he attractiveness of applying to Iran the set of policies that caused the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s, often called the “Victory Strategy,” is obvious. The strategy produced the most desirable possible end to the Cold War—victory for the United States and its allies without a major direct conflict with the Soviet Union. Similarities between Iran and the Soviet Union make it reasonable to assess that applying a similar set of policies would yield a similar result. That assessment may indeed be accurate, and some variant of the strategy is almost certainly the correct policy to pursue against Iran today.
But important structural, ideological, experiential, and personal factors strongly distinguish the conditions today from those at the end of the Cold War. These differences may result in the failure of the Victory Strategy; they will almost certainly mean that even the successful implementation of that approach will follow a very different, and most likely a much bloodier, course.
These differences do not mean the U.S. should not adopt a properly adjusted variant of the Victory Strategy, however. That strategy will have positive effects in most areas of concern to U.S. policy even if it does not achieve the overall goal of causing the peaceful transition of the current Iranian regime. The reason to reflect on the differences is thus not to advise against the strategy, but rather to temper expectations of its likely results and suggest ways of adjusting its implementation to optimize its effects against this particular adversary.
The Victory Strategy succeeded as well as it did because of one man. That man was not Ronald Reagan, its architect, but rather Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, its ultimate victim. The Soviet Union did not fall because it lost the ability to oppress its own population or even the Warsaw Pact countries—nor did it ever lose the ability to deter the U.S. and its allies from intervening militarily to interfere with that oppression. It fell relatively peacefully and bloodlessly in the end because Gorbachev did not have the will to spill blood on the scale necessary to retain power. “We are told that we should pound the fist on the table,” Gorbachev reportedly said, as quoted in Leon Aron’s Roads to the Temple. “Generally speaking, it could be done. But one does not feel like it.”
The fall of the Soviet Union thus resulted from the same thing that has caused the relatively peaceful collapse of other authoritarian states. The Islamic Republic itself arose from a similar loss of will by the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s. In both cases, the dictator chose not to order his security forces to crush mass protests—after limited experiments demonstrated that he would have to kill thousands or tens of thousands of his subjects to succeed—long before those forces lost the ability or willingness to do so. The likelihood that the current leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran will lose the will to kill their own people is therefore a critical variable in determining whether the Iranian regime is likely to follow a path similar to that of the Soviet Union when pressured maximally.
There is every reason to believe that the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will not lose his will. A veteran himself of the horrendously bloody Iran–Iraq War, Khamenei has ordered his security forces to kill his people on numerous occasions, including most dramatically during the protests following the rigged 2009 election. But Khamenei is old and ill, and his successor is still unnamed and has possibly not even been selected. Much will depend on his successor’s willingness to kill his people, a variable we cannot assess with any confidence without knowing who he will be.
The age of the Islamic Republic and its leaders is another important difference from the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Khamenei is 79 years old, but the leaders of the security forces and military are around 60. All were adults at the time of the Iranian Revolution and all fought in the revolution and then in the war against Saddam Hussein in the ’80s. The victors of the revolution are still running Iran today and, at least on the side of the security forces, likely for some time.
The Islamic Republic itself is only four decades old and is on only its second leader. It is generationally similar to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, therefore, under Nikita Khrushchev, its third leader. He had also fought in the Russian Revolution and the civil war that brought the Soviet Union into existence. The chief of the general staff of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Marshal Vasilii Danilovich Sokolovskii, was about the same age as Khrushchev and with similar experiences. The demographics of the Iranian leadership today thus mirror those of the Soviet leadership of the 1950s much more closely than those of the 1980s.
The generational and demographic divergence is important for several reasons. Those who participate in revolutions are generally more truly committed to the revolutionary ideals than those who grow up in subsequent generations. They remember the pre-revolutionary situation against which they fought. They had consciously chosen to adhere to revolutionary ideology in the face of stronger competing ideas. They risked their lives in what initially seemed a forlorn cause and triumphed over heavy odds. Most of all, they killed a lot of people and lost a lot of friends in the battles to bring their ideology to power. They are less likely than any subsequent generation willingly to see their regime collapse without fighting for it.
The Soviet leadership of the 1950s had also directly participated in the crucible event that shaped the USSR to the end—the Second World War. That war played a role in Soviet (and Russian) emotion and thought that was similar to that played by the Iran–Iraq War (which the Iranians call “the Imposed War”) among Iranians.
