What Would Reagan Do on Iran?

If Washington wants to pressure Tehran, the White House should stop alienating allies, empowering hard-liners, and harming regular Iranians.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin Place prior to their last summit meeting on June 1, 1988.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin Place prior to their last summit meeting on June 1, 1988. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite Saudi Arabia’s admission that the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month was premeditated, the Trump administration appears determined to maintain the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel to put unprecedented pressure on Iran. The next step in this master plan will be the Nov. 5 full reimposition of sanctions on Iran.

According to recent reports, Peter Schweizer’s 1994 book Victory has helped inspire the U.S. approach to dealing with Iran, including the sanctions campaign to force the country to capitulate to U.S. demands. Their reliance on Schweizer’s account reveals the pitfalls of policymakers looking to the past to make policy for the future. The book’s boosters contend that the strategy of “maximum pressure”—unrelenting economic, ideological, and covert-action measures short of war against the Soviet Union—that allegedly brought down the Cold War nemesis can have a similar effect today on Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even echoed this theme in a recent article.

The only problem is that Schweizer’s narrative of U.S. policy and the Soviet collapse in the 1980s is flawed; it is not a reliable guide on how to deal with Tehran. In fact, the application of maximum pressure based on this triumphalist history may be counterproductive, strengthening the most conservative and hawkish elements in the Islamic Republic, alienating an increasingly destitute Iranian population, and weakening the trans-Atlantic alliance. The Trump administration’s current approach to Iran has little in common with the carefully calibrated approach President Ronald Reagan actually took toward the Soviet Union.

Schweizer’s book has appeal in Washington because it tells a compelling tale of U.S. policymakers effecting change in a complex world. “Examining the collapse of the Soviet Union outside of the context of American policy,” Schweizer sums up, “is a little like investigating a sudden, unexpected, and mysterious death without exploring the possibility of murder.” And in his telling, the man who slayed the Communist behemoth was Ronald Reagan.

But Schweizer’s work is far from a complete recounting of the facts of the case. After all, he did not have access to U.S. or Soviet archives and all they revealed at the time of writing, and he disregarded anything that detracted from Reagan’s own role, such as the idea that the Soviet Union died of self-inflicted injuries. Missing from Schweizer’s narrative is any semblance of Soviet agency; Moscow is acted upon but does not act. This is not how the Reagan administration saw the Soviet Union, and, crucially, it is not how President Donald Trump’s should see Iran.

Schweizer is correct that the Reagan administration intensified pressure on the Soviet Union, but pressure was not the sum total of U.S. policy toward Moscow during the 1980s. It ignores Reagan’s overtures to the Kremlin, long predating the arrival on the scene of the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Some of these moves, such as Reagan’s spring 1981 letter to Leonid Brezhnev, urging the then-Soviet leader to work with him to reduce international tensions, are well known. Others remain in the shadows, such as the back channel established by U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Arthur F. Burns that same year. As Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” destined for “the ash heap of history,” Burns was reassuring his top-level Soviet interlocutors that this was no different than “parents getting carried away by anger and using insulting language towards their own children.”

Nor were all opportunities to undermine the Soviet Union seized. For instance, after the Soviet air force shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in September 1983 after it strayed into Soviet airspace near Sakhalin Island, the Reagan administration did not capitalize on an opportunity to hold Moscow publicly accountable for each of the 269 deaths, including one member of the U.S. Congress. Instead, the Reagan administration chose to restrain itself. U.S. negotiators did not discard the progress made in the intermediate-range nuclear weapons talks underway in Geneva, for example, but kept working with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arsenals in Europe. Reagan knew how to wield the carrot, as well as the stick.

Comparing the Soviet Union in its twilight to Iran today is at best an imperfect analogy. Since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran has lurched back and forth between flawed reform and counterreform. Today, reformers are barely hanging on to elected power centers and are thwarted by hard-liners who wield authority from unelected perches. At the same time, the Islamic Republic has undeniably undergone meaningful changes over the last four decades, from an authoritarian system with a state-led economy and highly restricted society, to a competitive authoritarian one with a mixed economy and fewer social restrictions.

