August 23, 2012

A Cold War for Iran

U.S. grand strategy should punish aggression, engage in diplomacy, and advance American interests.

Editor’s note: What follows is an edited version of the introduction to the new book Taking on Iran, available online by clicking here.

The threat posed by Iran to international peace and security is approaching a crisis. After compiling a thirty-year record as the world’s most active state supporter of terrorism, led by its Pasadran, or Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), together with its Quds and Basij Forces, Iran seems determined to develop nuclear weapons. Its aims are not merely defensive or solely based on national pride. Iran’s rulers do seek to preserve their Islamic system, but they also plan to lead an Islamic resurgence in which Western powers would be driven from all Islamic countries. Iran has intervened in many states in pursuing these objectives. It has also attacked and threatened the U.S. and other states that interfere with its aspirations. And it calls repeatedly for wiping Israel off the face of the Earth while providing weapons to Israel’s enemies to advance that end.

 a cold war for iran by abraham sofaer  
 Illustration by Barbara Kelley

The United States has used force against Iran in only one context since the Islamic Revolution, during 1987 and 1988, after Iran attacked U.S.–flagged vessels and mined the Persian Gulf. Otherwise, the United States has tried dealing with the threat posed by Iran and its nuclear program through hoped-for “regime change,” diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, threats, negotiations, and outright appeals. All these efforts have failed to convince Iran to curb its nuclear program, or to stop supporting surrogate attacks and terrorism.

Using force to destroy or set back Iran’s nuclear program has been kept “on the table” as an option by U.S. presidents, and by Israel’s leaders. But the difficulties of justifying and successfully implementing preventive military attacks on Iran’s nuclear program are formidable, with possibly serious collateral consequences, widespread criticism, and ultimate failure.

The U.S. considered but declined to use force to prevent the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons; and while Israel successfully attacked single, poorly defended, nuclear sites in Iraq and Syria, attacking Iran’s nuclear program in a manner that significantly sets it back will prove far more challenging. Iran has promised to retaliate, moreover, in the event of an attack on its nuclear program, both directly and through its surrogates.

Attempting to contain a nuclear-armed Iran also entails dangers—some believe even greater dangers than preventive attack. Containment would require the ability successfully to deter Iran from using its nuclear weapons through some combination of economic sanctions, missile defense, and the threat of massive retaliation. But many individuals in leadership positions in Iran’s government and the IRGC are zealots who may be prepared to take great risks, and to have Iran absorb massive damage, to achieve objectives such as hegemony in the Middle East or the destruction of Israel.

Nuclear weapons may well also lead the IRGC to believe that it can even more aggressively support surrogate and terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its other enemies. And Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is likely to lead other Muslim states to pursue them, creating a far less stable and manageable situation than existed between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Hold Iran Accountable

An alternative and viable approach still exists by which the U.S. could successfully deal with Iran’s nuclear program without resorting either to preventive attacks or accepting a nuclear-armed Iran. Specifically, the U.S. could exercise its long-dormant but inherent right to defend U.S. forces, nationals, and interests from IRGC aggression.

For over thirty years U.S. administrations have failed to use force to defend against IRGC supported attacks, relying instead on sanctions, threats, and a diplomacy that has shifted wildly from refusing to negotiate with Iran to appealing to Iran’s leaders for a better relationship. Defending against IRGC aggression would provide the U.S. desirable strategic flexibility, enabling it to increase the pressure on Iran, while deferring the difficult choice between a preventive military attack and attempting to contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

Defending against Iranian-sponsored attacks and terrorism is a long overdue, practical, and principled strategic imperative. The Iranian threat to international peace and security stems, not only from its potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, but also from the IRGC’s established record of attacking or undermining its enemies through surrogate and terrorist actions. The U.S. needs to send a clear message to the IRGC and its supporters in the Iranian government that its illegal conduct will no longer be tolerated.

Defending against IRGC aggression would be necessary even if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, just as resistance to conventional Soviet threats was necessary after the Soviets acquired such weapons. Otherwise, a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to escalate the IRGC’s surrogate and terrorist attacks with even greater confidence that it will not be held accountable.

Attack the Revolutionary Guard

Responding to IRGC-sponsored attacks will be easier to justify and to accomplish successfully than preventive attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Military actions against IRGC targets related to its surrogate or terrorist attacks on the U.S. would be legally defensible, legitimate, practical, and likely to succeed. While Iran’s nuclear-related targets are specific sites that are in general well protected, and sometimes difficult to identify and attack, a broader range of appropriate and accessible targets is available to deter IRGC-sponsored surrogate and terrorist attacks. Furthermore, attacks on the IRGC are likely to reduce its power and influence, and to provoke less opposition among Iranians, than attacks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Exercising self-defense against IRGC aggression, as opposed to attacking its nuclear program, is unlikely to cause Iran to escalate its actions against the U.S. or to lose interest in negotiating with the United States. Iran, and many other states, will see an attack on its nuclear program as unprovoked, whereas limited actions against the IRGC in self-defense cannot be so characterized. The available evidence indicates, moreover, that a firm response to IRGC aggression is likely to convince Iran to reduce its unlawful activities and to increase its interest in negotiating.

