The United States faces many dangers, but none are more grave than the development of working thermonuclear missiles by rogue states. Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) held a meeting of senior officials following the DPRK’s apparently successful test of what may well have been a thermonuclear weapon. Reportedly, the DPRK is stockpiling nuclear material for Iran as a workaround to the limits imposed by the Iran Deal. Iran, meanwhile, has been continuing advanced ballistic missile tests in spite of UN Security Council resolutions forbidding such activity. The most probable conclusion is that the two countries are pursuing a joint policy, one developing a thermonuclear warhead and the other moving the ball on delivery systems.
Until last week’s possible thermonuclear test by the DPRK, the Security Studies Group (SSG) argued that Iran should be first on the list for action. The basic approach to Iran we would suggest is unchanged, and preserved below. However, the development of thermonuclear capacity by the DPRK may alter the timetable as to which of these nations needs to be dealt with first. Thermonuclear weapons, also known as fusion bombs, are vastly more powerful than atomic weapons such as those used against Japan in World War II. The capacity to field such weapons is a powerful threat.
The most important fact to remember is that the DPRK and Iran are a joint threat. Most probably they have a unified policy, and are sharing secrets and technologies with one another. Even if that level of cooperation is more limited than it appears, however, each will learn lessons from the fate of the other in terms of how safe it is to pursue nuclear missiles. Dealing with the DPRK can be a partial solution to Iran, as it will teach Iran and the world crucial lessons about how far the United States will permit weapons proliferation by rogue states. All the same Iran must be challenged across several fronts, as the paper below explores.
We need a comprehensive strategy to stop Iranian efforts to become a nuclear power, oppose their play for regional hegemony and address their support for terrorism. It is time to accept there is no accommodation with the current authoritarian theocratic government and return to a policy of supporting the Iranian people in seeking a new form of government.
The Iranian regime exerts influence using the following threat vectors:
- Nuclear Weapons & Missile Programs
- Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps & Quds Force
- Terror financing and ideological indoctrination
- Weapons and Narco-trafficking
The main geographic areas where their influence is a concern:
Issues where US and Iranian goals are in direct conflict:
- Iran Nuclear Deal
- Iraq/Syria End Game
- Qatar Blockade
- Yemen proxy war
These issues are all interconnected, and US decisions and actions on each will cause Iranian reactions that could be aimed at affecting any of the others. US policy should be aimed at containing Iranian expansion, rolling back Iranian influence, stopping improper economic partnerships and most importantly ensuring it does not achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. The ideal end state is a new form of government in Iran that ends these policies.
The first step should be a refusal to recertify the Iran Nuclear Deal for non-compliance packaged with the toughest sanctions possible. The other immediate need is to limit Iranian influence on the post-ISIS plans for Iraq and Syria. These will create tremendous challenges, but failure to act could be catastrophically worse.
Iranian Threat Vectors
Nuclear Weapons & Missile Programs
The premier threat posed by Iran is their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development program. There is a wide array of opinion on how serious Iran is about obtaining a nuclear device and the progress of the program. There is less argument about the ballistic missile program, as the Iranians seem to go out of their way to show it off.
Security Studies Group (SSG) believes the regime is set on acquiring nuclear weapons and cannot be trusted to refrain from using them if they are successful. As evidence, the ballistic missiles they are so intent on developing are characterized by relatively small payloads and limited accuracy. Only with nuclear warheads would such missiles be worth the investment Iran is making in them. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did much less than promised to slow this down, and in some ways acted as an accelerant by providing economic relief and a renewed capacity for the smuggling of foreign technology.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) & Quds Force
These paramilitary forces are tools of the Iranian theocracy, and their primary mission is to protect the Islamic revolution in Iran. Though this mission is characterized as defensive, they have frequently carried it out offensively through expansionist efforts. These include the development of Shi’a militias loyal to Iran throughout the region, and the defense of dependent proxy states such as Syria and Yemen. The IRGC has extensive business operations to finance and provide cover for their illicit activities and also runs a large criminal network. The IRGC is involved in almost all aggressive activities Iran conducts.
