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Policy Analysis

October 9, 2017 | Number 822

Unforced Error
The Risks of Confrontation with Iran
By Emma Ashford and John Glaser


uring the 2017 presidential campaign, The third option, so-called regime change from
then-candidate Donald Trump was open within, is a strategy that relies on sanctions and on back-
about his hostility toward Iran and his ing for internal Iranian opposition movements to push
disdain for the Obama administration’s for the overthrow of the regime in Tehran. This approach
diplomacy with that country. Since is not feasible: regime change—whether covert or overt—
January, the Trump administration has been engaged in rarely succeeds in producing a stable, friendly, democratic
an Iran policy review. News reports and leaks suggest the regime. The lack of any good candidates for U.S. support
review is highly likely to recommend a more confronta- inside Iran compounds this problem. The final policy
tional approach to Iran, whether within the framework of alternative we explore is direct military action against
the Iranian nuclear deal or by withdrawing from it. This Iranian nuclear or military facilities. Such attacks are
paper examines the costs of four confrontational policy unlikely to produce positive outcomes, while creating the
approaches to Iran: sanctions, regional hostilities, “regime risk of substantial escalation. Worse, attacking Iran after
change from within,” and direct military action. the successful signing of the nuclear deal will only add to
Increased economic sanctions are unlikely to succeed global suspicions that the United States engages in regime
in producing policy change in the absence of a clear goal change without provocation and that it cannot be trusted
or multinational support. Indeed, sanctions on Iran are to uphold its commitments.
likely to meet with strong opposition from U.S. allies in We suggest an alternative strategy for the Trump
Europe and Asia, who continue to support the nuclear administration: engagement. This approach would see
deal. The second policy we examine—challenging Iranian America continue to uphold the nuclear deal and seek
proxies and influence throughout the Middle East—is like- continued engagement with Iran on issues of mutual
wise problematic. There is little coherent, effective oppo- interest. Engagement offers a far better chance than con-
sition to Iran in the region, and this approach increases frontation and isolation to improve Iran’s foreign policy
the risks of blowback to U.S. forces in the region, pulling behavior and empower moderate groups inside Iran in the
the United States deeper into regional conflicts. long term.

Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. John Glaser is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

INTRODUCTION Iran’s agreement to restrict enrichment to
Iran is in full In July 2015, the P5+1—the United States, 3.67 percent constitutes a significant barrier
compliance United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and to weapons development. Iran also agreed to
Germany—reached a diplomatic agreement limit its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to
with the with Iran to roll back and significantly limit 300 kilograms for 15 years, making it extreme-
nuclear ly difficult to covertly enrich excess material. 2

the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for
deal. the lifting of economic sanctions. The Joint To ensure compliance with the JCPOA’s
Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was restrictions, Iran agreed to submit what
the result of years of meticulous diplomatic remained of its nuclear program to what
negotiations and represented an historic com- Georgetown University’s Ariane Tabatabai
promise between two long-standing adversar- describes as “the most intrusive inspections
ies, the United States and Iran. At the time, the regime ever voluntarily agreed to by any par-
Obama administration presented the agree- ty.” 3 International monitors perform daily
ment as a strict nonproliferation agreement inspections of all of Iran’s declared facilities,
that would extend Iran’s so-called breakout with some facilities subject to 24-hour video
time—the time it would take Iran to “sprint” surveillance. As critics note, these inspec-
to the creation of a useable nuclear weapon— tions and many of the deal’s other restrictions
from a few months to a year or longer. Many eventually expire, phased out over the next
also hoped that the JCPOA could help to 10 to 25 years. 4 As part of the deal, however,
reduce bilateral tensions and quiet calls for U.S. Iran rejoined the Nuclear Nonproliferation
military action against Iran for the foreseeable Treaty (NPT) and ratified its Additional Pro-
future. The unexpected election of Donald tocol, a provision that mandates inspections
Trump in 2016 dashed these hopes. With of Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities. In doing so,
renewed tensions and open debate within the Iran made a commitment to never become a
Trump administration as it conducts a “com- nuclear weapons state and agreed to monitor-
prehensive review of our Iran policy,” the future ing under the NPT indefinitely, far beyond the
of the JCPOA and of U.S.-Iranian relations is life of the JCPOA.
uncertain. 1 There are certainly many options Indeed, more than two years after the adop-
for the Trump administration if it wishes to tion of the JCPOA, Iran is in full compliance
take a more confrontational approach to Iran, with the deal. Though there has been some
four of which are examined in this paper. Yet debate about the interpretation of certain
each is difficult, costly, and carries far higher issues—Iranian missile testing and the extent
risks than continuing a policy of engagement. of U.S. sanctions relief—the deal continues to
The JCPOA has been successful, placing be implemented by both sides. As of this writ-
strong restrictions on Iran’s ability to engage ing, the International Atomic Energy Agency
in even peaceful nuclear development. Iran (IAEA) has reported eight times that Iran is
removed 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched meeting its obligations under the deal. 5 Even
uranium, dismantled two-thirds of its ura- the Trump administration, despite public deni-
nium enrichment centrifuges, disassembled gration of the agreement, has formally certified
the core of its heavy water reactor (a potential that Iran is fulfilling its JCPOA commitments.
source of weapons-grade plutonium), and con- In exchange, economic sanctions related to
verted two major enrichment sites into peace- Iran’s nuclear program have been lifted, includ-
ful research facilities. In addition, Iran agreed ing United Nations and European Union sanc-
to engage in uranium enrichment exclusively tions on Iran’s energy sector and a variety of
at a single facility—the Natanz complex—and U.S. secondary sanctions related to Iran’s finan-
to produce only low-enriched uranium for cial and energy sectors. 6 In addition, Iran has
10 years. Because uranium must be enriched regained access to wealth stored in offshore
to 90 percent for use in a nuclear weapon, banks previously interdicted by sanctions. 7

Growing Opposition in Washington JCPOA has not identified any violations. 15
Nonetheless, the change in presidential Instead, opponents typically argue that Iran Ironically, if
administration has altered the political climate is violating the “spirit” of the deal, pointing any signatory
surrounding the nuclear deal in Washington, to Iran’s ballistic missile tests or its support
D.C. There have been prominent calls from for violent groups throughout the Middle
to the Joint
both within the Trump administration and out- East. 16 Yet the JCPOA was narrowly written Compre-
side it to kill the JCPOA. As a candidate, Donald specifically to exclude non-nuclear questions; hensive Plan
Trump himself repeatedly boasted that his it was never intended to solve all problems in
of Action is
“number-one priority is to dismantle the disas- the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Ironically, if any
trous deal with Iran,” which he described in his JCPOA signatory is in violation of the deal, it in violation
typical hyperbole as “the worst deal ever nego- may be the United States. 17 At the G-20 sum- of the deal,
tiated.” 8 The recertification process (required mit in July, President Trump reportedly urged it may be
every 90 days) has become increasingly politi- fellow world leaders to stop doing business
the United

cized as a result: in July 2017, some advisers with Iran, an action that violates the American
persuaded the president to refuse certification commitment under the JCPOA to “refrain States.
of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, only for from any policy specifically intended to direct-
other advisers to succeed in persuading him, at ly and adversely affect the normalization of
the last minute, to accept the IAEA’s conclu- trade and economic relations with Iran.” 18
sions and certify compliance. 9 Trump told jour- President Trump appears determined to
nalists following the episode that he intends undermine the JCPOA. The administration
not to repeat the incident, reportedly inform- is considering using the deal’s “snap inspec-
ing White House staff that “he wants to be in a tions” provision—which allows inspectors to
place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their demand access to undeclared sites in Iran rea-
job to put him there.” 10 As David S. Cohen, sonably suspected of illicit enrichment activ-
former deputy director of the Central Intelli- ity—to make Iran appear noncompliant. 19
gence Agency (CIA), notes, President Trump’s In the absence of any clear evidence of illicit
“reported demand for intelligence to support enrichment activity, Iran would likely decline
his policy preference to withdraw from the Iran the Trump administration’s demand to inspect
nuclear deal risks politicizing intelligence analy- undeclared military sites, allowing the White
sis, with potentially grave consequences.” 11 House to portray Iran as violating the deal. As
Calls to end the deal have also come from Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the
outside the administration. In July, Sens. International Institute for Strategic Studies,
Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), David notes, this approach is “the route that White
Perdue (R-GA), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote House political operatives suggest as a way to
a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to meet President Trump’s pre-determination
“urge that you not certify . . . that Iran is com- not to again certify that Iran is in compliance,
plying with the terms of the [JCPOA].” 12 John even when the facts clearly say otherwise.” 20
Bolton, United Nations ambassador under This approach also plainly misuses the rel-
George W. Bush and an early candidate to be evant provisions of the JCPOA: as Daryl
Trump’s secretary of state, called for bomb- Kimball, director of the Arms Control Asso-
ing Iran’s nuclear facilities months before the ciation put it, the Iran deal’s “special access
JCPOA was signed. 13 In July 2017, he wrote, provisions were designed to detect and deter
“withdrawing from the JCPOA as soon as pos- cheating, not to enable [a] false pretext for
sible should be the highest priority.” 14 unraveling the agreement.” 21 The administra-
Opponents of the deal have little factual tion appears to be simply “seeking trumped up
basis for their arguments: the IAEA has repeat- reasons to sink [the] Iran deal.” 22
edly found Iran in compliance with the deal’s The Trump administration’s approach to
restrictions, and the Joint Commission of the Iran approximates the Bush administration’s

approach to Iraq in the lead up to the 2003 support of those elements inside of Iran
Terminating invasion. Fitzpatrick compares the two situ- that would lead to a peaceful transition of
the Joint ations, noting that “unfounded assumptions, that government,” 27 though other high-level
false claims, and ideologically-tinged judge- administration officials have denied this is
Comprehen- ments are driving a confrontational approach current policy. 28 While he was a member
sive Plan of that could well lead to another war in the of Congress in 2016, Trump’s current CIA
Action could Middle East.” 23 As in the case of Iraq, the risk director, Mike Pompeo, publicly called for
motivate Iran exists for politicization of intelligence find- the United States to “change Iranian behavior,
ings. As Steve Andreasen and Steve Simon, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” 29 Senator
to unburden both former members of the National Security Tom Cotton (R-AR)—known to be close to the
itself from Council, describe in a recent op-ed in the New Trump administration—likewise has stated
the deal’s York Times: “It’s a good bet that [administra- that “the policy of the United States should be
tion officials] will cherry-pick facts to give the regime change in Iran.” 30 Defense Secretary
restrictions, president what he wants: an excuse to scuttle James Mattis as recently as June described
expel the Iran deal.” 24 Iran as “the most destabilizing influence in the
international President Trump’s commitment to a harder Middle East.” 31
monitors, line against Iran—independent of the nuclear Outside the federal government, other
deal—is obvious, though the Trump White hawkish voices have also made forceful calls
and pursue House’s vicious internal power struggles sug- for regime change. Soon after Trump was
nuclear gest clear differences inside the administration inaugurated, the well-connected conserva-
weapons on the best approach. In June, for example, the tive think-tank Foundation for the Defense

