economic pressure on the regime. (Such new sanctions could well violate the JCPOA, another potential cost of pursuing regime change.)

These kinds of covert regime change campaigns never have a high likelihood of success and as I noted above, they are meant to instigate exactly the kinds of threats the Iranian regime has proven so effective at defeating in the past.

Yet if the United States were to embark on such a program, there is no question Iran would quickly perceive it and fight back. And what we have seen from the Iranian leadership is that whenever they believe their grip on power is being threatened, they fight back with everything they have got. That is why they have been so successful in suppressing domestic unrest.

Deterring or defeating a perceived foreign effort to stir internal unrest has also been the motive for many of Iran's most aggressive foreign actions.

For instance, in 1995–1996, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich publicly increased the CIA's budget for covert operations in Iran by $18 billion. Although this was largely a political move meant to embarrass the Clinton White House and amounted to very little in terms of increasing the threat to the clerical regime, the Iranians assumed it was a declaration of covert war by the United States.

They responded by amping up the terrorist campaign against Israel by their Palestinian proxies, stoking unrest and a coup plot in Bahrain, and finally mounting the terrorist attack against the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 and injured over 200 American military personnel living there. The Khobar Towers attack could easily have sparked a war between the United States and Iran had the Saudis cooperated with the FBI investigation and the reformist Mohammed Khatami not been elected president in Iran.

Consequently, if the United States pursues a policy of deliberate regime change against Iran, we should assume they will try to hurt us any way they can and as much as they possibly can to convince us to desist. And Iran has the capability to inflict a lot of pain on the United States.

It remains the number one state sponsor of terrorism in the world and has demonstrated a willingness (although not much of an ability) to mount terror attacks inside the United States. Its cyber capabilities have become formidable over the past decade.

It has hundreds of ballistic missiles capable of striking targets throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and its Hezbollah allies have over 150,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting Israel.

In short, Iran could fight back hard and potentially inflict a lot of pain on the United States and our allies. Worse, we might absorb all of that damage for naught, since a covert campaign to overthrow the regime still might very well fail.

Is regime change necessary?

While these potential risks and costs strike me as quite high, I might still make the case that they were necessary to bear if I felt that achieving regime change — or even just making the Iranians believe that we wanted regime change — was necessary to achieve America's goals as I have defined them. However, that isn't the case either.

As I explained in the first two essays in this series, the goal of a pushback strategy should be to diminish Iran's influence throughout the Middle East. While ridding ourselves of the clerical regime in Tehran would certainly be desirable (including to most Iranians) it is not a goal of the policy nor is it necessary to attain the goals of the policy.

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.

There is only so much the regime will invest in Iraq or Syria merely to preserve its influence there. It would be willing to commit far more and fight far harder if it believed that US moves in Iraq and Syria were precursors to a move against the regime itself.

Moreover, the strategy would benefit from avoiding unintended escalation that pushed the United States to invade and occupy Iran unintentionally. Again, invading and occupying Iran would incur massive costs and risks that the American people decidedly do not want. But the more Tehran believes our intent is to overthrow the regime, the more vicious and desperate will be its efforts to fight back and the more harm it is likely to inflict on the United States.

If it scores a major blow, like al Qaeda did on 9/11, it could trigger a spur-of-the-moment decision to invade Iran. Given where the US public is at this time, we should be trying to avoid such inadvertent escalation, not courting it.

Keeping regime change as a deterrent

All this said, it would not be wise to dismiss all talk of regime change out of hand. There is an important role for regime change within a policy of pushing back on Iran. That role is as a deterrent.

As Michael Eisenstadt has cogently explained, the United States 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.

As I have described in these six essays, a pushback strategy should seek to challenge Iran where it is vulnerable. The truth is that Iran's ability to fight back against the United States in places like Syria and Iraq will be limited by its own interests and constraints.

Consequently, Tehran is likely to retaliate for greater American exertions there with "horizontal escalation," attacking us in completely different venues where Tehran believes it has an advantage and we face our own vulnerabilities and constraints.

But both where Iran attacks and how hard they attack will be governed by Tehran's sense of how much of an American response they would be likely to provoke in the inevitable cycle of action and reaction.

The Iranians know that America's military arsenal could completely overwhelm them, if we choose to use it. But they probably also calculate that there is no popular support for an invasion of Iran.

