Did Iran attack two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman? The U.S. government says they did. America’s allies, including Japan and Germany, say they want to see more proof.
Because every question must invariably become about Donald Trump—is he lying? is this the price of his lack of credibility?—we seem to be ignoring one of the key elements in the situation: the nature of the Islamic Republic regime.
Iran has been threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz—the connection from the oil-rich Persian Gulf to the Sea of Oman to oceans and international waters—for several years now. And one way to read the recent attacks is as an indication that they are demonstrating a willingness to back up with these threats.
At first glance, the idea that Iran’s green-water navy (which includes six frigates, three corvettes, and a menagerie of small, coastal missile craft) could challenge America’s blue-water might sounds ridiculous.
The problem lies in Iran’s asymmetrical power, where the United States has proven to be incredibly vulnerable throughout its history. To quote H.R. McMaster, there are two ways to fight the United States: asymmetrical and stupid. Consider the Indian Wars, the Philippines War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq—basically every conflict that didn’t turn out optimally for the United States.
With Iran this is a two-fold problem: Iran’s asymmetrical power deters us from an invasion out of fear of consequent insurgency by the old IRGC members (and especially the IRGC’s Basij force) and also deters us from limited operations out of fear of responses against our military bases in the region and against Israel through Hezbollah and Hamas.
Iran could not win a conventional fight with the U.S. Navy. But then, they would have no intention of conducting a conventional fight. They would seek to cripple shipping, raise the cost of sending trade through the strait, create uncertainty in world financial markets, and sow dissension between America and our allies. It’s not even clear that Iran would openly conduct operations under their own banner. It’s just as likely that they would employ maskirovka in order to launder the fight through non-state actors.
In other words, there is a reason that Iran has proved to be such an intractable problem.
President Obama saw the Iran nuclear crisis as an opportunity to remake the Middle East. He believed that after sanctions were lifted, Iran would become a member of the international community and adopt a more responsible behavior. This transformation, in turn, would balance the power of the Arab coalition—specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab of Emirates—and create a more stable region.
The Obama gamble failed. Even before the United States left the JCPOA, Iran had been antagonizing America at sea, destroying the little left of Lebanese democracy through continued support for Hezbollah, strengthening its alliance with Russia, providing support for Bashar al-Assad to slaughter the Syrian people, deploying its military to Iraq, supporting Houthis in Yemen, and providing support for Hamas.
If anything, the economic relief that followed the implementation of Obama’s JCPOA accelerated Iran’s malicious behaviors.
What Obama failed to appreciate was that the Islamic Republic is an ideological and revolutionary regime. Rarely in history have such regimes “evolved” into normalcy. The Soviet Union remained a revisionist state until it collapsed. China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization didn’t change its behavior.
This leaves the United States with two options: (1) To tolerate the regime and its rogue behavior and, perhaps, to limit it, through power projection; or (2) To facilitate regime change.
Tolerating the regime is both painful and costly for America. It requires the United States to spend financial, military, and other resources on containment. Nevertheless, it is the less risky option. (At least for now.)
The alternative offers higher risks but even higher rewards. To take just one for instance, China is pursuing its Belt and Road initiative and Iran is what connects East and South Asia to the Middle East and Africa—it’s a crucial piece of China’s attempt to remake the world order on its own terms. A liberal Iranian regime would further American interests and make the lives of our competitors more challenging.
But regime change requires prudence and offers its own challenges. Regime change could look like successful cases such as Chile and South Korea in the 1980s. Or it could look like chaoses of Iraq and Libya.
The best hope for the United States would be for Iran’s regime to fall from a revolution from within.
But there is a problem with the change-from-within fantasy: The natural evolution of the regime into something more acceptably liberal has proven impossible because the very legitimacy of the regime depends on its not being a normal state. As Henry Kissinger once said, Iran needed to decide whether it wanted to be a country or a cause. They decided on the latter. Consequently, the cleavage between the regime and the people on all accounts—political, social, economic—has become too wide to leave any door open for reform.
Which leaves revolution. But a revolution also looks deeply unlikely. For a revolution to succeed, it either requires that the government’s security forces lose the fight, or that they switch sides and join the revolutionaries. The uprisings of 1998, 2001, 2009, and 2018-19 have all demonstrated that the government’s security forces are loyal to the regime and have an overwhelming advantage over the people.
Granted, this could change. The United States could provide support for the opposition in Iran in case of another uprising, and perhaps this could change the power imbalance. And there may well be another uprising. The regime is deeply unpopular. The number of protests and demonstrations now reaches the high three digits each year. As the economic condition worsens—this is something that has been happening over the past 15 years, and the JCPOA failed to fix that problem—the regime’s popularity has been in free fall. Even within the IRGC and outside the corp’s leadership, the regime is not popular. Most of the enlisted and low- and medium-ranked officers serve only for the benefits and not out of ideological devotion.
The administration can right a wrong done by Carter and Obama administrations—the missed opportunity of 2009. But that would require a lot of prudence and planning.