Gorbachev was of a different generation entirely. Born in 1931, he was still a child when the Second World War ended and, of course, did not participate at all in the Russian Revolution, which ended two decades before his birth. His ideology and that of his closest advisers and helpers was much more abstract, involuntarily adopted, and not bound with any deeply emotional or crucible events. He could (and did) allow it to collapse in part because it was not remotely as central to his soul as it had been to his earlier predecessors.
Iran is thus unlikely to see a leader open to accepting the collapse or fundamental transformation of the current regime and its ideology until an entirely new generation takes power—and that is unlikely to occur any time soon.
The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted not merely form Gorbachev’s ultimate humanity, but also from a massive miscalculation. Gorbachev initiated the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) in the belief that moderately empowering Soviet citizens would allow him to break the bureaucratic stranglehold of dishonesty that was, he thought, destroying the Soviet economy. It never occurred to him that the citizenry would turn not on the mid-level bureaucrats who were his target, but rather on the regime itself.
To understand Gorbachev’s reasoning (and illuminate another difference between the Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic), we must briefly consider the trajectory of Soviet economic collapse over the course of its seven decades. The USSR industrialized on a centralized, socialist, anti-market economic model. The only thing approaching a free market was the black market. The Soviet leaders needed to find a way to get their subjects to perform economic functions without the incentives of a market or any of the normal rewards available for good or excellent economic performance in a market economy. They experimented sequentially with three different methods.
Joseph Stalin relied on the blood purge. In order to instill terror, he knowingly ordered his security services to arrest and kill innocent people in addition to those actually accused of some ideological crime. He relied on that terror to prevent people from conspiring to deceive him and his subordinates or to shirk their economic duties in any noticeable way. It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of this approach because of the vast economic disruptions caused by Stalin’s horrific collectivization policies in the 1930s and because the Nazi invasion of 1941 generated a real zeal among many Soviet citizens to help Stalin in the fight against the Germans.
Stalin’s successors, however, judged the blood purge too high a price to pay for economic performance. Khrushchev, therefore, ended the practice and instead initiated a policy known as “rotation of cadres.” The principle was that economic managers were shifted from one side of the vast country to another on a regular basis and leadership teams were regularly disrupted in order to prevent the formation of friendships and trust relationships that would facilitate conspiracies to defraud the state or shirk responsibilities.
Even this much milder approach was resented (naturally) by the cadres who preferred not to be rotated into and out of the wilds of Siberia and elsewhere. Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Khrushchev, therefore introduced the policy of “stability of cadres.” Leadership teams and managers remained in place. Unsurprisingly, Brezhnev’s reign (1964 to 1981) saw a skyrocketing of outrageous corruption, inefficiency, and economic disease of all varieties, plunging the Soviet economy into a period of stagnation and, by the early 1980s, obvious decline. This was the Soviet economy that Reagan’s Victory Strategy confronted.
Brezhnev’s Politburo colleagues had concluded even before his death that they needed to try something else. Two hardline leaders, Defense Ministry Dmitrii Ustinov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, therefore decided to back a nascent reform movement that had emerged within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the previous decades under the leadership of Yuri Andropov. They supported Andropov’s succession to the premiership in 1981, but Andropov was by then old and unwell, and his initial modest attempts at reform (primarily an anti-alcoholism campaign) got nowhere. Ustinov died in 1984, but Gromyko helped support Andropov’s protégé, Gorbachev, in a razor-thin ballot that brought him to power in 1985 on a reform platform similar to Andropov’s.
Gorbachev immediately began to implement that platform by lifting the Soviet censorship restrictions to allow citizens to identify corrupt officials. He felt it necessary to do so because the entire Soviet apparatus had become so corrupt and dishonest by the 1980s that he could not himself hold any of his subordinates to account.
None of this history parallels that of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian regime never tried to eliminate the free market. It has, instead, distorted and hijacked it by concentrating wealth in a number of de facto state-owned enterprises, the supreme leader’s personal holdings, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters, and the many companies owned openly or covertly by the IRGC and other regime officials. The regime openly debates the merits of strengthening or at least retaining this government-caused distortion or privatizing some of these holdings, and has no need to call on its people to tell it anything about these matters. The regime could therefore change its policies in ways that would strengthen its ailing economy at will without necessarily raising existential questions—it would involve, rather, harming the perquisites and prerogatives of powerful factions within the regime, which is why it has not hitherto occurred.