New York Times reported that the administra- of Democracies (FDD) submitted a memo
capability. tion was ramping up a covert action program to Trump’s National Security Council that
against Iran, and that “Mr. Trump has appoint- argued for “coerced democratization” in
ed to the National Security Council hawks Iran, a euphemism for regime change. 32 John
eager to contain Iran and push regime change, Bolton said in a speech in July, “The behavior
the groundwork for which would most likely be and the objectives of the regime are not going
laid through CIA covert action.” 25 Yet Trump’s to change, and therefore the only solution is to
National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster change the regime itself.” 33
fired the council’s former senior director for
intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, in August. The Costs of Confrontation
Cohen-Watnick had previously expressed to The debate on Iran in Washington today
administration officials “that he wants to use includes many options, some—though not
American spies to help oust the Iranian gov- all—of which begin with killing the JCPOA.
ernment.” 26 Along with Derek Harvey, who Deliberately scuttling the JCPOA would
was the administration’s top Middle East offi- have negative ramifications. The interna-
cial on the National Security Council, Cohen- tional community and Iran, recognizing U.S.
Watnick had also advocated broadening U.S. intransigence, could conceivably continue to
involvement in the Syrian civil war as a means uphold the nuclear deal without the United
of pushing back against Iran. McMaster like- States, isolating the United States from allies
wise fired Harvey in July 2017. and handicapping its pursuit of unrelated dip-
Prominent Iran hawks remain in the lomatic initiatives, notably the question of
administration, and some go well beyond North Korea’s nuclear program. Alternatively,
arguing for abrogating the JCPOA to make U.S. termination of the JCPOA could moti-
the case for a regime change policy toward vate Iran to unburden itself from the deal’s
Iran. In June, Tillerson testified before the restrictions, expel international monitors, and
House Foreign Relations Committee that begin once again to pursue a nuclear weap-
the administration intended to “work toward ons capability in earnest. Either possibility

puts the United States in a weaker, more dan- President Trump “designate the entire Iranian
gerous position. Given the momentum in Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign ter- Opponents
Washington behind pursuing a more hostile rorist organization . . . support legislation in of the Joint
approach toward Iran, this policy analysis will Congress punishing sectors of the Iranian
explore the likely costs and consequences of economy . . . propose measures to curb Iranian
four different approaches to confronting Iran, access to U.S. dollars . . . and then to walk away, hensive Plan
whether as alternatives to the JCPOA or sup- with cause, from the JCPOA.” 34 Such argu- of Action
plementary to it. ments are not restricted only to those who
support the
The first approach we assess is applying wish to abrogate the JCPOA. Various authors
economic pressure in the form of ratchet- argue that while there are no grounds to “tear imposition of
ing up sanctions on Iran, including those the up” the deal, the president and Congress new sanctions,
international community agreed to lift under should nonetheless seek to impose new sanc- often with
the JCPOA. The second approach looks at tions on Iran related to its regional activities
the options for challenging Iranian influence and support for the Assad regime in Syria.
little regard
in the Middle East, particularly its proxies in Indeed, Congress has already acted in this for whether
Iraq and Syria. The third approach considers regard, passing an extensive sanctions bill in they could
the viability of what is called “regime change July 2017, including North Korean, Russian,
torpedo the
from within,” where the United States would and new Iranian sanctions. The bill, “Counter-
deal or worsen

support internal opposition groups in an effort ing America’s Adversaries through Sanctions
to undermine or overthrow the government Act,” targets a number of new individuals and relations.
in Tehran. The fourth and final approach we entities—particularly in relation to Iran’s bal-
evaluate is military action against Iran, most listic missile program—and includes an arms
likely in the form of limited airstrikes against embargo and several new reporting require-
Iranian nuclear or other military facilities. We ments. 35 Congress made last minute changes
conclude by proposing a fifth strategy for the to the bill to ensure that it did not technically
Trump administration: uphold U.S. commit- violate the JCPOA, 36 yet as Senator Bernie
ments under the JCPOA, refrain from adding Sanders (I-VT) pointed out when justify-
new sanctions, and engage with Tehran where ing his vote against the bill: “I believe that
U.S. and Iranian interests overlap. There is these new sanctions could endanger the very
no silver bullet that can solve the problems important nuclear agreement that was signed
in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but contin- between the United States, its partners, and
ued engagement carries lower costs and a Iran in 2015. That is not a risk worth taking.” 37
higher chance of success than any of the other Sanders is correct; new sanctions on Iran for
approaches examined here. its missile programs and human rights abuses
raise tensions within the framework of the
JCPOA while adhering to the narrowest pos-
OPTION ONE: ECONOMIC sible definition of its terms. In response to the
SANCTIONS new sanctions bill and the threat of further
Opponents of the JCPOA frequently argue sanctions, Iranian leaders voted to increase
that they could negotiate a better deal through the state’s military budget and threatened to
the aggressive use of U.S. sanctions. These restart the nuclear program, highlighting the
sanctions would be extraterritorially applied, escalatory potential of new sanctions. 38
forcing European companies to adhere to Opponents of the JCPOA support the
U.S. law, in theory making Iran willing to con- imposition of new sanctions, particularly
cede more of its nuclear program or to make the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary
other security and governance concessions. Guard Corps (IRGC) and IRGC-associated
For example, former Connecticut senator businesses, often with little regard for wheth-
Joe Lieberman proposed in December that er new sanctions could torpedo the deal or

worsen relations. Council on Foreign Rela- the elaborate inspections systems that
It is unlikely tions Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has repeat- the agreement depends on. But primarily
that any edly said renewed sanctions are the first step because Europe has seen that the deal actually
in a broader strategy of pressure on Iran, argu- works . . . and Europe has absolutely zero appe-
additional ing that “we must return to the days of warn- tite for a new cascade of conflicts in a region
U.S. sanctions ing off commerce and segregating Iran from on its doorstep.” 43 As a result, European lead-
would be global financial institutions. Designating the ers are also keen to prevent the imposition of
successful Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organi- further non-nuclear U.S. sanctions that could
zation and reimposing financial sanctions potentially undermine the deal. Indeed, on
without could go a long way toward crippling Iran’s July 11, Mogherini told reporters: “The nuclear
multinational economy.” 39 Likewise, the editors of the con- deal doesn’t belong to one country; it belongs

support. servative National Review advised the Trump to the international community. We have the
White House to abrogate the deal through responsibility to make sure that this continues
sanctions: “Better to declare an end to this to be implemented.” 44
diplomatic farce . . . and establish a robust It is unlikely that any additional U.S. sanc-
sanctions regime that might actually force tions would be successful without multina-
Tehran to change its ways.” 40 tional support. The United States has long
had an extensive array of sanctions focused
Problem #1: No International Consensus on Iran, including on weapons procurement
The central problem with this option— and development, U.S.-Iranian trade, and ter-
whether as a replacement for the JCPOA or rorist financing. Yet the long-term effect of
in addition to it—is the utter lack of interna- these sanctions on the Iranian economy was
tional support. Though often overlooked, relatively minimal prior to 2005. Technol-
the JCPOA is in reality a multinational arms ogy sanctions have undoubtedly been suc-
control agreement, negotiated by the P5+1, cessful in slowing progress on nuclear and
the five permanent members of the United missile-related projects but have done little
Nations Security Council, plus Germany. The to impact Iran’s import and development of
other parties to the deal have been unequivo- conventional weapons. 45
cal in affirming that Iran is indeed abiding by Two changes in the mid-2000s substantially
its commitments under the deal. On August increased the efficacy of sanctions on Iran.
3, a spokeswoman for European Union for- First, the Treasury department aggressively
eign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a pursued a strategy of outreach, lobbying (and
press conference: “So far, we consider that all threatening) foreign banks to ensure that U.S.
parties have been implementing their com- sanctions would be adhered to extraterritorially.
mitments under the deal.” 41 Sergei Lavrov, Second, the European Union decided in 2012 to
Russian foreign minister, likewise confirmed embargo Iranian oil exports. This decision was
Iran’s compliance and questioned the Trump motivated by increasing concerns over Iran’s
administration’s motives, saying in August that nuclear program, even though it was politically
the Trump administration “continue[s] calling and economically costly for the Europeans. In
these agreements wrong and erroneous, and 2010 alone, Iran’s exports to the EU totaled
it’s a pity that such a successful treaty is now $19 billion, 90 percent of which were energy
somewhat being cast into doubt.” 42 related. 46 By March 2013, Iran’s oil exports had
European support for the deal is strong. As dropped from 2.5 million barrels per day to 1
Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, million barrels per day, resulting in an Iranian
noted in an opinion piece in August, cancel- budget deficit of $28 billion that year. 47 While
ing the deal would be a nonstarter in Europe: U.S. sanctions alone were relatively ineffectual,
“Europe would certainly not go along with this, these punitive economic costs helped to drive
for one because it would risk undercutting Iran to the negotiating table.

