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Iran: Of rats and regime change

Iranian Presidency Office via AP
In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi attends an interview with the state TV in Tehran on Sept. 28, 2022. Raisi has vowed to investigate the death of Mahsa Amini, whose death in morality police custody over a dispute over her veil, but said authorities would not tolerate any threats to public security. Amini’s death sparked nearly two weeks of widespread unrest in Iran and elsewhere.

Because the Iranian regime justifies its malign activities and agenda by recourse to longstanding grievances sanctified by faith, it is impervious to reasoned discourse and cannot be trusted to keep its word. Accordingly, any effort to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear treaty Washington and its partners negotiated that granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its atomic ambitions, is a feckless exercise. 

Unburdened by conventional foreign-policy thinking, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and redoubled sanctions, forcing the clerical regime into a corner. As Winston Churchill famously observed, a cornered rat can be dangerous. But the dangers inherent in not dealing decisively with the infestation are greater still.

A growing threat

On the same day in August, militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked a U.S. military base in southern Syria with drones and fired rockets at a different base used by the U.S.-led coalition near Syria’s eastern border, underscoring the kinetic threat Iran poses to the United States and its allies. With Tehran continuing to develop drones, as well as conventional and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, that threat has grown steadily more concerning. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last year observed that Iran possessed the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East. Capable of targeting not only Israel but also parts of Europe, the Islamic Republic — under the guise of its purportedly peaceful space program — almost certainly seeks the means to strike the United States.

Lacking reputable friends and unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas, successive iterations of the clerical regime have sought relevance — and plausible deniability — by supplying groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels with the rockets, missiles, drones and technical expertise required to sow mayhem and terror. The IRGC serves not only as the conduit through which lethal aid is delivered; it also provides tactical and strategic leadership enabling these proxies to punch well above their weight. The Houthis’ success in preventing vastly better-equipped Saudi forces from prevailing in Yemen’s seven-year civil war is a testament to the battlefield acumen of the Quds Force, the IRGC entity specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations.

Pursuing vengeance

Recent U.S. actions, particularly the January 2020 targeted killing (via drone strike) of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, have drawn the IRGC out from behind its proxies. Days after his death, the Guard Corps claimed responsibility for ballistic missile strikes on U.S. military air bases in Iraq. In March, it took credit for launching a dozen ballistic missiles at the new U.S. Consulate General in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq. Last month, the Department of Justice unsealed charging documents alleging that an IRGC member in Iran sought to assassinate former national security adviser John Bolton, likely in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly also was a target.  

Though bold and (one might argue) provocative, Soleimani’s removal was a prudent move. The Defense Department insisted he was planning additional attacks on American diplomats and military personnel and that he had approved an Iraqi Shia-militia rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that occurred days after his death. Ironically, leaders in Tehran may have been as relieved by his removal as their counterparts in Washington. Through its control over broad swaths of the Iranian economy, political clout, and jihadist appeal among the country’s restive youth, the IRGC — though putatively answering to Ali Khamenei — had become an independent power base representing an implicit threat to the octogenarian Supreme Leader and his creaky clerical confrères. Soleimani, the Guard Corps’ shining star, was a destabilizing figure at home as well as abroad.

Casting spells

As last month’s attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie made clear, leaders in Tehran know how to hold a grudge — and manipulate the faithful. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatuous 1989 fatwa calling for the murder of the Indian-born, British-American author of “The Satanic Verses” was merely the most prominent attempt to dress a political revenge-killing in the raiment of religious obligation. The U.S. Department of State reports that, since coming to power in 1979, Iran’s clerical regime has been implicated in at least 360 assassinations and terrorist attacks in more than 40 countries.

Tehran’s tyrants wield fundamentalist Twelver Shia dogma as a cultural bludgeon against secular culture and a mechanism to manipulate its people. A nation that produced centuries of incomparable art, architecture, literature and music has been rendered barren. Morals-enforcers actively monitor secular achievements, rooting out and delegitimizing those seen as challenging religion’s monopoly on cultural life (and, as we recently have seen, murdering nonconformists). This leaves any remaining passion to be channeled through a faith that, lacking critical examination, easily is manipulated by its self-anointed guardians. Small wonder the mullahs, more than 40 years after the revolution, still can whip up frenzied mobs.

Once a rat…

The Biden administration should recognize that under no circumstances will clerical leaders in Tehran forgo the opportunity to possess nuclear weapons, which they believe will guarantee their survival. They will seek to possess nuclear weapons regardless of the terms of the JCPOA.  Washington must summon the courage to recognize and act on the obvious: Iran requires regime change — and the sooner, the better.

The U.S. administration should assemble, finance and promote a credible, responsible and representative Iranian government-in-exile. It should encourage, not restrain, Israel as it explores options — including force — to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons with which it undoubtedly would threaten not just the Jewish state, but all countries within range of its nuclear-capable missiles. In the meantime, the United States vigorously must pursue cyber warfare, intelligence operations, and enhanced efforts to isolate Tehran diplomatically and commercially while never losing sight of the fact that containment fails as a long-term strategy. Edmund Burke put it best:  By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation.

Cam Burks is a senior fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute. He is a corporate global security executive, previously serving in chief security officer and enterprise, geopolitical strategy leadership positions at Chevron Corporation and Adobe. He served for nearly 15 years in the Foreign Service as a special agent and American Embassy Regional Security Officer with the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. He is a network affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Tags Bashar al-Assad Iran Iran nuclear deal Iran protests Islamic Republic of Iran proxy wars Quds Force Trump

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