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Preventing a Hegemonic Iran


Published February 2, 2021

The United States’ conciliatory foreign policy approach to Iran has overlooked the hostile ideology that drives the regime. Understanding Iranian behavior begins with employing strategic empathy to fully understand the Iranian leadership’s ideology and its desire for hegemonic influence in the Middle East. The United States should improve defenses against the Iranian military and its terrorist proxies, disrupt Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, and communicate with the Iranian people to expose the regime’s corruption.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What assumptions have driven US foreign policy actions toward Iran? What are the implications of those assumptions?
  2. How have Iran’s actions since 1979 shown a desire to drive the United States out of the region?

Additional Resources:

  • Read Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, by H. R. McMaster. Learn more here.
  • Watch Battlegrounds: International Perspectives on Crucial Challenges to Security and Prosperity, a video series with H. R. McMaster. Available here.
  • Listen to “Defending the Free World,” an episode of the GoodFellows podcast with H. R. McMaster. Available here.
View Transcript

For decades, American policies toward Iran have produced disappointing results in part due to a lack of appreciation for the ideology that drives Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. Conciliatory approaches toward Iran across multiple administrations have suffered from a lack strategic empathy, a term coined by historian Zachary Shore.

The Iranian nuclear deal, adopted in 2015, is a recent example.

President Obama had hoped that relaxing sanctions would convince Iran not only to give up its nuclear program, but also to focus “more on the economy and its people.” His administration, like other administrations, hoped that if the Islamic Republic were welcomed into the international community, it would halt its four-decade long proxy war and eventually evolve into a force for stability in the Middle East.

The belief that sanctions relief would change not only the behavior but also the very nature of the regime was based on the narcissistic assumption that U.S. actions are the principal source of Iranian attitudes and behaviors.

To understand sources of Iranian behavior, there are two factors to keep in mind.

First, since 1979, the ideology of the revolution has driven the regime, an ideology that is fundamentally hostile to the United States and liberal principles.

And second, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military organization charged with preserving the revolution, want hegemonic influence in the Middle East.

Accomplishing that goal requires driving the United States out of the region. Consider a short highlight reel from Iran’s proxy war against the United States to do just that.

In 1979, revolutionaries in Tehran storm the U.S. embassy and hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

October 1983 in Lebanon, Iranian trained terrorists kill 241 servicemen in a Marine barracks. Six months earlier, a truck bombing of the U.S. embassy killed 63 people including 17 Americans.

In 1996, Iranian-backed Hezbollah detonates a truck bomb outside Khobar Tower in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American Airmen.

And beginning in 2004 in Iraq, Iranian backed militias kill over 600 American soldiers with bombs made in Iran and attack the US embassy in Baghdad.

The regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps gets away with murder because it uses proxies and because multiple U.S. administrations hoped that the Iranian regime would respond positively to a conciliatory approach.

But when Iran has moderated its behavior, it did so only in response to intense political, economic, and military pressure. Just three highlights.

Late in the 1980s when it is in shambles from the Iran-Iraq War, Iran releases all U.S. hostages.

In 2013 under pressure from sanctions, cyberattacks, covert action, and the prospect of a military strike, the regime agrees to nuclear talks.

In January 2020 a U.S. strike kills IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran’s retaliation is muted and proxy attacks diminish. Subsequently unrest spreads throughout Iran due to popular discontent and the IRGC’s accidental shoot-down of a civilian airliner.

Conciliation does not work with Iran.

The United States and likeminded partners should focus on four actions to force the Iranian regime to choose between continuing murderous proxy wars or behaving like a responsible nation. 

First, improve U.S. and partner defenses against Iranian military and terrorist capabilities until the regime ends its hostility and support for terrorists and proxy forces.

Second, impose physical and financial costs on Iran to reduce resources available for its proxy wars across the Middle East and beyond.

Third, disrupt Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, through diplomatic, economic, and other efforts. That means rejecting weak, flawed agreements like the JCPOA that could simply provide cover for a clandestine program while the regime uses profits from sanctions relief to intensify its proxy wars.  

Fourth, circumvent the regime’s firewalls to communicate with the Iranian people, expose the regime’s corruption, and reinforce growing popular sentiment for a change in the nature of a dictatorship that steals and squanders the nation’s wealth while denying people fundamental rights. 

At the end of 2019, Iranian proxies killed a U.S. citizen in Iraq and Iranian agents orchestrated an assault on the US embassy in Baghdad.  Meanwhile, Qassem Soleimani traveled the region to plan further attacks against U.S. citizens and interests. On New Years Day 2020, Ayatollah Khamenei taunted American leaders, saying “you cannot do anything.” He was wrong. There is much that America and its partners can do to force the Iranian regime to choose between ruin or ceasing its aggression abroad and its oppression of its own people.