Proponents of increased sanctions there- and Beate Bull note in the journal World
fore typically advocate for more assertive Politics, “The voluminous literature that has Sanctions
enforcement of secondary sanctions penal- accumulated over the years tends to conclude are rarely
ties against European and Asian companies. A that sanctions are rarely effective, even though
recent report from the Washington Institute exceptions have been documented.” 51 In one
successful in
for Near East Policy, for example, called for of the earliest broad-based studies of com- producing
the United States to step up the extraterrito- prehensive sanctions, for example, research- policy

rial enforcement of existing sanctions on ter- ers found an average sanctions success rate of
ror financing and IRGC-affiliated companies, only 34 percent. 52 Even the research on more
arguing that enforcement and public warn- recent “smart sanctions,” which are presumed
ings could discourage European companies to be more effective thanks to their “targeted”
from re-entering the Iranian market. As Stuart nature, shows that they are also largely ineffec-
Levey, at the time undersecretary for terrorism tive. A wide-ranging study of United Nations
and financial intelligence, described the use of targeted sanctions found them to be effective
extraterritorial sanctions prior to the JCPOA: in only 10–20 percent of cases, 53 while another
“Those who are tempted to deal with targeted survey of post-9/11 U.S. sanctions found them
high-risk actors are put on notice: if they con- to be effective in only 36 percent of cases. 54
tinue this relationship, they may be next.” 48 Policy change is especially unlikely when
Yet the decision to sanction Iran was costly for sanctions do not have clear, attainable goals
European companies. A number of companies, or when the issue is of prime national securi-
most notably French energy company Total, ty importance to the target state. 55 Sanctions
which signed a $5 billion investment deal with focused on economic issues such as trade often
Iran and with China’s National Petroleum in seem to be qualitatively different than those
July to develop the South Pars gas field, have focused on security. 56 When University of
begun to re-enter the market following the Chicago’s Robert Pape examined sanctions as
successful conclusion of the JCPOA. 49 In the an alternative to the use of force, he found they
absence of any concrete evidence of Iranian had only been successful in around 5 percent of
cheating on the deal, European and Asian national security–related cases. 57 Sanctions
governments are likely to push back strongly also tend to fail when they are unilateral; as
against new U.S. barriers to trade and invest- the Washington Institute’s Katherine Bauer
ment in Iran, and on the excessive extraterri- notes, even with the power of U.S. extrater-
torial application of existing sanctions. ritorial sanctions, “there are limits to U.S.
jurisdiction and the ability to compel foreign
Problem #2: Sanctions Rarely compliance.” 58 Further sanctions on Iran thus
Produce Policy Change fall into a worst-case scenario: security-focused
Another problem with sanctions is that sanctions with no clear goals other than secur-
they are rarely successful in producing policy ing “a better deal” or weakening the Iranian
change. Indeed, though targeted sanctions regime. In the absence of strong support from
may impose costs on the targeted regime, it European or other Security Council nations,
is less clear that these costs actually produce there is very little chance that further sanc-
policy change. 50 Proponents of increased tions will compel Iran’s leaders to capitulate.
sanctions point to high profile successes like
the JCPOA, while skeptics point to the many
cases, from Syria to Zimbabwe, where sanc- OPTION TWO: CHALLENGING
tions have failed to produce policy change. IRANIAN INFLUENCE
More broadly, academic studies have repeat- IN THE REGION
edly shown sanctions to be ineffective in An alternative option is a deliberate strat-
achieving policy change. As Arne Tostensen egy of challenging Iranian proxies throughout

the Middle East. That option would not argued in June 2017 for “a new U.S. policy, the
There is no necessarily require the Trump administra- chief component of which should be a strategy
coherent tion to abrogate the JCPOA. Indeed, as targeting Iran’s Quds force and its Shi’a mili-
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Daniel tias.” 64 Similarly, Max Peck of the Founda-
anti-Iranian Byman recently noted in congressional testi- tion for Defense of Democracies has argued
axis in the mony: “Because the JCPOA . . . has put Iran’s that the Trump administration should seek to
Middle East nuclear program on the back burner, there codify in law that the United States seeks the
to rely upon is an opportunity to focus on Iran’s support overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria, and
for militant groups and other problems Iran “increase the costs of Iran’s engagement by
in a campaign causes in the region.” 59 This approach runs maintaining the pressure on Assad . . . through
to challenge counter to Washington’s current regional its support for the armed opposition.” 65
Iranian strategy: though there are arenas where the Perhaps the most bellicose option is
United States is engaged in hostilities with actively increasing U.S. participation in the
influence Iranian-associated proxies—such as U.S. sup- war in Syria and Iraq. A report from the Insti-
in the

port for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen— tute for the Study of War (ISW) called for the
region. America’s anti-ISIS campaign typically means United States to “seize and secure a base in
that it is de facto fighting on the same side as southeastern Syria . . . create a de facto safe
Hezbollah and other Shi’a militias. The most zone . . . then recruit, train, equip, and part-
moderate alternative proposals call for U.S. ner with local Sunni Arab anti-ISIS forces.”
support for regional allies, such as military The report called for American troops to
and diplomatic support for a peace settle- “fight alongside” these forces. 66 The goals
ment in Yemen designed to split the Houthi would include not only “defeating al Qaeda,
rebels from Tehran’s limited support. 60 Other as well as ISIS,” but also “expelling Iranian
options include increased maritime presence military forces and most of Iran’s proxy forces
to help disrupt Iranian arms shipments. 61 Still from Syria.” This strategy extends to Iraq: as
others call for building the capacity of regional a follow-on report argued, America should
actors: one recent report from the Center for also “take urgent measures to strengthen Iraqi
a New American Security suggests maintain- Prime Minister Abadi,” and work to minimize
ing U.S. influence in Iraq and increasing U.S. Iranian influence in Iraq. 67 Though the extent
logistical support for the conflict in Yemen, of American military involvement varies wide-
in hopes of marginalizing Iranian influence in ly across these proposals, they all share a com-
those conflicts. 62 mon theme: direct or indirect military action
However, there are also a variety of more against Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen,
aggressive proposals. Two senior former and elsewhere.
administration officials on the National Secu-
rity Council, Derek Harvey and Ezra Cohen- Problem #1: An Anti-Iran Axis?
Watnick, were reportedly in favor of direct The central problem with this approach is
U.S. military action against Iranian proxies that there is no coherent anti-Iranian axis in the
in Syria. 63 Escalating clashes between U.S. Middle East to rely upon in a campaign to chal-
troops and militias in southern Syria in recent lenge Iranian influence in the region. Indeed,
months, including U.S. airstrikes on several observers have often described the region using
militias, suggest that such clashes will hap- sectarian narratives—portraying conservative
pen even in the absence of a formal policy Sunni states in conflict with Iran’s more revolu-
change. Several recent policy papers also make tionary Shi’a axis—that are largely exaggerated.
the argument for a more formalized anti-Iran For example, despite Saudi efforts to form
strategy in Syria, often using proxies to chal- a united regional front against Iran, the con-
lenge Iranian-allied groups. The Washington flicts of the Arab Spring have frequently seen
Institute’s Nader Udowski, for example, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council

(GCC) act against each other’s interests. 68 In divide U.S. regional allies, any attempt to build
Syria, the conflict between Saudi and Qatari an anti-Iranian force or coalition in the region A strategy
proxies helped to radicalize and doom the is likely to falter. of regional
anti-Assad opposition, while a Qatari-Emirati
rivalry fueled the Libyan conflict. Today’s Problem #2: Blowback, Leading to confrontation
GCC crisis only serves to highlight this prob- Ever Deeper U.S. Involvement with Iran will
lem: though clearly motivated by a desire to A strategy of regional pushback against not make the
rein in Qatar’s independent foreign policy, the Iran is also likely to pull the United States
region safer or
Saudi and Emirati embargo has in reality driv- more deeply into a variety of regional con-
en Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey, undermin- flicts and increase the risks of blowback to more stable,
ing a common GCC front. 69 U.S. troops in the region. The United States is but will instead
Other regional attempts to form anti- already heavily overcommitted in the Middle introduce
Iranian movements have likewise failed. A East, with tens of thousands of troops engaged
widely-publicized Saudi Arabian attempt in in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya,
conflict and

December 2015 to create an Islamic Military and Yemen, and stationed at permanent bas-
Alliance to fight terrorism—which pointedly es elsewhere throughout the region. Indeed, uncertainty.
included no Shi’a majority states—has largely despite the Obama administration’s attempts
failed to develop since that time. 70 Nor is there to draw down American commitments to
any guarantee that regional partners will actu- Middle Eastern conflicts, the number of
ally promote U.S. interests if the United States troops engaged in fighting Middle East con-
increases its support; the actions of allies in flicts has been increasing again since 2014. 73
the region have all too often served to destabi- A stepped-up campaign against Iranian prox-
lize and worsen conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and ies throughout the region will require further
elsewhere, rather than improve them. troop increases, both in direct combat roles
Indeed, the lack of a solid anti-Iran coali- and to train and support local forces.
tion among existing U.S. partners—capable of It is these troops who will bear the brunt
achieving America’s often expansive foreign of any Iranian military response to this strat-
policy goals—is a key reason why the most egy. Several hundred U.S. troops were killed by
extreme options for regional confrontation Iranian-associated groups in Iraq during the
with Iran often involve fabricating an effective post-invasion occupation, a number likely to
anti-Iranian bloc from whole cloth, whether rise in any new conflict with these groups. 74
that is the creation of a “credible and moder- And while Hezbollah has been largely occu-
ate Syrian opposition,” a regional “multina- pied in recent years with fighting on behalf
tional Joint Task Force with Arab partners of the Assad regime, if faced with a concerted
targeted at countering . . . the IRGC,” or “a campaign against it by U.S.-allied forces, it is
new Syrian Sunni Arab partner . . . to con- likely to respond with the kind of asymmetric
duct population-centric counterinsurgency.” 71 attacks that have characterized their long-run-
Each of these options is likely to fail. Previ- ning conflict with Israel. 75 Indeed, one poten-
ous U.S. efforts to create regional coalitions tial response to a concerted attack on Iranian
to fight terror groups have been largely unsuc- proxies throughout the region is retributive
cessful. The 2014 collapse of the Iraqi army attacks on Israel; during the 2006 war, Hezbol-
in the face of ISIS advances is also a salutary lah enjoyed substantial success against Israeli
lesson; years of training commitments and forces, disabling a number of tanks and even
substantial blood and treasure on the part of an Israeli warship. 76 The potential for Iranian
the U.S. military were not enough to overcome retaliation against U.S. troops, regional part-
deeper societal problems like corruption. 72 ners, or shipping in the region suggests that a
Without coherent, effective local proxies, strategy of regional confrontation with Iran
and given the major political differences that will not make the region safer or more stable,

