Trump’s strike will not save Iran’s hardliners
The Iranian people are not fools. They know better than most exactly what the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its Quds Force — led by the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani — are all about. They are well aware that their government has spent billions supporting “resistance” groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, funneling cash and arms to the Houthis in Yemen, and underwriting Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Shiite militias, all under the tutelage of the IRGC. They know, as most Americans do not, what the IRGC mission is — regime protection at home, terror abroad — and the costs it has imposed on Iranian society to carry it out.
Nonetheless, in the wake of Soleimani’s killing last week by U.S. drone strike, Americans are being fed a steady diet of press stories conjuring tales of Iranian affection for the IRGC and its ruthless leadership. We are being told that Iran is now united behind regime hardliners who have ruled with an iron fist since 1979. Soleimani’s killing, leading Democrats and much of the elite press insist, will “backfire,” setting the stage for a “dangerous escalation” between Iran and the United States. In fact, history suggests the opposite is true: Confronting a hostile and dangerous authoritarian regime leads to better policy outcomes.
In the early 1980s, there were similar dour predictions about Ronald Reagan’s confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union, a reversal of the Carter administration’s soft pedal diplomacy that set the context for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan among other Cold War escalations. Reagan’s about-face included placing intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, sharply increasing the U.S. defense budget to focus on “warfighting,” and labeling the Soviet Union for what it was, an “evil empire.” This, many warned at the time, would embolden hardliners in the Politburo, weaken reformist-minded leaders, and extend the Cold War indefinitely. The 1984 Democratic National Convention was awash with dire predictions that a Reagan second term would virtually guarantee a hot war with the Soviets.
Reagan’s tough-minded approach paid tangible dividends, leading to landmark arms controls agreements, détente, and ultimately the peaceful end of the Cold War (and of the Soviet Union itself). Even before these results were clear, the American people liked Reagan’s strategy enough to reward him with a landslide reelection in 1984.
Yes, there are many differences between the latter years of Soviet Communism and Iran’s contemporary Islamist theocracy. But those differences on balance favor a more determined approach: Iran is far poorer, far weaker, and far more susceptible to internal shocks than the Soviet Union was. The Green Movement that flexed its muscles in 2009 could hardly have flourished in the Soviet space, and while Iran’s ability to suppress internal dissent has grown in the decade since, the government remains deeply unpopular.
Indeed, there is substantial evidence that Iran’s increased capacity to maintain control at home and export violence in the region was a direct result of the weakness Iran’s leaders perceived from the Obama administration. The regime received windfall concessions upon signing the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including tens of billions in cash and billions more from new access to the global economy. But instead of using its newfound riches to invest in the Iranian people — as hoped for by Obama and his supporters — Tehran instead doubled down on its efforts to disrupt the Middle East.
It is true that a more aggressive U.S. posture against Iran could lead to additional threats against U.S. installations and interests, such as Tuesday’s limited missile strikes against bases housing American troops in Iraq. But that possibility has to be weighed against the fact that Iran has already claimed hundreds of American lives and has been busy plotting and planning future attacks. Rather than accelerate a spiral of attacks and retribution, there is a chance that, understanding the consequences, Tehran’s leadership may hesitate before goading the United States into steps that may well threaten the regime itself.
Indeed, though the American people are being fed a steady diet of alarmism, this is likely a far more perilous moment for the leaders in Tehran.
After two years of crippling U.S. sanctions (Iran’s GDP contracted by nearly 10 percent in 2019), a restive public, and a U.S. administration willing to back up its diplomacy with force, the regime confronts existential choices. Will it try to maintain its position as the world’s leading state sponsor of terror while squandering countless resources on internal repression and nuclear and ballistic missile programs? Or, will it choose the path of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, recognizing it is backed into a strategic corner, and negotiate a peaceful way out?
Should Iran choose the second option, the Iranian people may one day truly revere General Soleimani — for showing the way in death that he never did in life.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches international affairs and public policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They both formerly served as foreign policy advisers in the U.S. Senate.
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