Why the US needs Russia and China to help change Iran's behavior

Why the US needs Russia and China to help change Iran's behavior
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Predicting the future behavior of any country in the Middle East is a dangerous undertaking. Some might suggest it’s a lot cheaper and more effective to rely on a pack of tarot cards than a report from the U.S. intelligence community. However, even considering the recent seemingly unpredicted and unprecedented events there, history does remain a prologue to this region’s future. As the next stage of this latest twist with Iran unfolds, the U.S. cannot, alone or with regional Arab allies, change Iran’s adventurism unless Russia and China become part of the calculation out of self-interest.

Unfortunately, in America, we seem to have little memory of this region’s history, and the misplaced illation made by many over Iranian General Qassem Soleimani’s death soon will fade. After we have returned to our daily routines, Americans will grieve the loss of more lives taken in ways that may truly shock us. Iran’s train of retribution is coming. The manner, time and methodology by which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies exact their revenge will be designed to influence the narrative of the next phase in this asymmetric war. 

In the process of deciding how they will exact this price, Iran will weigh its options against our domestic condition, whether these are set by the U.S. election cycle or Iranian perceptions of who, exactly, should pay the highest price. What Iran’s leadership does know is that a majority of Americans do not want war, nor do most Americans support the seemingly unarticulated reason for keeping U.S. troops in the region. 

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With the end of Soleimani’s preeminence as chief architect of Iran’s adventurous regional policy, there is room for argument that his death might open opportunities for Iranian moderates to subtly change course. Even if this were true, barring a significant change in the power structure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others who supported Soleimani are unlikely to order a stand-down on carrying out their revenge — most assuredly, this train has left the station.

Those who study Iran know, given its history and sense of victim identity, Tehran will not suddenly end its reckless behavior. It has the critical elements required to sustain a war of asymmetric attrition: geopolitical position, geographic size, military capability, decades of asymmetric experience, and apparent undiminished motivation. So, if we must now assume the train is coming, what can we do to minimize the damage?  

Asymmetric responses by the U.S. are a real option, but this comes with a high price. While we could pay this price, Washington would be unable to sustain such an effort indefinitely because of domestic and global political reasons. Israel has been undertaking such operations for many years, with some measurable impact, but the Israelis arguably have the political support at home and the same elements needed for asymmetric warfare that Iran has. Furthermore, the threat of large-scale U.S. military retaliation could quickly broaden the scope of the conflict, with unintended regional economic and political consequences, and still not diminish Iran’s capability to carry out covert attacks on American officials, interests and regional allies. 

Ultimately, any major U.S.-Israeli military operation should be kept for one purpose only: destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

That leaves the U.S. with only one practical option: American-led diplomacy, backed by asymmetric pressure from our intelligence and special operations communities abroad and the FBI at home. Direct political engagement with Iran, as in the case of North Korea, will not result in some magical capitulation to U.S. demands in exchange for a perceived desire of a superpower’s recognition. In actuality, Iran already has significant superpower recognition — from Russia and China

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Washington needs to renew the U.S. strategic focus on hardball diplomatic negotiating tactics. We must find the best combination of carrot and stick to appropriately dissuade further assistance to Iran by these two powerful nations with whom Iran maintains close economic and military ties, to help secure that desired change in Iran’s behavior.  

Pursuing such superpower diplomacy, along with asymmetric pressure on Iran, will not come without some price. Washington may need to compromise with Moscow and Beijing on other matters of considerable geopolitical significance. However, Iran is one area where all three superpowers might find a workable agreement that brings the country back into the fold. Iran is an ancient, formidable regional player and the actions taken by all concerned, across a broad spectrum of issues, will have long-term repercussions for each stakeholder’s critical geopolitical goals in the region and beyond.

Don Hepburn served with the U.S. intelligence community for over 25 years and held senior executive positions in the CIA and FBI as chief of station and as deputy assistant director. He currently is president of Boanerges Solutions LLC.