The U.S. campaign against the Soviet Union during the latter years of the Cold War holds some important lessons for Washington’s current policy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Much like the Soviet Union was, the Iranian regime is beset with a host of internal and external challenges. Iran’s theocracy lacks legitimacy, popularity, and even the ability to govern the country effectively. Iran’s environmental devastation, water shortages, and near economic collapse point to the regime’s grave failings. And while Iran appears ascendant in the region, it has achieved its supremacy in Syria and Iraq at a grave expense to its own people.
Popular dissatisfaction with the regime’s costly involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza was one of the chief causes of the December 2017 Iranian uprising against the regime. The Islamic Republic’s continued aggression in the region puts its own existence at greater risk. This gives the U.S. tremendous leverage to increase economic pressure against Tehran as it counters the regime’s regional influence. But to do so, Washington must revise its policies in key places such as Syria and Iraq so it can contain and roll back Iranian influence.
Syria is Iran’s most vulnerable foreign adventure. The Assad regime appears on the cusp of victory with Iran’s position in the Levant seemingly strong and secure. Tens of thousands of Iranian trained troops roam Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon at will, part of the vast Iranian military structure that doesn’t recognize international borders. Yet Iran’s victory in Syria may prove pyrrhic in the long term. In addition to suffering thousands of casualties, Iran has spent billions protecting the Syrian regime. And it needs to spend billions more in order to rebuild Assad-controlled parts of Syria and maintain its dominant role in the country. Yet Tehran must contend with a collapsing economy at home, Russian supremacy in Syria and Moscow’s potential betrayal of Iranian interests, and Israeli attacks against Iranian military installations. The U.S. should be commended for maintaining its military presence in Syria in order to counter Iran, but it could do a lot more to increase the pressure on Tehran and compel it to pull its troops out of the Levant.
First, the U.S. should maintain support for some anti-Iranian Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime even if Assad’s defeat is not imminent; Iran may have largely “won” the conflict in Syria, but it should be denied stability in areas occupied by its allies and proxies. The U.S. should divert trade and investment from Assad-held areas, a policy it has already set in motion; but for its policy to be more effective, Washington should ensure that critical border areas such as Deraa remain under control of the opposition to the Assad regime. Moreover, the U.S. should prevent normalization of ties between Damascus and regional and foreign powers. Finally, Washington should figure out how to encourage defections from Iranian-commanded Shi’a Afghan, Pakistani, and Arab forces numbering thousands in Syria. Many of these fighters are in Syria not because of religion or ideology, but due to financial hardship and desperation. Alternative sources of revenue may convince many to abandon Iran’s mission and return to their home countries.
Iraq presents another important opportunity for the U.S. to roll back Iranian influence. Baghdad is often presented as a pliant junior partner to Tehran, and while Iran does hold many levers of influence, its ability to manipulate its neighbor is not ironclad. Iran’s main source of leverage is its close ties to Shiite religious parties that hold sway in Baghdad. Washington may think that it has no choice but to share power with Tehran in Iraq given that the majority of Iraqis are Shiite. But the Iraqi Shiites are not monolithic in their views of Iranian influence; powerful political figures such as Muqtada al Sadr see Iran with suspicion and are willing to work with other domestic and foreign actors to offset Iranian power. Washington’s ability to choke off Iran’s banking ties with Iraq and disrupt illicit economic activities across the border can be used to demonstrate a key choice for pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite groups. Iraqi groups wedded to the Islamic Republic’s ideology and money may be harder to break off, but as the September 2017 anti-Iranian riots demonstrated, there is enough resentment of Iran which can be exploited by sophisticated American information operations.
Iranian power in the Middle East, once ascendant, is under tremendous pressure and is vulnerable to U.S. pressure. The Iranian population will no longer passively tolerate the Islamic Republic’s export of the revolution and emptying of Iranian pockets for the regime’s narrow interests. And although Iran has built an impressive regional military network, the upkeep of its proxy armies will prove unsustainable in the face of renewed U.S. sanctions on November 5. The regime must either feed its population or its insatiable appetite for power abroad; it no longer has the resources to do both. Hence a U.S. pressure campaign that emphasizes information operations and defections while pushing against Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria may pay great dividends for American policy-makers.