On Wednesday, we saw Iranian President Rouhani at the United Nations state that if the U.S. reneges on the nuclear deal, America will pay a high cost.
This statement is a clear indicator of what the Iranian regime thinks of the so-called nuclear deal: they are huge fan of it. And why wouldn’t they be? It gives them exactly what they have wanted all along: Regime Preservation. It single handedly removed crippling sanctions allowing them to increase their financial resources to do what they do best, export terrorism -- or, as they like to tell themselves internally: self-defense.
For us however, the deal isn’t worth the paper that it’s printed on. Does that mean it should be scrapped? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Here’s why.
President Trump said during his UN speech at the General Assembly that it is one of the worst deals he has seen, “an embarrassment to the American people.” I have no doubt he probably believes this even more since he took office and reads the regular intelligence reports in his daily brief showing Iranian groups smuggling illicit materials globally to Shia-backed groups and further exporting terrorism as a result. Most people will never know the extent of these reports.
When the president wakes up he sees a different picture than most Americans. The truth is to those of us who have been in the intelligence community, the world is a scary place. The threats we face daily as Americans are so great that I learned over time that it’s a good thing most of us don’t know about them. It’s why we sleep well at night but our leaders are tossing and turning. He sees the daily intelligence reports telling him exactly what the Iranians are up to around the world. The Iranian regime will be President Trump’s most difficult battle yet.
We shouldn’t be fooled, however, by these reports into categorizing the interests of Iranians as a whole. The destabilizing actions described are those of a small faction of hardliners hell bent on protecting the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution. These hardliners are masters of deception, and they have been playing us all along. Every time we’ve threatened sanctions against the country, the hardliners have gained more legitimacy
The problem that we are seeing is not the majority-moderate Iranian regime or even the Iranian people. With nearly 70 percent of the Iranian population under the age of 40, the truth is the nation and its people could be our biggest strategic ally in the region. The majority want peace. The majority want a better relationship with the West. The majority want to connect with the rest of the world. Heck, didn’t you notice, when the television cameras cut to the Iranian delegate at the UN, he was using an iPhone while listening to the president? The irony of that photo is not lost on me.
Here is the nub: The Iranian nuclear deal was not for this faction of hardliners. The deal, as terrible as it was, was for the good of the Iranian people. It was a symbol to all of them that the U.S. wants a better relationship. In the end, the people are the decision-makers and they will be the reason for regime change. Yet, unfortunately, our current policies are still hurting them the most.
The real problem is the Iranian hardliners who refuse to let go of their history, and are secretly playing us against one other on the world stage. These are the hardliners who will always choose anti-imperialism pride, anti-American sentiment, and Islamic revolution values over pragmatism. They are the Iranian leaders from the 60s, 70s, and 80s who convinced themselves that America can never be trusted. Regime preservation dictates their actions. They are the Iranian version of the “deep state.”
And this, coupled with the Saudis and the Israelis lobbying President Trump to get more aggressive with Iran against our better interests, creates a recipe for disaster.
The hardliners on both sides of the Middle East are pushing each other’s buttons in order to increase the divide between Iran and the U.S. It’s playing out on the world stage like a scene from the movie “Sum of All Fears,” where rogue elements get us to nearly attack each other by making us believe it’s in our best interest. Since I’m also a former intelligence analyst by trade, I guess that would make me Jack Ryan in this equation.
If President Trump scraps the nuclear deal in October, the hardliners in Iran will use this to consolidate power in their own country. The decision would work in their favor, in other words. They will use the outcome to turn to their moderates and say “I told you so,” thereby winning support from their local populations, who are regularly told the West is the reason for their problems.
The hardliners are trying to position the U.S. as materialistic and oppressive to the general population, and themselves as the caretakers of the Iranian people. Unfortunately, our actions over the years continue to help them do so.
Recent examples of this include travel restrictions on Iranian students, entrepreneurs, and artists. Apple recently removed Iranian apps from the app store. Even Google shut down Google Analytic accounts from operating. These business services were stopped out of fear of violating sanctions. These are the services that help young pro-Western entrepreneurs, civil society and the private sector. These small things collectively are slowly giving the hardliners the chance to be proven right.
The Iranian’s haven’t reneged on the deal. The hardliners have, fueling the fire of anti-American sentiment and intent. We need to target them.
What we truly need is a fresh tactical restart of our Iran policy. The focus shouldn’t be on scrapping the Iranian nuclear deal at all, but rather covertly targeting the small factions within the country that are causing others to believe it’s falling apart while supporting the new generation of Iranian moderates at the same time. It should be the carrot and stick approach. The carrot should be empowering the Iranian private sector by encouraging American investments and allowing Iranian people to engage with the rest of the world through trade, exchange, and travel. The stick should be military action targeting Iran’s national security and radical establishment at odds with the next generation of Iranian leaders ready to take over.
More specifically, we need to target the group that allows the hardliners to carry out their tasks: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force (IRGC). Much of the turmoil we see around the world is a result of their actions. They are covertly at war with us, but we are not at war with them.
When we hear about Iran teasing our naval forces with attack boats in the Persian Gulf, or flying one of their drones low enough around our warships for us to see them watching – that’s the IRGC in action.
Even further, within the IRGC, everything seems to point to a small branch of rogue elements known as the IRGC-“Qods Force,” led by none other than Major General Qasem Soleimani, who (as much as I despise him) is one of the greatest military minds of our generation. His mind, though, is being used for evil instead of good. He has been directly responsible for the deaths of American soldiers, he has directed attacks against the West, and he works for the Ayatollah, who is really pulling the strings.
We need to unleash our covert action against the Qods Force, targeting their covert actions more aggressively around the world. We need to make clear rules of engagement, stating that we will respect the Iranian national interests, but we will strike any of their units we find upsetting the stability of the region.
At the same time, we can show respect to the Iranian majority who want better relations by investing in the country, with Americans leading the charge. The biggest nightmare of the hardliners is an Iran that’s open and an Iranian population that is no longer locked in and isolated from the rest of the world. We should attempt to reduce the burden on international banks still too afraid to transact there despite sanctions that have been lifted. Empowering the private sector in Iran and allowing for Iranian people to engage with the rest of the world through trade, exchange, travel is the best strategy to weaken the IRGC. The more we help open the country, the less powerful their influence will be.
The efforts to weaken the hardliners/IRGC coupled with efforts to empower moderates in the regime and the private sector will allow for peaceful and gradual change in the nature of the government to one that is more cooperative in regional affairs and much more accepted by the people.
Reducing IRGC’s power and supporting the Iranian people directly may just be the drastic approach needed for us to win the long war.