Why did the lifting of censorship in the Soviet Union lead so quickly to mass protests? Because the depth and pervasiveness of that censorship far exceeded anything that Iran has ever known. Soviet censorship had been so heavy and effective that the majority of Soviet citizens did not know about the purges, collectivization, or the reasons for the catastrophic losses suffered at the hands of the Nazis. They did not even know the degree to which their personal sufferings were matched by the sufferings of almost all of their fellow citizens. The revelation of all of these facts, which became the focus of journalism and research in the late 1980s, caused a collective shock, as Aron eloquently argues. It also created massive survivor guilt, as Soviet peoples had to come to terms with the degree to which they had benefited from the horrific things done to their neighbors and relatives in earlier days.
They also had to confront the destruction of the hero-myth of the Second World War—that Stalin had courageously saved them from obliteration at the hands of the Nazis—and its replacement by the true picture of Stalin as Hitler’s dupe whose incompetence and arrogance nearly led them to complete destruction. These sudden shocks traumatized Soviet citizens even as glasnost allowed in, for the first time, a vision of an attractive alternative Western model of democracy and free markets they had never before glimpsed. All of these factors together created the volcanic pressure against the Soviet regime that Gorbachev ultimately chose not to crush.
It is hard to imagine anything that could generate such shocks among the Iranian population. Islamic Republic censorship has never approached Soviet levels, and the regime has not prevented its people from traveling to and from other lands as the Soviets did. Iranians are generally aware, therefore, of what life is like in other countries and other systems. Neither has the regime lied so extensively and effectively to its people about its past. Few Iranians probably understand the depths of incompetence and inhumanity that accompanied the human-wave tactics used against Saddam Hussein, but most probably know in general terms that they occurred.
The extent to which the regime’s own policies, including its determination to develop the means of building a nuclear-weapons arsenal, has created the economic isolation that so harms them may also be news to some Iranians, but, again, the general outlines of that reality probably are not. Even if solving the regime’s economic problems required reducing its oppression of its population, and it probably does not, there is no reason to think that such a reduction would generate the kind of systemic shock that blasted the Soviet system in a few years.
The collapse of the Soviet economy just as the U.S. economy entered a boom phase directly undermined Soviet ideology in a way that a parallel development would not affect the Islamic Republic’s ideology. Marxism-Leninism is at its heart an economic idea. All its political, cultural, and security components stem from the notion that Western capitalism is both unjust and doomed to ultimate failure, collapse, and self-destruction. Soviet leaders who believed anything of the ideology had to believe that their economic model was—or could be made to be—superior to that of their adversaries. As that belief was clearly falsified, defense of the entire ideology became extremely difficult. The Victory Strategy, therefore, struck directly and straightforwardly at the center of gravity of the basis for the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of its most stalwart ideologues. The effectiveness of that strategy thus dealt Soviet leaders a confusing blow to which they found it impossible to respond effectively.
The Islamic Republic’s ideology has virtually no significant economic component. It is an amalgam of anti-colonialism (transformed into anti-Americanism), anti-Zionism, Persian nationalism, and adherence to an idiosyncratic form of political Shiism. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini knew little about economics and cared less. His advisers, subordinates, and successors experimented with economic policies they thought might accord with the new revolutionary situation (Marxist thought influenced a significant element of the Iranian revolutionary elite) but never came to any clear consensus on what such policies might be.
Khamenei has largely created the current government and economy of the Islamic Republic, but he has not enshrined its economic principles at the heart of the ideology. The articulation of his own economic policy in the form of the “Resistance Economy” doctrine, on the contrary, derives economic principles from core regime ideological principles heavily influenced by experience and the state of the world. Economic failure in Iran does not directly undermine any central ideological pillar, but rather hits one of the governance realms in which the regime has the most liberty to mutate. Believing in Communism demanded believing in a centralized economy without a market. Believing in velayat-e faqih (“the authority of the jurist”) does not require believing in the centrality of the enterprises owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Another major difference between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union lies in the shape of the institutions of power. The center of Soviet power, governance, and ideology was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Party pervaded all aspects of Soviet governance and security structures and many aspects of society. It controlled the military, the internal security services, economic organs, and, of course, the government, but indirectly through the fact that leaders in all of those organizations were also members of the CPSU and therefore took orders from the Party’s general secretary and Politburo.