but will instead introduce additional conflict Mike Pompeo also favored such an approach
Most past and uncertainty. during his time in Congress. Yet there are
attempts to important reasons to doubt that such a strat-
egy would actually yield constructive results in
covertly arm OPTION THREE: “REGIME Iran or benefit U.S. national interests.
insurgencies CHANGE FROM WITHIN”
had minimal Another possible option for dealing with Problem #1: Regime
Change Rarely Works
impact on Iran is an explicit U.S. policy of regime change.
This is not a new idea; for decades, hawks in Regime change often fails, particularly
long-term Washington have called for regime change in when it is covert. According to one study of
outcomes Tehran. Justifications have ranged from the covert regime change operations by the United
and often 1979 hostage crisis to Iran’s nuclear program States during the Cold War, such efforts suc-

in the mid-2000s to the anti-regime pro- ceeded only one-third of the time. 80 Indeed,
backfired. tests known as the Green Revolution after as an administration official said in August,
2009. 77 Yet the failure of U.S. regime change “With Iran, they are looking at regime change
campaigns in both Iraq and Libya to produce but coming up empty. There are no good plans,
a stable, democratic state has led most pro- no decapitation strikes possible.” 81 Arming or
ponents of regime change to back away from funding for local insurgencies also rarely suc-
overt military options and instead suggest that ceeds; a leaked CIA report commissioned in
the Trump administration pursue “coerced 2012 found that most past attempts to covertly
democratization” or “regime change from arm insurgencies had minimal impact on long-
within.” In this approach, the United States term outcomes and often backfired. 82
would pressure the Iranian regime and simul- Even when successful in unseating one
taneously back groups that oppose it—wheth- government and establishing another in its
er the exiled extremist National Council of place, foreign-imposed regime change “gen-
Resistance of Iran (NCRI), pro-democracy erally does not improve relations between
Green Revolution factions, or ethnic minori- interveners and targets. Rather, it often makes
ties within Iran—a strategy advocates often them worse,” according to Georgetown Uni-
compare to Reagan’s support for civil society versity’s Alexander B. Downes and Boston
groups in the Soviet Union. As Reuel Gerecht College’s Lindsay A. O’Rourke. 83 Changing
and Ray Takeyh argue in a Washington Post op- the leadership of a state typically fails to alter
ed: “Today, the Islamist regime resembles the that country’s perception of its interests, and
Soviet Union of the 1970s . . . if Washington foreign-imposed regimes tend to diverge from
were serious about doing to Iran what it helped the preferences of the intervener as they begin
to do to the U.S.S.R., it would seek to weaken to face domestic political pressures. Contrary
the theocracy by pressing it on all fronts.” 78 to the depiction of many regime change advo-
Another proponent of “coerced democ- cates, the Iranian regime enjoys substantial
ratization,” the Foundation for Defense public support, and the population would not
of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz, urged welcome a U.S.-imposed government. Any
President Trump to “go on the offensive against new regime that tried to implement policies
the Iranian regime” by “weakening the Iranian that reflect U.S. interests instead of Iranian
regime’s finances” through “massive economic interests would “attract the ire of domestic
sanctions,” while also “undermin[ing] Iran’s actors,” leading to an unstable government
rulers by strengthening pro-democracy forc- viewed as illegitimate by the population. 84
es” inside Iran. 79 This option appears to be Research shows that “when a country over-
gaining traction in the Trump administration’s throws another’s government, it increases
ongoing Iran policy review and has received the likelihood of civil wars and usually
public support from Tillerson. CIA Director doesn’t establish a democracy.” 85 The recent

experiences of the United States in Iraq, approach to Iran, such as former CIA direc-
Afghanistan, and Libya only confirm this tors James Woolsey and Porter Goss, former The
finding. Sixteen years of U.S. military pres- New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for- likelihood
ence have done little to stabilize war-torn mer governors Howard Dean and Ed Rendell,
Afghanistan. 86 The war in Iraq essentially former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, and
of successful
destroyed the Iraqi state, killing hundreds former House Speaker and close Trump con- regime
of thousands of Iraqis and displacing mil- fidant Newt Gingrich. Yet in the absence of change and a
lions more. More than 4,400 U.S. troops popular support outside certain Washington
were killed in combat, and more than 30,000 circles, backing the group in a bid to over-
were wounded, with direct costs estimated to throw the Iranian regime would likely fail. 91 stable,
exceed $2 trillion and indirect costs as high Regime change advocates also suggest democratic
as $4 trillion. 87 A widespread insurgency and supporting the so-called Green Movement state in
civil war led to the rise of the Islamic State, that emerged amid the protests over the con-
prompting further U.S. intervention to fight tested Iranian presidential elections in 2009.
Iran are

against the group. In Libya, the U.S. choice to Unfortunately, according to Ariane Tabatabai
overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and Madison Schramm, the Green Move- small.
on humanitarian grounds resulted in a lengthy ment “essentially faded away a few months
civil war and the deaths of more Libyans than after the elections” and “was never a cohe-
would likely have perished without the inter- sive faction.” 92 Green Movement leaders
vention. 88 The likelihood of successful regime Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi
change and a subsequent stable, democratic remain under house arrest in Iran today, and
state in Iran are vanishingly small. have made clear that their goal was to dispute
the 2009 election results, not to overthrow
Problem #2: A Lack of Good Candidates the government. In fact, the best hope for the
Though regime change proponents high- Green Movement is to avoid association with
light a variety of groups inside Iran as poten- the United States; whatever popular support
tial candidates for U.S. support, none are it continues to have would quickly evaporate
truly viable. The exiled opposition group with any whiff of U.S.-backing for regime
Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) (or its political change. As Michael Axworthy of the Univer-
wing, the NCRI) is one such example. The sity of Exeter writes, “Given the long history
MEK began in the 1960s and 1970s as a para- of foreign meddling in the country (the CIA-
military Marxist-Islamic resistance group inspired coup that removed Prime Minister
opposed to the former Shah of Iran, the Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 is just one
authoritarian ruler put in power following a example), any suspicion of foreign backing is
1953 coup sponsored by the United States and political poison in Iran.” 93
Great Britain. The group allied with Saddam The third option—seeking to stoke dis-
Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, and content among Iran’s minority populations—
analysts widely agree that it is an undemo- is similarly infeasible. Iran’s ethnic minorities
cratic group that has no popular support include Kurds (10 percent), Baluchis (2 per-
inside Iran. 89 Indeed, the MEK has largely cent), Arabs (2 percent), and Azeri Turks (16
tried to win external support for its agenda of percent). 94 But Iran is not a country beset by
regime change in Iran. Until 2012, it was even ethnic, cultural, and religious cleavages in the
designated a terrorist organization by the way the former Yugoslavia was. Neighboring
U.S. State Department and had lobbied hard Iraq, with its mix of Shia, Sunni, and Kurds,
over the years to win support from prominent was a comparatively disjointed state held
current and former U.S. officials to have that together by a powerful centralized dictator-
designation removed. 90 It has won primar- ship. Iran is very different. Any strategy that
ily the support of those who favor a hardline seeks to foment political upheaval in Iran

via these various minority groups ignores Problem #1: An Illegal War?
The lack of the fundamental cohesion that character- The United States should only undertake
good military izes Iran as a national unit. 95 If anything, military action against another state if its core
such an approach would be more likely to security interests are threatened. Yet there is
options was bolster Iranian nationalism than to subvert no plausible near-term scenario in which Iran
the key reason it. As Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins poses a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.
behind the School of Advanced International Stud- Nor do Iranian actions in the Middle East
Bush and ies and an Iranian-American, told the New pose a significant threat to U.S. interests in the
Yorker in 2008, “Iran is an old country—like region. Taking military action against Iran to
Obama France and Germany—and its citizens are thwart the purported threat of its nuclear pro-
administrations’ just as nationalistic. The U.S. is overestimat- gram would harken back to the preventive war
decision ing ethnic tension in Iran . . . working with doctrine adopted by the Bush administration
the minorities will backfire, and alienate the after the September 11th terrorist attacks and
to pursue majority of the population.” 96 codified in the 2002 National Security Strat-
diplomacy egy. 98 Though proponents of military action
with Tehran often describe such action as “preemptive,”
in the first OPTION 4: DIRECT one RAND report notes that “generations

