Shadow Government

Hillary Clinton, Neocon?

With terror in Brussels swamping the news cycle last week, speeches delivered to AIPAC’s Policy Conference by four leading U.S. presidential candidates, outlining their approaches to the Middle East, received less attention than they might have. That’s too bad.

Attendees listen as US Democratic presidential hopeful former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Attendees listen as US Democratic presidential hopeful former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

With terror in Brussels swamping the news cycle last week, speeches delivered to AIPAC’s Policy Conference by four leading U.S. presidential candidates, outlining their approaches to the Middle East, received less attention than they otherwise might have. That’s too bad. The speeches contained plenty of interesting food for thought. But one item in particular struck me as potentially significant and worth highlighting: Though all of the speakers spent time underscoring their determination to confront the threat posed by the Iranian regime, only one of the four — Hillary Clinton — suggested that supporting the people of Iran should also be an essential element of any comprehensive U.S. strategy.

Like her Republican counterparts Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich, Clinton spent the bulk of the Iran section of her speech quite properly emphasizing the importance of deterrence, coercion, and hard power when dealing with the mullahs and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Clinton dutifully pledged that she would hold Iran strictly accountable “for even the smallest violations” of the nuclear deal, by working with our allies to “impose real consequences.” If there was ever any indication that Iran was moving to violate its commitment not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, Clinton said that she would stop it, by force if necessary.

She called Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests “unacceptable,” and said that they should be “answered firmly and quickly including with more sanctions.” She suggested that as president, she would push back against Iranian aggression. A Clinton administration, she promised, would “impose additional sanctions as needed on Iran and the Revolutionary Guard for their sponsorship of terrorism, illegal arms transfers, human rights violations and other illicit behavior like cyber attacks.” Drilling down on Lebanon, she declared that she would work closely with Israel and other partners “to cut off the flow of money and arms from Iran to Hezbollah.”

But whereas Trump, Cruz, and Kasich limited their remarks to combating Iran’s threatening external behavior, Clinton alone went on to highlight the importance of its internal situation, and the need for the United States to assist the Iranian people against an oppressive regime. Here’s the relevant passage:

At the same time, America should always stand with those voices inside Iran calling for more openness. Now look, we know the supreme leader still calls the shots and that the hard liners are intent on keeping their grip on power. But the Iranian people themselves deserve a better future, and they are trying to make their voices heard. They should know that America is not their enemy, they should know we will support their efforts to bring positive change to Iran.

Intriguing, right? At least a hint, certainly, that the U.S. strategy against Iran should include an effort to back democratic change. Whether a prospective Clinton administration would actually pursue such a policy with seriousness is impossible to say. But Clinton’s seeming recognition that there ought to be a political component to America’s approach toward the Islamic Republic is an important conceptual insight, and one that other candidates would be well-advised to consider.

Though Clinton didn’t say so, the fact is that the nuclear deal is something of a ticking time bomb. Under the agreement’s so-called sunset clauses, the most important restrictions on Iran’s capabilities disappear in just 10 to 15 years. By the end of that period, Iran will have the full blessing of the international community to build an industrial-size nuclear program, potentially spinning thousands of highly advanced centrifuges and stockpiling unlimited quantities of enriched uranium. At that point, Iran’s breakout time for building a small arsenal of nuclear bombs could be whittled down to a few weeks, maybe even just a few days. By the time the United States detected anything unusual, Iran’s status as a nuclear-weapons state would almost certainly be a fait accompli.

Under the nuclear deal, this alarming timeline has no connection to any larger geo-strategic context. So long as Iran more or less complies with its obligations, the caps on its nuclear capabilities disappear, regardless of its behavior in other spheres. Still the leading state sponsor of international terrorism? Not an issue. Still aggressively working to destabilize the Middle East? Irrelevant. In possession of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of targeting New York or Washington? Unfortunate, but outside the terms of the deal. Still chanting “Death to America” every week and pledging to destroy the Zionist entity? President Ahmadinejad 2.0, start your advanced centrifuges.

That, of course, would be a disaster for the United States: Iran unrepentant, possessing a vast nuclear infrastructure that’s been green-lit by the international community. A threshold nuclear-weapons state that’s no less belligerent than it is today, but with a far stronger conventional military and sanctions-proof economy.

From that standpoint, it seems clear that Clinton is very much onto something, that the United States should, indeed, have a profound interest in changing the hostile nature of the Iranian regime. Unless a way can be found to short-circuit the Islamic Republic’s hardwiring for external aggression, the nuclear deal runs a high risk of becoming a blueprint for strategic catastrophe.

To his credit, President Obama intuitively seems to have some grasp of this reality. Though he’s repeatedly said that the nuclear deal is not premised on Iran’s internal transformation, he’s also repeatedly raised the prospect that the deal could strengthen reformers who might fundamentally alter Iran’s foreign policy. In an interview last summer, Obama speculated that one possible consequence of the nuclear deal is that “Iran starts making different decisions that are less offensive to its neighbors; that it tones down the rhetoric in terms of its virulent opposition to Israel.” Similarly, he’s noted that “my hope would be that [the nuclear deal] would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over time.”