Elections, largely a rubber stamp on Khomeini’s charismatic rule until the 1990s, today give Iranians a limited measure of choice in shaping their political future, even if that choice is between a narrow range of regime insiders. The economy, whose commanding heights the state once jealously guarded, now incorporates more market mechanisms and private actors, even if it remains riddled with mismanagement and corruption. Society, once completely suffocated by the strict imposition of Islamic mores, now sees Iranian women defiantly casting off their veils in public, even if they still sometimes pay a heavy price for their transgressions.

This gradual but marked change has been grudgingly conceded by ruling hard-liners, under pressure from the brave activism of Iranian citizens, who are using every opportunity to enact change including the limited space opened up by reformers who—like Gorbachev—want to save the system.

A Victory-style strategy of maximum pressure on Iran could set off a cascade of unintended consequences that would harm long-term U.S. interests. The specter of a hard-line backlash to Gorbachev loomed over U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the late 1980s, tempering the harshest instincts of the Reagan administration. Soviet hard-liners’ attempted coup in August 1991 showed just how right the White House had been to worry what would happen if it pushed Gorbachev too far. It was certainly never taken for granted that the liberal opposition or the flawed but courageous Boris Yeltsin would succeed Gorbachev.

A policy of maximum pressure today is likely to force Iran’s fractious elites to unite around the goal of regime survival and further empower actors such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, help Tehran incite anti-American resentment among ordinary Iranians suffering under sanctions, and hurt the United States’ standing in the world.

In part as a consequence of this policy, the Hassan Rouhani government has been on the back foot, relying more heavily on the conservatives rather than reformists in his coalition and finding it expedient to engage in confrontational rhetoric toward the United States. And as the two countries and their respective allies have moved closer to military confrontation and an economic siege under Trump, the Revolutionary Guards who dominate the country’s ballistic missile program, proxy warfare networks, and illicit business activity stand to further strengthen their already formidable position.

These possibilities take on greater significance in light of the looming succession process to replace the aging supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While the framework and context in which this succession will unfold largely remains a mystery, the balance of power within Iran is likely to influence its outcome. Finally, although Iranians since 1979 have turned their ire inward toward their own rulers, a policy of maximum pressure could endow the waning anti-Americanism of the Islamic Republic with a new sheen of nationalist rationalization.

Beyond Iran, the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure has undermined the trans-Atlantic alliance and strained other important global partnerships. U.S. pursuit of a punitive sanctions campaign against Iran without consideration for allies’ interests has cast the United States as an intransigent actor, drawing scrutiny away from Tehran’s troubling human rights record, regional role, and ballistic missiles.

European efforts to diminish the impact of U.S. sanctions, for example by creating a barter system to facilitate European Union-Iran bilateral trade in the absence of private financial institutions’ willingness to do so, could undermine the U.S. dollar’s position as the global reserve currency, harming the future efficacy of sanctions as a tool of U.S. statecraft and Washington’s ability to finance its foreign policy by running deficits.

Rather than using Schweizer’s hagiographical Victory as a template, the Trump administration may want to take a page out of Reagan’s actual playbook. Whatever mix of diplomatic, economic, and military means the administration employs, it should consider incorporating three key elements.

First, Washington must heal the breach with Europe. Reagan understood the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance for confronting the Soviet Union, and any campaign to address Iran’s behavior is likely to be more successful with Europe on board.

Second, avoid bolstering hard-liners and hold good-faith negotiations over pressing issues. Reagan was aware of internal Soviet dynamics and entered into direct talks with genuine openness when it was called for.

Finally, minimize the negative impact of U.S. policy on ordinary Iranians. Reagan never lost sight of the fact that in the struggle against “the evil empire,” everyday citizens throughout the Eastern bloc were communism’s main victims and, crucially, the most valuable agents of change. It was they, after all, who tore down the Berlin Wall.

Simon Miles is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and a faculty fellow of its Program in American Grand Strategy. He is completing a book on U.S.-Soviet relations during the early 1980s based on new Eastern bloc archival sources.

Farzan Sabet is a postdoctoral fellow in the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He is part of the European Research Council-funded project “Bombs, Banks, and Sanctions,” which examines the emergent transnational legal order of nuclear nonproliferation. Twitter: @IranWonk

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