MILITARY ACTION of scholars and policymakers have defined
place. Direct military action against Iran is the preemption more restrictively,” limiting it to
least likely of the options being considered cases of imminent threat. 99 This is a crucial
under the Trump administration’s policy review. difference; as the authors highlight, interna-
Indeed, the focus on nonmilitary options tional law holds that truly preemptive attacks
among Iran hawks is likely a response to the are an acceptable use of force in self-defense,
widespread distaste among the American pub- while preventive attacks are not. As the his-
lic for engaging in another open-ended regime torian and former Kennedy administration
change war in the Middle East. Yet some have adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it when criti-
argued that the Trump administration should cizing the Bush administration’s case for war
“rebuild military leverage over Iran,” including against Iraq, this doctrine of preventive war
“contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear “is alarmingly similar to the policy that impe-
facilities,” engage in regional military exercis- rial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor, on a date
es, and direct the U.S. navy to “fully and respon- which, as an earlier American president said it
sibly utilize rules of engagement to defend would, lives in infamy. Franklin D. Roosevelt
themselves and the Persian Gulf against rising was right, but today it is we Americans who
Iranian harassment.” 97 live in infamy.” 100 With no imminent threat
There are various contingencies in which from Iran, there is no legal justification for
U.S. policymakers may face a decision on the direct military action.
use of military force against Iran, whether it At the very least, the Trump administration
is a purposeful strike against Iran’s nuclear is constitutionally obligated to seek approval
facilities in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from from Congress for any military action against
the JCPOA, or a more gradual escalation fol- Iran. Trump himself may disagree. He previ-
lowing military confrontations in Syria, the ously declined to seek or secure congressio-
Gulf, or elsewhere. As the Trump adminis- nal authority for his missile strike on a Syrian
tration considers these options, however, military base controlled by the Assad regime
it would do well to remember that the lack in April 2017 and has repeatedly made public
of good military options was the key reason statements arguing that military action should
behind the Bush and Obama administrations’ be kept secret to preserve the tactical advan-
decision to pursue diplomacy with Tehran in tage of a surprise attack. If Trump does seek
the first place. congressional approval for military strikes

on Iran, he is likely to face strong opposition by the Iran Project, a nongovernmental orga-
from many Democratic members of Congress nization founded to improve official contacts Even small-
and at least some Republicans. Senator Chris between the American and Iranian govern- scale military
Murphy (D-CT) argued in February that ments, for targeted strikes to “fulfill the stated
“Trump and his most radical advisers are beg- objective of ensuring that Iran never acquires
ging for war with Iran. This would be a disaster a nuclear bomb, the United States would need on Iran—
of epic scale, perhaps eclipsing the nightmare to conduct a significantly expanded air and whether
of the Iraq war.” 101 Congressional Democrats, sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely
already concerned about the administration’s several years.” 105
domestic policy proposals, are unlikely to cut Under bombardment from the world’s strikes on
him a blank check on Iran. most dominant military superpower and nuclear
uncertain of U.S. intentions, Iran would be facilities or
Problem #2: Escalation Is Inevitable likely to engage in retaliatory strikes against
Even small-scale military attacks on Iran— U.S. bases and military assets in Iraq, Syria,
clashes with
whether targeted strikes on nuclear facilities Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Iranian forces
or clashes with Iranian forces in the Gulf or Iran’s Shahab-3 intermediate range ballistic in the Gulf or
elsewhere—are likely to lead to escalation. In missile can hit targets up to 2,000 kilome-
March 2012, the Pentagon held a classified ters away, while its Soumar cruise missile can
war simulation “to assess the repercussions” potentially hit targets up to 2,500 kilometers are likely
of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. away, meaning all U.S. forward-deployed bases to lead to

The results showed that such a targeted strike in the Middle East and at least some bases escalation.
would provoke immediate Iranian retaliation in Europe are within range for conventional
against U.S. military bases and naval assets in retaliation. 106 Likewise, the potential for
the region, drawing the United States into “a asymmetric retaliation should not be under-
wider regional war.” 102 General James Mattis, estimated. As Afshon Ostavar of the Naval
now Trump’s secretary of defense, was then Postgraduate School notes, “While Iran’s
head of Central Command and supervised the neighbors have poured billions of dollars into
war game. The New York Times reported that conventional weaponry, Iran has invested in
Mattis told aides a strike “would be likely to comparatively cheap proxy forces that have
have dire consequences across the region and proven effective in numerous theaters.” 107
for U.S. forces there.” Following a similar war Proxy groups such as Hezbollah or even Iran’s
game in 2004, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Quds force, a special unit of the IRGC, could
Gardiner concluded, “There is no military engage in terrorist attacks against U.S. forces
solution for the issues of Iran.” 103 or allies in the region.
It is not clear that a narrow or targeted Anything beyond a limited military strike
strike is even possible. To strike Iran’s nuclear would have even more dire and counterpro-
facilities, the United States would also need to ductive consequences. Taking military action
bomb Iran’s air defense systems and command to topple the Iranian regime, for example,
and control facilities, which itself carries risks would require a massive, lengthy, and costly
of escalation. Writing in 2006, retired General military commitment. America’s experience
Thomas McInerney suggested one such plan in Iraq should be instructive in this context:
for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, requir- Bush administration officials and their allies
ing a massive commitment of 700 aircraft, in the think-tank community and news media
500 cruise missiles, and 28,000 bunker-buster made bold predictions about the ease with
bombs in the initial 36–48 hours. 104 Moreover, which America would win the war, that Iraq
airstrikes of this kind, to accomplish any long- would be reborn as a functioning democ-
term objective, could not be limited to a single racy, and that the costs to the United States
one-off mission. As explained in a 2012 study in lives and dollars would be minimal. These

predictions proved wrong. In addition to to more intensive military action that must be
Military bolstering Iran’s strategic position, the war deterred. A 2010 Defense Intelligence Agency
action short helped to destabilize the region and to exac- study concluded that the main goal of Iran’s
erbate America’s terrorism problem. A 2006 military strategy is regime survival, with a key
of regime National Intelligence Estimate concluded focus on deterrence. 113 As Kenneth Pollack,
change cannot that “the American invasion and occupation a former CIA and National Security Coun-
eliminate of Iraq . . . helped spawn a new generation of cil analyst, noted in 2006: “The Iraq example
Islamic radicalism.” 108 The war had “become
Iran’s nuclear coupled with the North Korea example proba-
the ‘cause celèbre’ for jihadists, breeding a bly is part of the motivation for some in Iran to
program, or deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the get a nuclear weapon.” 114 The 2011 U.S. inter-
the knowledge Muslim world and cultivating supporters for vention in Libya only intensifies this dilemma
behind its the global jihadist movement.” 109 for Iran; Muammar Gaddafi voluntarily gave

A large-scale ground war in Iran would be up his nascent nuclear program before being
existence. immensely damaging. Comparisons to Iraq removed by a joint American-European inter-
are illuminating. The U.S. invasion was initially vention. Thus, while targeted strikes could
successful against a relatively ineffectual Iraqi delay Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons
military with approximately 389,000 men by destroying infrastructure, they would prob-
under arms. But U.S. forces have struggled ably incentivize Iran to redouble its enrich-
in the years since to control territory, build a ment efforts under the conviction that only a
functioning Iraqi state, and deal with mass nuclear deterrent can ensure its future survival.
insurgency among the population of around This logic also implies broader strategic
37 million. In comparison, Iran has a larger costs to an attack on Iran: it would exacerbate
(about 523,000 active duty) and more effective the problem of nuclear proliferation more
military, a bigger population (80.3 million), generally. As the current Director of National
and territory more than three times the size of Intelligence Dan Coats recently acknowl-
Iraq. 110 A study by the Iran Project concluded: edged at the Aspen Security Forum, U.S.
“If the United States decided to seek a more actions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and
ambitious objective, such as regime change Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya have made it clear
in Iran or undermining Iran’s influence in the to other states, like North Korea, that a nucle-
region, then an even greater commitment of ar deterrent may be the best way to ensure
force would be required to occupy all or part of regime survival in the context of a war-prone
the country. . . . Given Iran’s large size and pop- United States. 115 North Korea itself confirmed
ulation, and the strength of Iranian national- this logic, releasing a statement after a 2016
ism, we estimate that the occupation of Iran nuclear test arguing that “the Saddam Hussein
would require a commitment of resources and regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in
personnel” greater than the costs of the wars Libya could not escape the fate of destruction
in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. 111 after . . . giving up nuclear programs of their
own accord.” 116 As Nobel laureate Thomas
Problem #3: Unintended Schelling has famously pointed out, American
(Nuclear) Consequences nonproliferation policies are ironically a prime
A direct military attack on Iran, whatever driver of nuclear proliferation. 117 If, after suc-
the specific goals, is likely to be counterpro- cessfully negotiating a nuclear deal, the Unit-
ductive in terms of nuclear nonproliferation. ed States then engages in an aggressive war
Military action short of regime change can- against Iran despite Tehran’s full compliance
not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program or the with the JCPOA, other potential proliferators
knowledge behind its existence. 112 Given U.S. would have no reason at all to believe that the
interventions in recent years, even targeted United States can be trusted to negotiate in
strikes may be seen by Tehran as a precursor good faith.

CONCLUSION Israel, often used the issue of Iran’s nuclear
Though the Trump administration’s Iran program to steer American policy toward Iran Further
policy review appears predestined to produce in a more confrontational direction. In private engagement
a more belligerent approach towards Iran, conservations with U.S. officials early in the
each of the options explored in this paper Obama administration, then-king Abdullah
with Iran
has significant flaws. Indeed, each option is bin Abdulaziz al-Saud pushed U.S. military when
unlikely to achieve its stated objectives, while action against the Iranian regime. 118 From 2010 possible will
at the same time creating an unacceptably to 2012, there were reports that Israel was close
high risk of exacerbating the very problems to initiating military strikes against Iranian
the Trump administration seeks to resolve. nuclear facilities, knowing it would likely trig- Iran’s more
At a fundamental level, a more assertive U.S. ger U.S. involvement. Israeli Prime Minister moderate
policy towards Iran—whatever the details— Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet officials report- political
will inevitably intensify Iranian fears about the edly blocked him from taking this step. 119
country’s national security, worsening the very Maintaining and strengthening the JCPOA
behaviors that the United States seeks to fore- will help to minimize the future potential for and weaken
stall. Even adopting one of these more hostile such pressure. Though he fought hard to sub- hardliners,
approaches to Iran while nominally upholding vert the JCPOA, for example, Netanyahu has
providing a
the JCPOA presents greater problems than been relatively silent since its adoption. Carmi
embracing the nuclear deal and using it as a Gillon, former head of the Israeli security more hopeful
vehicle for further engagement designed to agency Shabak, wrote in July that, thanks to future for
temper Iranian behavior. the JCPOA “the threat of an Iranian nuclear U.S.-Iranian