In the one situation where the U.S. took military action against Iran—in the Gulf in 1987 and 1988—Iran stopped attacking U.S.-flagged vessels and laying mines; and, rather than refusing to negotiate, Iran requested that negotiations with the U.S. on claims in The Hague be continued and sought broader negotiations. And on three occasions after major U.S. military actions in Iran’s vicinity—against Iraq in 1991; against Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in 2001; and against Iraq in 2002—Iran increased its cooperation with the U.S. and sought broader engagement, apparently regarding these U.S. military initiatives as reason to take the U.S. more seriously.

Illegal IRGC actions are likely to continue, even if Iran engages in meaningful negotiations with the U.S.; the IRGC may deliberately seek to derail such efforts. But nothing in the historical record indicates that a firm response to IRGC-sponsored aggression would lead Iran’s elected leaders to respond militarily, to escalate illegal activities, or to become less rather than more interested in serious engagement.

The U.S. should end its policy of tolerating IRGC aggression even if U.S. military actions limited to defending against the IRGC were to lead Iran to escalate IRGC-supported attacks and to speed up its nuclear program. If Iran cannot be deterred from supporting its IRGC’s illegal activities, that would be an important factor to take into account in determining whether a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred from using nuclear weapons. If Iran refuses to halt the IRGC’s acts of aggression now, in response to defensive actions seeking to deter illegal conduct, it will be even less willing to curb the IRGC’s illegal activities after it possesses nuclear weapons.

Restoring U.S. Credibility

Exercising self-defense against IRGC aggression is also essential to restore U.S. credibility. The U.S. failure to respond to such conduct has undermined the prospect that Iran will treat U.S. threats to use force to end Iran’s nuclear program as credible, especially after the U.S. failure to prevent North Korea from achieving nuclear-weapons status. Iran could hardly be faulted for giving little weight to U.S. threats to use force to prevent it from possessing weapons that it does not yet possess and may never use, when the U.S. has consistently failed to use force against Iran for supplying its enemies with weapons that have actually been launched against U.S. troops, allies, and interests.

A defensive program would also, in the process, provide a useful and law-based precedent for actions in appropriate contexts aimed ultimately at discouraging proliferation of nuclear weapons. Preventive military attacks on nuclear programs are unlikely ever to be regarded as a lawful or practical way to curb nuclear-weapons aspirations.

In what situations, then, should the U.S. consider taking on Iran by defending against IRGC aggression? An instructive example is the recent IRGC plot to use a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in Washington D.C., despite the likelihood that significant collateral deaths and injuries would occur. Iran claims the U.S. charges are fabricated, but strong evidence supports the charge of attempted assassination, and the IRGC plot is strikingly similar to prior assassinations planned and conducted around the world by the IRGC.

Instead of attacking responsible IRGC individuals (who have been identified) and other appropriate targets in response to this planned attack on U.S. soil, however, the U.S. filed criminal charges unlikely ever to be enforced. Argentina, France, and Germany, for example, filed criminal charges in response to IRGC-sponsored assassinations in those countries, but those prosecutions failed to deter the IRGC, just as criminal indictments failed to deter Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from launching the attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, such charges are treated with scorn by Iran, as they were by al-Qaeda, which regularly honors and rewards those charged. Criminal enforcement is ineffective in curbing attacks by enemies who are sponsored by or given sanctuary within foreign states.

The U.S. should also make clear its intention to exercise its legal authority to treat Iran as losing its neutrality when it supplies U.S. enemies with weapons in armed conflicts. The IRGC actively assisted enemies of the U.S. in Iraq, and it continues to do so in Afghanistan. In addition, while the U.S. seems resolved to act militarily against any significant interference with international transit and safety in the Strait of Hormuz or Persian Gulf, it should amend the applicable rules of engagement there to give commanders greater discretion to protect vessels from clearly improper harassment and danger.

The U.S. could also cooperate with allies in exercising collective self-defense against IRGC aggression. Iran has unilaterally taken control of islands over which the UAE also claims sovereignty, for example. The proper manner for such disputes to be resolved is through negotiation, mediation, or arbitration, not by the exercise of superior force. The U.S. could take this matter to the UNSC for its consideration and make clear that continued IRGC aggression could lead the U.S. to assist the UAE in ensuring that the territorial dispute be resolved through law, rather than by the IRGC’s use of force.

