The U.S. Should Adopt a Regime Change Strategy for Iran | Opinion

Discredited at home and isolated abroad, Iran's authoritarian leaders are under greater pressure today than ever. Instead of trying to convince them to change their behavior, we should change our own by abandoning 40 years of failed containment and pushing for a more open, democratic and responsible system of government. Tehran already sees President Trump's "maximum pressure" strategy as a de facto regime change policy. As the Iranian threat grows, Washington should make it official—not through war or additional economic sanctions, but by capitalizing on deep internal conflicts that can lead to change from within.

There is a better way.

This is not a call for a U.S. military invasion of Iran, or even a call for covert support to a new guerrilla movement. Rather, it is a call for a surge in non-lethal support to help Iran's disparate pro-democracy movements unite under a single banner. The Iranian regime does not currently face imminent collapse, but it has lost the support of the vast majority of Iranians. Washington can, and should, lend structure, funding and vision—the missing elements in the popular but failed Green Movement a decade ago. I recently laid out the case for a new way to approach regime change in Iran here.

Why regime change is appropriate.

Republican and Democratic administrations have continuously designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. Iran's hardline leaders run the only national government that has sought to kill Americans consistently since 1979. They treat terrorism as a legitimate tool for pursuing their "divinely inspired" mandate of undermining the U.S.-led international system. This approach has prevailed for over four decades, and it will continue to do so as long as this regime remains in power.

This is also an opportune time—the vast majority of Iranians no longer see any reason for Iran to continue as a distinctly Islamic Republic. They are violently protesting in record numbers over endemic corruption, the lack of political and social freedoms and several national crises (from severe water and air pollution to egregious mishandling of the coronavirus). The regime is bracing for more large-scale anti-government protests this summer, concerned they could eventually disrupt or even undermine the looming (and ill-defined) succession of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It is neither realistic nor safe to hope for regime moderation.

Our attempts to contain Iran's unbending theocracy have not worked and are actually making Iran even more dangerous. Those who argue Iran cannot expect to prevail in sustained, conventional naval or air combat with U.S. and allied forces, and therefore view regime change as unnecessary, underestimate four discomfiting realities.

Iran is no Iraq: Iran can credibly attack opposing military forces by relying on a variety of irregular warfare capabilities designed to turn the broader Gulf region into a hot war zone that is unsafe for commercial shipping. And unlike Iraq, Iran has armed drones and a vast arsenal of rockets, missiles and mines that could be used to stop the full flow of maritime traffic in the Gulf for months. Whereas the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars were confined to the northern Persian Gulf, Iran could directly threaten the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

Iran is able and willing to attack U.S. interests. Some argue that Iran's recent surge in armed confrontation only occurred because the U.S. re-imposed economic sanctions by leaving the nuclear deal. Yet the deal did nothing to reduce Iran's support for destabilizing activities across the Middle East. There are dozens of examples of attacks on the U.S. and its allies before and after the deal's signing.

After the nuclear deal went into effect, Iran increased its support to the Houthis, facilitating rocket attacks on ships passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb, oil infrastructure in southern Saudi Arabia and even soft targets in major Saudi cities.

In 2016, with the nuclear deal already agreed, Iran seized two U.S. naval vessels and resumed fast boat-swarming operations around U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. It also reactivated special operations units that the IRGC-Quds Force had put on hold as multilateral sanctions forced budget cuts. That year, the State Department also cited Iran's post-JCPOA destabilizing role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, warning of an increase in support to Hezbollah's long-term attack capabilities and infrastructure around the world.

Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran
Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Finally, an unprovoked drone and rocket attack last September on two of the world's most important oil facilities—located in Saudi Arabia—boosted oil prices by 15 percent, one of the largest single-day increases in history. The brazen attack made clear that Iran considers it fair play to inflict catastrophic damage on vital energy infrastructure. It also demonstrates that the U.S. shale boom does not insulate us from crude oil price spikes, and reminds us that oil disruptions anywhere will trigger price volatility everywhere.

Iran has and likely will again pursue a nuclear weapons capability. The provisions of the nuclear deal allow the restrictions to expire in 10 to 15 years. When they do, Iran will be allowed to develop an industrial-scale civilian nuclear program that will reduce its "breakout time"—the time needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon—to under a month. This is highly problematic, given the unresolved "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program and the regime's embrace of terrorism.

Iran has aspired to a nuclear weapon capability for decades, concealing a wide range of covert nuclear activities (until others discovered them). In its most recent report on June 5, the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that "Iran has denied the Agency access to two locations for almost a year, refusing to engage in discussions to clarify possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities." Tehran's track record of transferring advanced weapons to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah—bad enough with conventional weapons—would become truly terrifying if it could deploy a strategic nuclear threat.

Iran is expanding the state-run criminal enterprise that sustains its malevolent agenda abroad. Corruption—controlled by Iran's security services and regime elites—enables illicit Iranian activities that complement Iran-backed terrorism, such as narcotics trafficking, money laundering and cyber-crime. These activities have expanded, over time, into a global criminal enterprise involving shadow economies that erode the foundations of international law and security. Nascent anti-corruption motions—such as anti-corruption laws, provincial anti-corruption offices and occasional convictions—were never intended to uproot the corruption that fuels networks of individuals and infrastructure around the world that give Iranian terrorism its global reach.

The United States has failed to roll back Iranian aggression for over 40 years. Even when Iran's hardline leaders bend temporarily in the face of overwhelming economic and diplomatic pressure, as they did to secure the nuclear deal, it never lasts for very long. Without fail, the Islamic Republic's deep-rooted anti-Americanism re-emerges and reminds us that the regime will never change its behavior.

Scott Modell is the managing director of the Rapidan Energy Group, a Washington, D.C.-based energy consulting firm focused on oil markets, policy and geopolitics. Scott is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and served for 13 years in the CIA's National Clandestine Service.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.