As this paper highlights, it is doubtful that weapon is more remote than it has been in
ratcheting up economic sanctions will alter decades.” Gillon added, “the majority of my
Iranian policies in a more constructive direc- colleagues in the Israeli military and intelli-
tion, especially in the absence of international gence communities supported the deal once
cooperation. Likewise, by pushing back hard- it was reached, [and] many of those who had
er against Iranian influence throughout the major reservations now acknowledge that it
Middle East, the United States would incur has had a positive impact on Israel’s security
substantial long-term costs in exchange for and must be fully maintained by the United
negligible gains in regional security. More- States and the other signatory nations.” 120
over, a more aggressive approach could lead If the United States is to avoid returning to
to unintended military escalation. Support- high levels of tension and conflict in the U.S.-
ing internal opposition groups to pressure the Iranian relationship, it must avoid the more
regime or foment domestic upheaval is a hope- belligerent options explored in this paper. The
less strategy, given Iran’s domestic political alternative—the option most likely to pro-
realities and America’s long history of failed duce a positive outcome for all parties—is to
regime change endeavors. Finally, direct mili- uphold the JCPOA, carefully enforce its terms
tary action would have little public support, and conditions, and build on it to further
no legal basis, and most likely produce pro- engage Iran where its interests overlap with
foundly negative consequences for regional the United States. Pursuing greater diplomacy
security and American interests. and engagement with Iran is, ironically, low-
Such actions would effectively return U.S.- hanging fruit at this time. Iranian President
Iranian relations to the cycle of enmity in Hassan Rouhani, who in his first term helped
which they were trapped prior to the negotia- shepherd the JCPOA to fruition, won reelec-
tion of the JCPOA, with the nuclear issue dom- tion this year by a wide margin, receiving 57
inating as a justification for continued hostility. percent of the vote (compared to 38.5 per-
Indeed, prior to the JCPOA, American allies cent for his chief opponent). 121 The idea of
in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and greater engagement with the West was a key

component of Rouhani’s electoral platform; July 14, 2015, https://www.state.gov/documents/

both centrists like Rouhani and reformers organization/245317.pdf.
like former President Mohammed Khatami
have argued in favor of what they describe as 3. Ariane Tabatabai, “Preserving the Iran Nuclear
“JCPOA 2.0,” a series of internal policy com- Deal: Perils and Prospects,” Cato Institute Policy
promises that will allow Iran to continue to Analysis no. 818, August 15, 2017.
engage with the West and begin to reintegrate
into the global economy. 122 4. Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew, “The
The key to reaping the benefits of a more Iran Nuclear Deal: Prelude to Proliferation in the
conciliatory approach is recognizing that Middle East?” Brookings Institution Arms Con-
Iran is not a unitary actor. Iranian politics, trol and Nonproliferation Series Paper no. 11, May
though not fully democratic, are dynamic 2016.
and competitive, and include various fac-
tions, from conservative hardliners to mod- 5. Amir Handjani, “Commentary: Trump’s Re-
erate reformists. The nuclear deal is widely cent Gamble on Iran,” Reuters, August 1, 2017,
popular in Iran, but antagonism from the https://www.reuters.com/article/us-handjani-iran-
Trump administration will bolster the promi- commentary-idUSKBN1AH4NT. Also see “IAEA
nence of Iranian hardliners who felt Tehran and Iran-IAEA Reports,” International Atomic
capitulated too much in the negotiations and Energy Agency website, https://www.iaea.org/
who use fears of U.S. duplicity to undermine newscenter/focus/iran/iaea-and-iran-iaea-reports.
the idea of constructive engagement with
Washington. 123 Similarly, perceptions that 6. Somini Sengupta, “U.N. Moves to Lift Iran
the United States is failing to live up to its Sanctions after Nuclear Deal, Setting Up a Clash
side of the bargain—or is taking new steps in Congress,” New York Times, July 20, 2015, https://
that may undermine Iranian security—weak- www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/world/middleeast/
en political support for pragmatic reformists security-council-following-iran-nuclear-pact-
who see value in making concessions to the votes-to-lift-sanctions.html; European Union,
West in exchange for sanctions relief and “Information Note on EU Sanctions to Be
integration with the outside world. Ultimate- Lifted under Joint Comprehensive Plan of
ly, unlike the more aggressive policy options Action,” Brussels, January 23, 2016, http://
explored in this paper, further engagement eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/top_stories/pdf/
with Iran when possible will strengthen Iran’s iran_implementation/information_note_eu_
more moderate political factions and weaken sanctions_jcpoa_en.pdf; and Department of the
hardliners, providing a more hopeful future Treasury, “Frequently Asked Questions Relating
for U.S.-Iranian relations. to the Lifting of Certain U.S. Sanctions Under the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on
Implementation Day,” December 15, 2016, https://
NOTES www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/
1. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted at an Programs/Documents/jcpoa_faqs.pdf.
April 2017 press conference: “The Trump admin-
istration is currently conducting a comprehensive 7. David E. Sanger, “Iran Complies with Nu-
review of our Iran policy. Once we have finalized clear Deal; Sanctions Are Lifted,” New York
our conclusions, we will meet the challenges Iran Times, January 26, 2016, https://www.nytimes.
poses with clarity and conviction.” Transcript of com/2016/01/17/world/middleeast/iran-sanctions-
news conference available at https://www.state. lifted-nuclear-deal.html. It is worth noting that
gov/secretary/remarks/2017/04/270341.htm. not all U.S. or UN sanctions on Iran have been
lifted; many designations related to Iran’s human
2. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Vienna, rights abuses, missile testing, and support for

terrorist groups were explicitly excluded from the New York Times, March 26, 2015, https://www.
JCPOA and remain in force. nytimes.com/2015/03/26/opinion/to-stop-irans-
8. Sarah Begley, “Read Donald Trump’s Speech
to AIPAC,” Time.com, March 21, 2016, http:// 14. John R. Bolton, “Trump Must Withdraw
time.com/4267058/donald-trump-aipac-speech- from Iran Nuclear Deal—Now,” TheHill.com,
transcript/; and Davan Maharaj, “Today: Why July 16, 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-
Trump Has Stuck with ‘the Worst Deal Ever’,” blog/foreign-policy/342237-opinion-trump-must-
Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2017, http://www. withdraw-from-iran-nuclear-deal-now.
20170420-story.html. 15. Mark Fitzpatrick, “Three Strikes against
Claims that Iran Is Violating the Nuclear
9. Peter Baker, “Trump Recertifies Iran Nuclear Accord,” International Institute for Strategic
Deal, but Only Reluctantly,” New York Times, Studies, July 27, 2017, http://www.iiss.org/en/
July 17, 2017, https://nytimes.com/2017/07/17/ iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-voices-2017-
us/politics/trump-iran-nuclear-deal-recertify. adeb/july-eb75/three-strikes-against-claims-that-
html?referer; and Eli Lake, “Trump Just Came iran-is-violating-the-nuclear-accord-f965.
Very Close to Killing the Iran Deal,” Bloomberg
View, July 18, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/ 16. Abigail Williams, “Trump Accuses Iran of
view/articles/2017-07-18/trump-just-came-very- Violating the ‘Spirit’ of Nuclear Deal,” NBCNews.
close-to-killing-the-iran-deal. com, April 21, 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/
10. Jana White et al., “Trump Assigns White violating-spirit-nuclear-deal-n749131.
House Team to Target Iran Nuclear Deal, Side-
lining State Department,” Foreign Policy, July 21, 17. Nilo Tabrizy, “Iran Says U.S. Is Not
2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/21/trump- Complying with the Nuclear Deal,” New York
assigns-white-house-team-to-target-iran-nuclear- Times, July 19, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/
deal-sidelining-state-department/. video/world/middleeast/100000005277964/us-
11. David S. Cohen, “Trump Is Trying to Politicize
Intelligence to Support His Iran Policy. That’s 18. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Vienna,
Dangerous.” Washington Post, August 4, 2017, July 14, 2015, https://www.state.gov/documents/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump- organization/245317.pdf.
his-iran-policy-thats-dangerous/2017/08/04/ 19. Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee, “U.S. Seeks
ffb192e0-77b6-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story. to Test Iran Deal with More Inspections,” Associ-
html?utm_term=.11cc3d884f85. ated Press, July 27, 2017, https://apnews.com/721fd
12. Tom Cotton, “Cotton and Colleagues Urge seeks-to-test-Iran-deal-with-more-inspections.
Tillerson Not to Certify Iran Compliance with
the JCPOA,” news release, July 11, 2017, https:// 20. Mark Fitzpatrick, “Don’t Repeat the Iraq War
www.cotton.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=744. False WMD Claims with Iran,” International In-
stitute for Strategic Studies, August 1, 2017, http://
13. Josh Dawsey et al., “Trump Shames Sessions www.iiss.org/en/iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-
amid Shake-up Speculation,” Politico, July 24, voices-2017-adeb/august-2b48/dont-repeat-the-
2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/07/24/ iraq-war-false-wmd-claims-with-iran-ee85.
trump-sessions-cabinet-shame-240911; and John
R. Bolton, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” 21. Daryl G. Kimball, Twitter post, July 27, 2017,

4:32 a.m., https://twitter.com/DarylGKimball/ pompeo-one-year-later-obama-s-iran-nuclear-

status/890535433607815168. deal-puts-us-at-increased-risk.html.