Terror financing and ideological indoctrination
The Iranian regime funds many of the worst terror groups in the world. Some of these, like Hezbollah and Hamas, also have social outreach and assistance programs. The Iranians use these as a way to conduct Islamist indoctrination. The infusions of cash and return of the regime to the international banking system from the Iran Deal have facilitated and increased their funding activities. Also important to recruitment and ideological development is Iran’s commitment to defending Shi’a Islamic holy sites, and Shi’ite Islam in general, against alleged threats. Many of these come from Sunni forces like ISIS, or Sunni states like Saudi Arabia. They also claim the United States is a threat to these as well.
Weapons and Narco-trafficking
The IRGC produces much of the conventional weaponry manufactured in Iran and uses this as a source of cash generation as well as a method to gain allies. The weapons find their way to terror groups and others who help them destabilize adversaries. It is a major player in international opium smuggling and uses this illicit cash to fund its other operations. They also provide transshipment of opium from Afghanistan to Lebanese Hezbollah, which uses it to create heroin for the international drug market. This gives Iranian terror networks direct access to drug cartels operating in the Americas.
Geographic areas of influence
Iran has always had strong ties with the Shi’ite population in Iraq. Their status as members of that sect and their direct proximity to Iraq allowed them to host Shi’ite refugees during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Many of those who sheltered in Iran are now leading figures in Iraq. The precipitous US withdrawal during the Obama administration’s first term both allowed Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership to act on its worst impulses toward minority groups, and also provided Iran unrestricted opportunities to dominate Iraq.
That has only increased during the counter-ISIS operations. The Iranians have nurtured Shi’a militias who have been a major part of this clearing mission. They have had advisors and even direct command and control from the IRGC’s Quds Force. They have conducted sectarian reprisals against the Sunni populace. The militias have shown little regard for civilian casualties. They also openly declare support for Iran’s theocracy instead of Iraq’s secular government, ensuring that Iran has a capacity to control Iraq even when Iraq’s government would prefer to act independently.
The support Iran has given to Shi’a militias across much of Iraq will greatly complicate de-militarization as the counter-ISIS campaign winds down.
Russian and Iranian support has kept their proxy, Bashar al-Assad, in power. Iran has backed Hezbollah’s combat operations in support of the Assad regime, providing IRGC troops and advisers and raising auxiliary units of volunteers from Afghanistan and other areas.
Iran has long sought to dominate a road to the Mediterranean Sea. The demise of ISIS will create a vacuum they will try to use to fulfill this goal.
Geographic areas of influence
Iran has been supplying and assisting the Taliban for years and continues to do so in order to keep the United States bogged down there. They also have a substantial commitment to Shi’a populations in Afghanistan. The IRGC’s criminal aspect is a key smuggler of opium from Afghanistan into the Middle East.
Iran’s assistance to America’s enemies in Afghanistan not only advances their own interests, but those of other authoritarian regimes. America’s ground lines of communication, through which our forces in Afghanistan are supplied and kept fed, are under the physical control of Russia and Pakistan. The larger the American deployment in Afghanistan, the more of our forces must be fed and supplied, and thus the greater the pressure Russia and Pakistan can put on America by closing our supply lines. Iran’s efforts in Afghanistan thus make America subject to increased pressure from authoritarian regimes.
President Trump gave a jump start to the Saudi and United Arab Emirate (UAE) move against Qatar when he forged a counterterrorism alliance at the summit in Riyadh. Iran’s relationship with Qatar is a key motivator of the Gulf Arab blockade and Iran has been supporting Qatar in attempts to end it.
This conflict puts two US allies —both Qatar and Turkey, which has fallen into authoritarianism under President Erdogan —on the side of Iran, and against the Gulf Arab states that President Trump has pledged to support. US treaty obligations to both Qatar and Turkey will be troublesome if the conflict escalates between the Saudi-led Gulf Arabs and the Turkey, Iran, Qatar coalition. There is a danger of significant stress on American treaty networks, as well as the danger that Iran will succeed in peeling both Qatar and Turkey away from the United States.
Iranian support for Houthi rebels against Saudi and UAE backed forces in Yemen has been a potential flashpoint for a while. Currently, it is mostly proxies fighting. However, the Gulf States have put troops on the ground; and, the Houthi have access to Iranian missiles and rockets which they have fired against Gulf States and US Navy ships. The Qatar crisis adds another potential collision with Iranian-backed forces or potentially IRGC forces. This is part of a larger battle for regional dominance between the Iranians and the Gulf Arabs.
Direct conflicts between US and Iranian goals
The danger zones for US interactions with Iran are numerous with great potential for trouble. Since 1979, Iran’s government has been marked by a preference for escalation so US policy should be built around an expectation they will act forcefully in response to our moves.
Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA)
US policy should be to disengage from this deal in the most expeditious manner possible. The justification must be well publicized. There will be a withering public information counterattack by the Iran lobby, the institutional left in the US and abroad, and Obama loyalists. Exposing the misinformation, lies, and malfeasance that allowed this deal to ever be made will be a strong antidote to this.
There are a number of tactics the President can use to end our participation:
- Submit JCPOA to the Senate as a treaty
- Refuse to recertify based on serial non-compliance
- Move via executive order to withdraw based ion Iranian violations
- Renegotiate with Iran
The last option is the least likely to succeed as the Iranians have no reason to negotiate in good faith because the existing deal front-loaded the benefits to Iran, leaving them with nothing to lose by being difficult. Submitting the deal to the Senate as a treaty has a certain elegance, and would actually remedy a major attack by President Obama on Constitutional Separation of Powers. The other two options are versions of the same valid complaint that the Iranians have not meaningfully complied with the deal.
Any move to take away this deal, which Iran rightly considers a victory, will certainly be met with a flurry of public protestations but also activation of proxies and other Iranian assets to cause problems for the US. They can present these anywhere the US has interests and create considerable havoc. Contingency plans to protect US assets must be prepared and plans to preempt the Iranian plans or retaliate must be ready for immediate action.
Iraq/Syria End Game
The end of kinetic operations against ISIS is a milestone that comes with significant challenges to meet or a year or two down the road Sunni Insurgency Mark III will be in effect (I. al Qaeda in Iraq, II. ISIS). These include reintegrating the Sunni regions ISIS destroyed into the states of Iraq and Syria. SSG believes success is unlikely and recommends a protectorate for these areas until rebuilding and some self-determination for the people can occur.
Iran has been in the forefront of the counter-ISIS operations both directly with the Iraqi government and military and as supplier, adviser and often in command of Shi’a militias. They have done much the same in Syria, and the IRGC has lost more than 1000 personnel in these conflicts. Iran will not want to give up what was gained in blood by disbanding local militias trained to be more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad or Damascus.
The goal of a Shi’ite Crescent from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea is not merely a fantasy to the Mullahs of Iran and their IRGC and Quds Force. They have seeded the path to the Mediterranean with these Shi’a militias, and demilitarizing them will be difficult if even possible at all. Any successful reconstruction and reintegration of Iraq’s Sunni areas will have to deal with the massive sectarian slaughter and looting conducted by these militias. The Sunni populace will hold the Baghdad government and its Iranian allies responsible for this. They may also hold the United States to blame, given the precipitous withdrawal of US forces that exposed them to the Iranians and their militias; and, US participation in the clearing operations.
Changing the balance of influence with the Iraqi government from Iran’s favor to the United States will be a major challenge. The belief in Baghdad that US policy is turning against Iran after 8 years of promoting it will be helpful in this regard. But Iran has been building its alliances for 40 years. They do not have the reputation for abandoning allies for political purposes, which the United States did by removing combat forces at the beginning of the Obama administration.
Iran’s ability to disrupt any effort to create stability or peace is strong in both Syria and Iraq and this may be their area of choice if pressured by US rejection of the Iran Nuclear Deal.
The US needs a new approach to Iran which recognizes them as an active antagonist not a potential partner for peace.
The Iran Deal recertification process offers an opportunity to cite Iranian provocations in the 90-day window before the next certification. Iran’s response to an American declaration that they have not been compliant has the potential to be violent. American military forces must start preparing immediately for the consequences Iran is already threatening.
Iran must be stopped at all costs from establishing the land bridge to the Levant. The counter-ISIS end game, and the end of the civil war in Syria, must be built around a clear strategy of denying Iran either direct control, or control through proxy states, of any straight line from its borders to and across Syria.
Iranian militias within Syria and Iraq will need to be isolated in order to provide Iraq’s government any capacity for independence from Iran. This will require the presence of counterpoised forces, either Coalition or peacekeepers from governments that are not friendly to Iran.
The United States should also begin working to facilitate replacement of the Iranian regime in the longer term. This should not be conceived as a military operation, but as a whole of government approach built first and foremost around diplomacy and intelligence work. The Security Studies Group has a strategy to offer under separate cover for professionals working in classified environments.