What is the U.S. endgame in Iran?

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Andrey Kortunov



The Trump administration has decided to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. It is the first time when Washington includes into its list of terrorist organizations an official institution of a foreign state. Moreover, the IRGC is not just another institution, it is arguably the backbone of the Iranian political system and its military machine. The State Department explanation boils down the assertion that under the cover of the Syrian war, the IRGC plants military roots in Syria and establishes a new strategic base to threaten Syria’s neighbors such as Israel. The Trump administration also hold IRGC accountable for the deaths of more than six hundred US personnel in Iraq as well as for assisting multiple militant proxies all over the Arab world — from Lebanon in the North to Yemen in the South.


The move has not come as a surprise to anybody following the US policy towards Iran — the White House was considering this option for at least a couple of months. Allegedly, the Pentagon and the CIA raised their concerns about whether this decision would be in US interests, but their opposition was overruled by Michael Pompeo and John Bolton. Many observers of the Middle East politics also argue that President Trump made this decision at this particular moment in order to help his ally and friend Benjamin Netanyahu to win the parliamentary election in Israel on April 9.


In practical terms, the decision will become another significant constraint for the US military, intelligence, and diplomats in the region. From now on, American officials cannot conduct any negotiations with their peers in Iraq, in Syria or in Lebanon, if the latter had any contacts with the IRGC. Moreover, this goes far beyond the IRGC itself, it also covers IRGC-related or IRGC-supported groups and organizations like Hezbollah. As expected, Tehran was not slow to reciprocate, adding the US Armed Forces to its own list of terrorist organizations.


The US decision on the IRGC is a very clear indicator that the Trump administration is not interested in reaching out to the Tehran political or military establishment; the US — Iranian relationship as apparently perceived in the White House as a zero-sum game with no mutually beneficial compromise possible.  Therefore, there is no reason for the administration to pursue any sticks-and-carrots approach — sticks alone would be more than enough to deal with the stubborn and uncooperative US adversary. Whatever the IRGC does or does not do from now on, it will hardly get off the American terrorist list anytime soon — there will always be a suspicion that the Revolutionary Guards are hiding behind any anti-American militant group in the region and assisting any attack against US personnel or against US allies in the Middle East.


The big question, however, is about what the United States is trying to reach with its unqualified pressure upon Iran. What is the preferred US endgame?


Many in Washington would argue that the logical endgame is a regime change in Tehran. The White House would like to see a political revolution or a least a coup d’état resulting in bringing to power US-friendly political forces and ousting the current Iranian leadership. A new Iran can arguably become a close friend of Israel (like it once was under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi), a loyal ally of the United States and a reliable partner of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. One can guess that this rather self-serving vision is fed by opinions and predictions of Iranian political dissidents residing in the US, who would like to think that the current regime is profoundly weak and fragile and that an increased US pressure would accelerate its unavoidable collapse.


However, this logic raises many questions. First, it is not evident that increased pressure makes a strong regime weaker. If the history of Iran can teach us anything, it is that the Iranian state and the society has a remarkable degree of resilience. Suffice to mention the eight years of the Iranian — Iraqi war (1980–1988) that cost the country half a million lives, but did not break the will of the nation. The odds are that the stronger the US pressure on Tehran is, the more willingness to rally around the flag we will see in Iran. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who heads the IRGC, is already one of the most popular public figures in the country and his public support will go only higher after the US decision.  Iranians are a proud nation, and even if they are critical of their leadership, they are very unlikely to revolt against it when the country is under siege.


Second, an increased American pressure on Iran makes Tehran even more dependent on major US geopolitical adversaries — China and Russia. On top of that, the US pressure might encourage the Iranian leadership to resume its nuclear program and to acquire a nuclear capacity. Would president Trump be ready to treat Iranian leaders the way he now treats Kim Jong-un?


On the other hand, the mounting American pressure puts US friends and partners in Europe and in Asia alike into a very difficult position. Take, for instance, India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would like to cooperate more with the United States, but he cannot abandon India’s long-term ties with Tehran either.


However, let us suppose for a moment, that a miracle happens and the White house is indeed successful in its attempts to instigate an implosion of the present political regime in Tehran. Is the United States in a position to steer Iran in the direction of a secularized, pluralistic, Western-type democracy that is friendly to Washington? The existing US record of accomplishment in the MENA region state building is not very reassuring, to put it mildly. The United States kept Iraq under its occupation for many years, spent tons of money on the Iraqi state building, and what has Uncle Sam got as returns on his investments? To say that Iraq today is a model US ally in the region would be an overstatement, not to use another word. Furthermore, president Trump is not likely to match the generosity of his predecessors or their willingness to put American boots on the ground.


US strategists would definitely argue that the US goal is not a regime change in Iran but rather a regime behavior change. If this is the case, the United States needs a much more sophisticated and nuanced approach, offering both negative and positive incentives to American counterparts in Tehran. It also needs to work together with other major powers instead of pursuing a unilateralist mode of actions. On top of that, the US has to keep all possible lines of communications with various factions in the Iranian leadership open. This definitely includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders. As both Sun Tzu and to Niccolò Machiavelli argued, “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer”.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Andrey Kortunov

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Andrey Kortunov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 1979 and completed his postgraduate studies at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1982. He holds a PhD in History. Dr Kortunov completed internships at the Soviet embassies in London and Washington, and at the Permanent Delegation of the USSR to the UN.

In 1982–1995, Dr Kortunov held various positions in the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, including Deputy Director. He taught at universities around the world, including the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he led several public organizations involved in higher education, social sciences and social development, such as the Moscow Public Science Foundation (1993–2001); the Information, Scholarship, Education Center (2002–2017); and the New Eurasia Foundation, (2004–2017). Dr Kortunov has been the President of the New Development Technologies Autonomous Non-profit Organization since 2015.

Since 2011, Andrey Kortunov has been the Director General of RIAC. He is a member of expert and supervisory committees and boards of trustees of several Russian and international organizations. His academic interests include contemporary international relations and Russian foreign policy.

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