22. Ibid. 30. Sean Higgins, “Tom Cotton Wants ‘Re-

gime Change’ in Iran to Be Official US Policy,”
23. Fitzpatrick, “Don’t Repeat the Iraq War False Washington Examiner, June 25, 2017, http://www.
WMD Claims with Iran.” washingtonexaminer.com/tom-cotton-wants-
24. Steve Andreasen and Steven Simon, “Is article/2627035.
Trump Scheming to Kill the Iran Deal?” New
York Times, August 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes. 31. Teddy Fischer, “Full Transcript: Defense
com/2017/08/02/opinion/trump-killing-iran- Secretary James Mattis’ Interview with
nuclear-deal.html?ref=opinion&_r=1. The Islander,” Islander, June 20, 2017, http://
25. Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman, mattis-interview/.
“C.I.A. Names the ‘Dark Prince’ to Run Iran
Operations, Signaling a Tougher Stance,” New 32. Crowley, “Trump Allies Push White House.”
York Times, June 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.
com/2017/06/02/world/middleeast/cia-iran-dark- 33. John R. Bolton, “Iran: Regime Change Is
prince-michael-dandrea.html. Within Reach,” Gatestone Institute, July 3, 2017,
26. Eliana Johnson et al., “McMaster Dismisses regime-change.
another Flynn Hire from National Security
Council,” Politico, August 2, 2017, http://www. 34. Joseph I. Lieberman, “How We Must Get
politico.com/stor y/2017/08/02/mcmaster- Tougher on Iran,” Hartford Courant, December
national-security-council-241264. 11, 2016, http://www.courant.com/opinion/op-ed/
27. Eric Pelofsky, “Tillerson’s ‘Peaceful’ Regime
Change for Iran: Really? And What Comes 35. H.R.3364 - Countering America’s Adversaries
Next?” Just Security, June 26, 2017, https://www. Through Sanctions Act, https://www.congress.
justsecurity.org/42531/tillersons-peaceful-regime- go v/bil l/115th-congress/hous e-bil l/3364/
change-position-iran-really-and-next/. text?r=1#toc-HDF13D34A07124A16A0831FC
28. Michael Crowley, “Trump Allies Push
White House to Consider Regime Change 36. Julian Pecquet, “Senate Tones Down Iran
in Tehran,” Politico, June 25, 2017, http://www. Sanctions Bill after Input from Obama Team,”
politico.com/stor y/2017/06/25/trump-iran- Al Monitor, May 25, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.
foreign-policy-regime-change-239930. Crowley com/pulse/originals/2017/05/senate-tone-down-
reports: “National Security Council spokesman iran-sanctions-bill-obama-team.html.
Michael Anton said that manipulating Iran’s
internal politics is not currently a U.S. goal—nor 37. Bernie Sanders, “Sanders Statement on Iran
among the ‘objectives’ set in the initial stage of and Russia Sanctions,” news release, June 15, 2017,
the White House’s routine Iran policy review.” https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-
29. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), “One Year Later, sanctions.
Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal Puts Us at Increased
Risk,” FoxNews.com, July 14, 2016, http://www. 38. Thomas Erdbrink, “Iranian Parliament,
foxnews.com/opinion/2016/07/14/rep-mike- Facing U.S. Sanctions, Votes to Raise Military

Spending,” New York Times, August 13, 2017, “Iran Sanctions,” CRS Report RS20871, Congres-
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/world/ sional Research Service, October 11, 2013, p. 50.
sanctions-vote-to-raise-defense-spending. 46. Greg Bruno and Toni Johnson, “The Length-
html; and Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s President ening List of Iran Sanctions,” Council on Foreign
Threatens to Restart Nuclear Program,” New Relations report, July 31, 2012.
York Times, August 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.
com/2017/08/15/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear- 47. Anthony Cordesman et al., The U.S. and Iran:
hassan-rouhani-us.html. Sanctions, Energy, Arms Control and Regime Change
(Washington: Center for Strategic and Interna-
39. Ray Takeyh, “Taking on Iran,” National Review, tional Studies, 2013).
December 31, 2016, https://www.nationalreview.
com/magazine/2016-12-31-0000/donald-trump- 48. Michael Jacobson, “Sanctions against Iran: A
iran-policy. Promising Struggle,” Washington Quarterly 31, no. 3
(2008): 69–88.
40. The Editors, “Certifiable Madness,” National
Review (online), July 19, 2017, http://www. 49. Erin Cunningham, “The United States and
nationalreview.com/article/449636/iran-nuclear- Europe Are on a Collision Course over Iran,”
deal-recertification. Washington Post, July 14, 2017, https://www.
41. Agence France-Presse, “EU Says All Parties united-states-and-europe-are-on-a-collision-
Sticking to Iran Nuclear Deal,” Al Monitor, Au- course-over-iran/2017/07/14/e7b70108-657c-11e7-
gust 3, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ 94ab-5b1f0ff459df_story.html.
50. Indeed, at least one survey found that even
42. “Russia Says ‘a Pity’ U.S. Casts Doubt on the economic impact of targeted sanctions tend-
Iran Nuclear Deal,” August 11, 2017, https:// ed to be limited. These countries did no worse
www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-russia- than comparable countries in terms of GDP
usa/russia-says-a-pity-u-s-casts-doubt-on-iran- growth or other key economic measures, though
nuclear-deal-idUSKBN1AR1AU. investment prospects did seem to drop. See
Elizabeth Rosenberg et al., The New Tools of Eco-
43. Carl Bildt, “If Trump Blows Up the Iran nomic Warfare: Effects and Effectiveness of Contempo-
Deal, He’ll Cause a Meltdown in Europe, Too,” rary U.S. Financial Sanctions (Washington: Center
Washington Post, August 1, 2017, https://www. for a New American Security, April 2016), https://
washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/ s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/
wp/2017/08/01/if-trump-blows-up-the-iran-deal- CNASReport-EconomicWarfare-160408v02.
hell-cause-a-meltdown-in-europe-too/?tid=ss_tw- pdf.
51. Arne Tostensen and Beate Bull, “Are Smart
44. Staff, “Rouhani: We Must Not Get Caught in Sanctions Feasible?” World Politics 54, no. 3 (2002):
U.S. ‘Trap’,” Al Monitor, July 19, 2017, http://www. 377.
rouhani-reaction-us-sanctions-trump-jcpoa-trap. 52. Gary Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Recon-
html#ixzz4qVnbU2P9. sidered, 2nd ed. (Washington: Peterson Institute
for International Economics, 1990).
45. Akbar Torbat, “Impact of the U.S. Trade and
Financial Sanctions on Iran,” World Economy 28, no. 53. Thomas Biersteker et al., Targeted Sanctions:
3 (March 2005): 407–34; and Kenneth Katzman, The Impacts and Effectiveness of United Nations

Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 61. Avner Golov et al., “After the Joint Com-
2016), p. 236. prehensive Plan of Action: A Game Plan for
the United States,” Center for a New Ameri-
54. Rosenberg et al., “The New Tools of Econom- can Security, October 19, 2015, https://www.
ic Warfare.” cnas.org/publications/reports/after-the-joint-
55. Biersteker, Tourinho, and Eckert, Targeted the-united-states.
Sanctions, p. 243.
62. Colin H. Kahl et al., “A Strategy for Ending
56. The late 1990s saw substantial high-profile the Syrian Civil War,” Center for a New
academic debate on the topic, though there were American Security, June 7, 2017, https://www.
few empirical findings. See Robert Pape, “Why cnas.org/publications/reports/a-strategy-for-
Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” Internation- ending-the-syrian-civil-war.
al Security 22, no. 2 (1997): 90–136; David Baldwin
and Robert Pape, “Correspondence: Evaluating 63. Kate Brannen et al., “White House Officials
Economic Sanctions,” International Security 23, Push for Widening War in Syria over Pentagon
no. 2 (1998): 189–98; and David Baldwin, “The Objections,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2017, http://
Sanctions Debate and the Logic of Choice,” In- foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/16/white-house-
ternational Security 24, no. 3 (1999/2000): 80–107, officials-push-for-widening-war-in-syria-over-
among others. pentagon-objections/.

57. Pape, “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not 64. Nader Uskowi, “A New Battlespace in Syria:
Work,” p. 106. Prospects for U.S. Policy,” Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, June 20, 2017, http://www.
58. Katherine Bauer, Blumenstein-Katz Fam- washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/a-
ily Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near new-battlespace-in-syria-prospects-for-u.s.-policy.
East Policy, “Iran on Notice,” Testimony before
the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 114th 65. Max Peck, “Doubling Down on Damascus:
Cong., 1st sess., February 16, 2017, http://www. Iran’s Military Surge to Save the Assad Regime,”
washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/ Foundation for Defense of Democracies, January
testimony/BauerTestimony_20170216-final4. 2016, http://www.defenddemocracy.org/content/
pdf. uploads/documents/Doubling_Down_on_
59. Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow, Center for
Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, 66. Jennifer Cafarella et al., “America’s Way
“Nuclear Deal Fallout: The Global Threat of Ahead in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War and
Iran,” Testimony before the House Committee American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats
on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Project, March 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.
Nonproliferation, and Trade, 114th Cong., 1st org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ISW-CTP-
sess., May 24, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/ Recommended-Course-of-Action-in-Syria-and-
wp-content/uploads/2017/05/the-global-threat- Iraq-March-2017.pdf.
67. Frederick W. Kagan et al., “Competing
60. Katherine Zimmerman, “Pushing Back on Visions for Syria and Iraq: The Myth of an
Iran: Options in Yemen,” American Enterprise In- Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition,” Institute for the
stitute Critical Threats Project, February 7, 2017, Study of War and American Enterprise Institute
https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/pushing- Critical Threats Project, January 2016, http://
back-on-iran-policy-options-in-yemen. www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/