The U.S. could also respond to requests from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or other states in the area for protection against IRGC aggression and threats, as it did to Kuwait’s request to allow its vessels in the Gulf to fly the U.S. flag during the Iraq/Iran war. The U.S. could respond to an Israeli request for cooperation in preventing the violations of international peace and security created by the IRGC-Quds Force’s arming of Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza in defiance of UNSC resolutions. A firm response to such activities might restore some credibility to UNSC resolutions adopted for the purpose of limiting terrorism and ending military confrontations.

The Cold War Model

Defending against IRGC aggression could, in addition to deterring illegal conduct, convince Iran to negotiate in earnest. Negotiating with Iran does not have to be fruitless. U.S. presidents have attempted periodically to negotiate with or appeal to Iran, but not on the basis of consistently exercised, adequate strength. Instead of responding directly to each form of IRGC misconduct, U.S. administrations have responded by refusing to negotiate or by imposing sanctions, remedies that have neither deterred the IRGC nor achieved any diplomatic progress. Ending IRGC impunity would increase the potential utility of negotiations.

Effective diplomacy depends not only on strength, but also on disciplined engagement. The practices adopted by the U.S. in conducting diplomacy successfully with the Soviet Union differ in several significant respects from those used by U.S. administrations, including President Reagan’s, in dealing with Iran. The U.S. should engage Iran on the basis of the practices applied in U.S./Soviet negotiations, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Rhetorical Restraint. President Reagan insisted that the U.S. give credit instead of “crowing” when the Soviets did something the U.S. supported, and he avoided making empty threats in response to Soviet misconduct. U.S. administrations, including President Reagan’s, have failed to credit Iran at critical points for constructive actions by its leaders, and have repeatedly made idle threats against Iran for egregious misconduct. Iran will find it difficult if not impossible to agree to anything that U.S. officials publicly insist on in advance or later declare to be negotiating victories forced upon Iran by threats.
  • Regime Engagement. President Reagan condemned the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” and predicted its demise. But he accepted the Soviet regime as a sovereign government, entitled to proper treatment in negotiations and to established privileges and immunities. By contrast, U.S. administrations and the Congress have repeatedly (and fruitlessly) predicted or sought “regime change” in Iran, and have failed to extend to Iran established diplomatic treatment and protections.
  • Limited Linkage. Rather than refusing to talk to the Soviets when they acted improperly, the Reagan administration responded in some concrete manner to each aspect of Soviet misconduct, while continuing negotiations that served U.S. interests. Soviet misconduct was so persistent at that time that linking the willingness of the U.S. to negotiate to improvements in Soviet behavior would have precluded effective diplomacy. Similarly, defending against IRGC aggression could enable the U.S. to deal with Iran in the same manner that proved to be effective in dealing with the Soviet Union, responding in kind to IRGC aggression while continuing negotiations that serve U.S. interests.
  • Broad Agenda. The U.S. and the Soviet Union negotiated on the full range of issues between them: arms control; human rights; regional matters; and bilateral relations. This practice enhanced the prospect of progress by allowing each side to pursue its objectives on all issues. In dealing with Iran, however, the U.S. and its allies have conditioned the implementation of agreements reached on non-nuclear issues on Iran’s acceptance of nuclear-related demands. The U.S. has as a result underestimated the importance given by Iran to the resolution of its major claims in The Hague. The U.S. has litigated vigorously instead of pursuing compromises that serve the financial interests of both parties and could swiftly remove this irritant from the already challenging differences the parties face.
  • Forum Flexibility. Negotiations were undertaken by the U.S. with the Soviets at all levels of government, but much of the crucial work was done in confidential exchanges. Few confidential negotiations have been undertaken by the U.S. with Iran on political issues; instead, negotiations are widely publicized, and usually preceded with public displays by each side of its demands. Such negotiations have occasionally established the basis for enhanced UNSC sanctions, but they undermine the prospects for resolving differences by exacerbating domestic pressures on both sides against compromise.

In sum, taking on Iran cannot safely be restricted to a strategy based on economic sanctions and ineffective diplomacy. The risk that current U.S. policy will fail is too great, and the consequences too serious, to use it as the exclusive way of dealing with the Iranian threat short of attacking Iran’s nuclear program.

Instead, the U.S. should exercise its right to respond to IRGC aggression. Taking on the IRGC will increase the likelihood that Iran will negotiate in earnest, and will enable the U.S. in turn to engage Iran in the disciplined manner required for success. Effective diplomacy based on strength is the most likely formula for avoiding the highly undesirable options of attacking Iran’s nuclear program or accepting and attempting to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. 


Abraham D. Sofaer, who served as legal adviser to the US Department of State from 1985 to 1990, was appointed the first George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution in 1994. Sofaer's work focuses on the power over war within the US government and on issues related to international law, terrorism, diplomacy, and national security. His most recent books are Taking on Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat (Hoover Institution Press, 2013) and The Best Defense?: Legitimacy and Preventive Force (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).

His research papers are available at the Hoover Institution Archives.


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