The fatal flaw in Obama’s reasoning, of course, is that the Islamic Republic can somehow be propitiated or tamed through a strategy of concessions and retreat — even appeasement. It’s an approach premised on the deep-seated conviction that our enemies are enemies in large part because historically they’ve felt legitimately aggrieved by an American hegemon that too often has abused its outsized power at their expense. In other words, we’ve given them cause to hate us, to distrust us, to seek to undermine our interests at every turn. Remove that cause, and the world might begin to be set right. Show Iran some respect. Grant it the right to enrich uranium. Invite it to assume its rightful regional role by pressing allies to “share” the Persian Gulf with it. Pave the way for its full integration as a proud and successful member of the existing international order.

All well and good — unless, that is, anti-Americanism and perpetual resistance to the Great Satan are, in fact, foundational to the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être and survival strategy. As, indeed, they are. Dispense with that and the whole house of cards could collapse, devoid of ideological and religious purpose or justification. The fact is that the hard men who control the theocracy, the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards, have no interest in becoming sustaining members of the world order that America built. On the contrary, their objective is to destroy that order and establish a new one in its place with themselves at the helm.

From that vantage, U.S. concessions don’t encourage Iranian reciprocity. They fuel Iranian ambition. They don’t foster mutual respect. They invite contempt.

Exhibit A is the pattern of unrelenting Iranian aggression that we’ve witnessed in the short time since the nuclear deal took force: a dramatic escalation in the IRGC’s intervention in Syria’s civil war in tandem with Russia. The arrests of additional American citizens. Multiple ballistic missile tests. Shooting rockets and flying drones in close proximity to the U.S. fleet in the Gulf. The capture and purposeful humiliation of American sailors. The brazen purging of reformers from recent Iranian elections.

The fact is that Iran’s transformation into a non-threatening, non-revisionist power will not result from attempts to bolster one faction of revolutionary careerists over another. While their differences may be real and their bureaucratic battles vicious, their common objective is to save the system, not dismantle it. We should not delude ourselves. Neither Hassan Rouhani, nor his aging mentor Hashemi Rafsanjani, will be the instrument of fundamental change in the Islamic Republic’s strategic orientation, much less its demise.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be working to exacerbate fissures, fractures, and contradictions within the Iranian elite. We absolutely should. But not with a mind to reforming the regime, but to weakening it.

The forces that we should be consciously working to strengthen are, as Secretary Clinton suggested, the people of Iran, specifically those groups and individuals that are in fact seeking genuine political, economic, and social reform of the theocratic system. There are voices that want greater freedoms, more accountability, and less corruption; that advocate for greater respect for human rights, including the rights of workers, women, dissidents, and religious and ethnic minorities; that oppose Iran’s dangerous foreign policy and want to see its decades-long war with the United States ended. Those are the groups that we need to start identifying, investing in, and establishing reliable channels of communication with, preferably in coordination with our closest allies. We need to develop careful, long-term strategies that will begin providing Iran’s reformers with the kinds of support that they believe will most effectively advance their cause, using all means at our disposal, including information, technology, financial resources, diplomacy, civil society, and the private sector.

It will certainly not be easy. Iranian reformers and regime opponents have been badly battered in the aftermath of 2009’s Green Revolution. Their near-total exclusion from last month’s elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts further underscored the extent to which their space in Iran’s public life is being systematically constricted. Nothing is likely to happen quickly. Small steps, trial and error, and slowly building relationships will probably be the order of the day, at least initially, in an effort to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Most important, however, will be a new president who understands America’s strategic stake in Iran’s internal evolution, and is prepared to demand that his or her national security team make it an integral element of a truly comprehensive strategy to defeat the Iranian threat. Alas, no administration has ever done that — despite a growing appreciation over the past two decades of the widening divide between the regime and the Iranian people, especially Iranian youth.

When it comes to Iran, the next president could do worse than taking a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook in winning the Cold War. When Reagan entered office, the Soviet Union appeared to be on offense around the world. The weight of the Soviet state was crushing dissident voices. The prospects for meaningful internal reform appeared dismal, even non-existent. Yet Reagan recognized that, behind the totalitarian state’s facade of overwhelming power and oppression, was a deep underlying systemic weakness, a degree of political, economic, and moral rot that the free world could exploit to its advantage. Accordingly, in National Security Decision Directive 75, Reagan said explicitly that, alongside aggressive military, economic, and covert efforts to combat Soviet global expansionism, as well as negotiations based on strict reciprocity to resolve outstanding disputes, one of the main elements of U.S. policy must be “internal pressure on the USSR to weaken the sources of Soviet imperialism” by promoting “the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the ruling elite is gradually reduced.” The United States then developed, resourced, and systematically implemented a series of policies and programs. Less than a decade later, the Soviet Union was no more and the Cold War came to a peaceful conclusion.

If we’re lucky, and the nuclear deal with Iran is actually implemented, the United States may now have a decade, perhaps a few years more, until the Islamic Republic is free to move within a screwdriver’s turn away from nuclear weapons. Avoiding that fateful day should be one of the highest priorities for the next president. That means establishing a comprehensive Iran strategy as soon as possible that draws on all elements of national power, not just to deter and defeat Iran’s external aggression, but to assist the Iranian people in addressing the very source of that aggression, itself — the tyranny of the Islamic Republic.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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