PLANEX%20Report%202%20FINALFINAL. One, September 8, 2015, www.defenseone.com/

pdf. news/2015/09/how-many-us-troops-were-killed-
68. Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and
Anarchy in the Middle East (New York: Public Af- 75. Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow, Center for
fairs, 2016). Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institu-
tion, “Hezbollah’s Growing Threat against U.S.
69. Ishaan Tharoor, “The Persian Gulf Crisis National Security Interests in the Middle East,”
over Qatar, Explained,” Washington Post, June 6, Testimony before the House Committee on For-
2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/ eign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Middle East
worldviews/wp/2017/06/06/the-persian-gulf- and North Africa, 113th Cong., 2nd sess., March
crisis-over-qatar-explained/. 22, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/
70. Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia security-interests-in-the-middle-east/.
in the United States, “Joint Statement on the
Formation of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight 76. Kevin Peraino et al., “Eye for an Eye,” News-
Terrorism,” December 15, 2015, http://embassies. week, August 14, 2006.
mofa.go v.sa/sites/usa/EN/PublicAffairs/
Statements/Pages/Joint- Statement-on-the- 77. Michael Rubin, “Iran: The Case for ‘Regime
Formation-of-the-Islamic-Military-Alliance. Change’,” Commentary, April 1, 2010, https://www.
aspx. commentarymagazine.com/articles/iran-the-
71. Byman, “Nuclear Deal Fallout”; Golov et al.,
“After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”; 78. Reuel Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, “How Trump
and Cafarella et al., “America’s Way Ahead in Can Help Cripple the Iranian Regime,” Washington
Syria.” Post, April 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.
72. David C. Hendrickson and Robert W. Tuck- trump-can-help-cripple-the-iranian-regime/.
er, “Revisions in Need of Revising: What Went
Wrong in the Iraq War,” Survival 47, no. 2 (2005): 79. Mark Dubowitz, “Confront Iran the Reagan
7–32; and Jonathan Marcus, “Factors behind the Way,” Wall Street Journal, July 4, 2017, https://
Precipitate Collapse of Iraq’s Army,” BBC News, www.wsj.com/articles/confront-iran-the-reagan-
June 13, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world- way-1499197879.
80. Alexander B. Downes and Lindsey A.
73. Although comprehensive figures are difficult O’Rourke, “The Trump Administration Wants
to come by, the International Institute for Strate- Regime Change in Iran. But Regime Change Usu-
gic Studies estimates that there are around 7,000 ally Doesn’t Work,” Washington Post, July 31, 2017,
U.S. service members in Afghanistan; 5,000 in https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-
Iraq; 2,000 in Jordan; 13,000 in Kuwait; 5,000 in cage/wp/2017/07/31/some-in-d-c-want-regime-
Bahrain; 8,000 in Qatar; 400 in Saudi Arabia; and change-in-iran-good-luck-with-that/?nid&utm_
5,000 in the United Arab Emirates. Data are from term=.b3fb2d355551.
the International Institute for Strategic Studies,
The Military Balance, 2016 (New York: Routledge, 81. Laura Rozen, “Iran Hawks, Bannon Loyalists
2016). Booted in White House Purge,” Al Monitor,
August 3, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/
74. Marcus Weisgerber, “How Many U.S. Troops en/originals/2017/08/white-house-iran-hawks-
Were Killed by Iranian IEDs in Iraq?” Defense bannon-purge-ezra-cohen-watnick.amp.html.

82. Mark Mazzetti, “C.I.A. Study of Covert Aid to Drop Terror Label,” New York Times, Septem-
Fueled Skepticism about Helping Syrian Reb- ber 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/22/
els,” New York Times, October 14, 2014, https:// world/middleeast/iranian-opposition-group-mek-
www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/us/politics/cia- wins-removal-from-us-terrorist-list.html.
91. Michael Axworthy, “Regime Change in Iran
83. Alexander B. Downes  and  Lindsey A. Would Be a Disaster for Everyone,” Foreign
O’Rourke, “You Can’t Always Get What You Policy (online), July 18, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.
Want: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change com/2017/07/18/regime-change-in-iran-would-
Seldom Improves Interstate Relations,” Interna- be-a-disaster-for-everyone-trump-tillerson/; and
tional Security 41, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 43–89. Madison Schramm and Ariane M. Tabatabai,
“Why Regime Change in Iran Wouldn’t Work,”
84. Ibid. Foreign Affairs (online), July 20, 2017, https://
85. Downes and O’Rourke, “The Trump Ad- gulf/2017- 07-20/why-regime-change-iran-
ministration Wants Regime Change in Iran. But wouldnt-work?cid=int-lea&pgtype=hpg.
Regime Change Usually Doesn’t Work”; Goran
Peic and Dan Reiter, “Foreign-Imposed Re- 92. Schramm and Tabatabai, “Why Regime
gime Change, State Power and Civil War Onset, Change in Iran Wouldn’t Work.”
1920–2004,” British Journal of Political Science 41,
no. 3 (July 2011): 453–57; and Alexander B. Downes 93. Axworthy, “Regime Change in Iran Would Be
and Jonathan Monten, “Forced to Be Free?: Why a Disaster for Everyone.”
Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads
to Democratization,” International Security 37, no. 94. Ibid.
4 (Spring 2013): 90–131.
95. David Yaghoubian, Ethnicity, Identity, and
86. Sameer Lalwani, “Four Ways Forward in the Development of Nationalism in Iran (Syracuse,
Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs (online), May 25, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014); and Ali
2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ M. Ansari, The Politics of Nationalism in Modern
afghanistan/2017- 05-25/four-ways-forward- Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press,
afghanistan. 2012).

87. Daniel Trotta, “Iraq War Cost More than $2 96. Seymour M. Hersh, “Preparing the Battle-
Trillion: Study,” Reuters, March 14, 2013, https:// field,” New Yorker, July 7, 2008, https://www.
www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-war-anniversary- newyorker.com/magazine/2008/07/07/preparing-
idUSBRE92D0PG20130314. the-battlefield.

88. Alan J. Kuperman, “A Model Humanitarian 97. Eric Edelman and Charles Wald, “How Trump
Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Cam- Should Handle Iran,” Politico, July 25, 2017, http://
paign,” International Security 38, no. 1 (Summer www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/07/25/how-
2013): 105–36. trump-should-handle-iran-000483.

89. Kenneth M. Pollack et al., “Which Path to 98. See the National Security Strategy of the Unit-
Persia? Options for a New American Strategy to- ed States of America, September 2002, https://
ward Iran,” Brookings Institution Analysis Paper www.state.gov/documents/organization/63562.pdf.
no. 20, June 2009, p. 118.
99. Karl P. Mueller et al., Striking First: Preemptive
90. Scott Shane, “Iranian Dissidents Convince U.S. and Preventive Attack in U.S. National Security Policy

(Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2006), States,” Office of the Director of National Intel-
https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/ ligence, April 2006, http://www.governmentattic.
monographs/2006/RAND_MG403.pdf. org/5docs/NIE-2006-02R.pdf.

100. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “Good Foreign Policy a 109. Ibid.

Casualty of War,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2003,
http://articles.latimes.com/2003/mar/23/news/war- 110. Population data are from CIA, “World Fact-
opschlesinger23. book,” https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/
resources/the-world-factbook; military data are
101. Chris Murphy, “Trump’s Reckless Path to- from the International Institute for Strategic
ward War with Iran,” Hartford Courant, February Studies, The Military Balance, 2002–2003 (New
3, 2017, http://www.courant.com/opinion/op-ed/ York: Routledge, 2003) and The Military Balance,
hc-op-murphy-trumps-reckless-iran-policy- 2016 (New York: Routledge, 2016).
111. Long et al., “Weighing the Benefits and Costs
102. Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker, “U.S. of Military Action against Iran.”
War Game Sees Perils of Israeli Strike against
Iran,” New York Times, March 19, 2012, http:// 112. Matthew Kroenig, “Time to Attack Iran,”
www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/world/middleeast/ Foreign Affairs 91, no. 1 (January/February 2012),
united-states-war-game-sees-dire-results-of-an- https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-
israeli-attack-on-iran.html. east/2012-01-01/time-attack-iran.

103. James Fallows, “Will Iran Be Next?” Atlantic, 113. Defense Intelligence Agency, “Unclassified Re-
December 2004, p. 108. port on Military Power of Iran,” April 2010, http://
104. Thomas McInerney, “Target: Iran,” Weekly Stan-
dard, April 24, 2006, http://www.weeklystandard. 114. Anne Gearan, “Analysis: Iraq War Ties U.S.
com/target-iran/article/13242. Hands on Iran,” Associated Press, June 2, 2006.

105. Austin Long et al., “Weighing the Benefits 115. Jon Schwartz, “Trump Intel Chief: North
and Costs of Military Action against Iran,” Korea Learned from Libya War to ‘Never’
The Iran Project, New York, 2012, https:// Give Up Nukes,” Intercept, July 29, 2017, https://
www.wils oncenter.org/sites/default/files/ theintercept.com/2017/07/29/dan-coats-north-
IranReport_091112_FINAL.pdf. korea-nukes-nuclear-libya-regime-change/.

106. “Missile Threat,” Center for Strategic and 116. Agence France-Presse, “North Korea Cites
International Studies Missile Defense Project, Muammar Gaddafi’s ‘Destruction’ in Nuclear
https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/iran/. Test Defence,” Telegraph, January 9, 2016, http://
107. Afshon Ostovar, “If Trump Wants a Fight in northkorea/12090658/North-Korea-cites-
the Middle East Iran Will Give Him One,” Foreign Muammar-Gaddafis-destruction-in-nuclear-test-
Policy (online), June 2, 2017, http://foreignpolicy. defence.html.
middle-east-iran-will-give-him-one/. 117. See remarks of Thomas Schelling, “An As-
tonishing Sixty Years,” Woodrow Wilson Center
108. Declassified key judgments from the Director’s Forum, September 21, 2006.
National Intelligence Estimate, “Trends in
Global Terrorism: Implications for the United 118. Ross Colvin, “‘Cut off Head of Snake’ Saudis

Told U.S. on Iran,” Reuters, November 28, 2010, 121. Thomas Erdbrink, “Rouhani Wins Re-election in
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-wikileaks- Iran by a Wide Margin,” New York Times, May 20, 2017,
iran-saudis-idUSTRE6AS02B20101129. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/middleeast/
119. Jodi Rudoren, “Israel Came Close to At-
tacking Iran, Ex-Defense Minister Says,” New 122. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, interview by
York Times, August 21, 2015, https://www.nytimes. Zachary Laub, “Why Iran’s Elections Matter,”
com/2015/08/22/world/middleeast/israel-came- Council on Foreign Relations, February 24, 2016,
close-to-attacking-iran-ex-defense-minister-says. https://www.cfr.org/interview/why-irans-elections-
html?mcubz=3&_r=0. matter.

120. Carmi Gillon, “The Iran Nuclear Deal Has 123. Ariane Tabatabai, “Trump Plays into Hands
Been a Blessing for Israel,” Foreign Policy (online), July of Iranian Hardliners,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scien-
13, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/13/the-iran- tists, May 10, 2017, http://thebulletin.org/trump-
nuclear-deal-has-been-a-blessing-for-israel-jcpoa/. plays-hands-iranian-hardliners10761.

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