They might also assess that it would be exceptionally unlikely for the United States to employ nuclear weapons against them unless they took some action that inflicted unspeakable horrors on the United States — like a cataclysmic cyber or biological warfare attack.

Certainly, the United States can employ more limited military responses to Iran, like bombing selected Iranian military facilities or destroying high-value military targets.

However, Iran might be willing to absorb such losses in return for causing greater harm to the United States. Especially since their conventional forces are neither their primary means of projecting power abroad nor the most important guarantee against foreign invasion.

For all of these reasons, the United States will need to have in reserve an ability to put at risk something else of tremendous value to the regime to convince it to moderate its retaliation for America's stepped-up efforts to confront Iran in the region. If we pursue a more robust effort to aid the Syrian opposition, we don't want the Iranians to think they can unleash a wave of terror attacks here in the United States with impunity.

We want them to fear that if they were to do that, the United States would come after the thing that matters most to them, their grip on power. And while we might calculate that our odds of succeeding in overthrowing the regime are low, the mere fact that we would try to do so will terrify the regime. It is the best way to convince them never to start down that path at all.

In addition, as I noted in my previous essay on the Iranian nuclear threat, the United States should also have an option to pursue regime change against Iran if we concluded that Iran intended to break out of the JCPOA and try to acquire nuclear weapons.

In particular, if Iran believes there is a danger to its regime that can be countered with a nuclear deterrent, the threat of renewed international sanctions is unlikely to prove to be much of a restraint on their actions. The one thing that could stop Iran in their tracks is if they believed that by illegally pursuing a nuclear capability they would cause the United States to unleash a well-prepared campaign to bring down the regime. They probably won't want to trigger the very threat they are seeking to prevent.

All of this argues for planning, preparing, and exploring how the United States could best try to mount a covert regime change program against Iran, but keeping it entirely on the shelf. Again, we do not want to convince the Iranians we are bent on regime change, because doing so would likely trigger a massive, violent response from Iran.

But we do want them to fear that we are fully ready to proceed with such a program if Iran overreacts to American efforts to confront them more assertively in the region or they attempt to break out of the JCPOA and build a nuclear arsenal.

For 39 years, Iran has acted aggressively across the Middle East. The regime has tried to overthrow American allies, mounted terrorist attacks against them and against US personnel in the region, and armed insurgencies and terrorist groups looking to fight and murder our allies.

They have done all of this under the assumption that none of it would prompt the United States to invade Iran, launch nuclear weapons against it, or try to overthrow the regime. They were consistently right. They have learned to play the "game" of power politics in the Middle East.

At the most basic level, a strategy of pushing back on Iran would simply mean that the United States would finally start playing the game as hard as Iran. We would not play in the same way since our resources and advantages are very different from Iran's, but we would not be doing anything categorically different from what they have been doing all along. There is no reason this should trigger an outsized Iranian response, nor should we allow the possibility that it might to deter us. Doing so would mean ceding the field, the Middle East, to Iran.

However, we will want to convince Iran not to overreact, and to constrain their own retaliation. The best way to do so is to convince the clerical regime that if they overstep, we are ready to threaten their stranglehold on the Iranian nation — and we are ready to do it in ways that our people and the rest of the international community would be more than willing to bear. If we can do that, we are likely to force Iran to retaliate at levels that we will be most willing to bear and that will help turn the tide across the region.

A concluding note

As much as I have written over the past six essays regarding a strategy of pushing back on Iran, I am still struck by how much more could be said. Iran is always a complicated adversary and the Middle East is always an enormously complex environment in which to operate. Devising a policy to confront Iran in the Middle East is something like "complicated squared."

I hope these essays have given a fuller sense of what a strategy of pushing back on Iran could look like, but as always, there is so much to explain that this can only be an overview.

As a final point, I will simply note that I have no expectation the Trump administration will adopt this approach. The president's determination to walk away from the JCPOA, Syria, and (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree) Iraq run directly contrary to the core of this strategy — and to one another.

They run at cross purposes in a way the president does not seem to recognize. I fear that if the administration clings to those sentiments, the White House will render its version of pushback impractical and unworkable. I don't know what their strategy would produce in the real world if or when it is put into practice, but I am skeptical that it would have the impact on Iranian influence that is intended, and I fear it would create more problems than it solves.

Read the previous installments in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.