The revolt against Soviet ideology in the 1980s focused sharply on the Party itself, whereas the Red Army kept itself largely aloof from the struggle. Even the KGB managed to distance itself from the Party’s collapse and emerge with a continuity of cadres as renamed and reorganized security services in the democratic Russian Federation of the 1990s. The fact that the Party was ultimately separable from the institutions of population control and even oppression meant that those institutions were ultimately willing to watch it collapse, hoping to retake power over time or adjust in some beneficial (to them) way in a post-Soviet environment.
There is no equivalent to the Party in Iran. The closest thing is the IRGC, which runs the Basij Resistance Force. The Basij is a weird amalgam of what the Soviets would regard as Primary Party Organizations, the KGB, the Communist Youth Union (Komsomol), and paramilitary forces. The IRGC is, by the constitution of the Islamic Republic and in practice, the defender of the revolutionary ideology by arms and by word. It is a military organization. It is also a vast economic empire. It generates and spreads revolutionary ideology. It is an intelligence organization that monitors the Iranian people as well as foreign states. And it is an internal security force. Yet with all of this direct power and control, it remains subordinate to the supreme leader and often has a contentious relationship with the formal governmental structures in Iran under the president and parliament. It is a sui generis organization.
The IRGC cannot survive the passing of the regime. Any new government in Iran that is not an Islamic Republic built on the principles described above could not tolerate the continued existence of an organization so steeped in those principles with the military, intelligence, and economic capabilities the Guards now have. Any threat to the regime is therefore an existential threat to the IRGC in a way that a threat to the Soviet regime was not an existential threat to the Red Army or even, as it happens, the KGB. It is very difficult therefore to imagine a scenario in which the IRGC steps aside or otherwise allows a supreme leader or anyone else to dismantle the Islamic Republic without trying to stop it, by massive force if necessary.
Another important institutional difference means that the Guards may well be able indeed to stop such an attempt, as they have accrued much more power relative to any other forces in Iran than any single organ in the Soviet Union ever did. The Soviet leadership mistrusted armed forces. It therefore set up mechanized formations within the KGB and the Ministry of Interior (MVD) and positioned one KGB, one MVD, and one Red Army division approximately equidistant from Moscow itself. The Red Army was, of course, much larger and better equipped than either of the two security services—but its ranks were also thoroughly penetrated both by the Party apparatus and by the KGB itself.
The Iranian security services are similarly divided on paper—for in addition to the IRGC’s internal and operational military components, Iran maintains a conventional army, navy, and air force known as the Artesh, and a paramilitary national policy force known as the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) under the control of the Interior Ministry.
The similarities end there, however. The Artesh forces are deployed along Iran’s borders and are in no position to contest an IRGC military takeover effort, and the IRGC has been steadily moving toward parity with the Artesh in terms of straight-up military capability. The LEF does not have any real military capability and would stand no chance against either. The absence of any equivalent of the CPSU outside the IRGC, moreover, means that the regime largely lacks the pervasive observation, reporting, and control mechanisms that ensured the loyalty of the Red Army and KGB, even as the KGB also checked that of the Red Army. The nearest equivalent would be the supreme leader’s representatives to the various elements of the IRGC (and other institutions), but it does not appear that those individuals have anything like the pervasiveness or technical capability to monitor, disrupt, and control potential subversion, especially since the IRGC’s cyber capabilities are much greater. If the IRGC leadership decided to take effective control of the government, including of the supreme leader, therefore, it seems that it could probably do so.
That observation requires one significant caveat. The IRGC combat formations rely heavily on elements of the Basij to fill out their ranks. It is not clear that the IRGC could wage internal or external war effectively on any large scale if the militarized Basij units did not rally to its banner. It has, on the other hand, partially staffed the most combat-ready of those Basij units with IRGC personnel and has clearly labored to ensure their loyalty and subservience. But the 2009 Green Movement oppression clearly demonstrated that some less-well-trained Basij units could not be relied on to kill protesters in the areas from which they were recruited. The relationship between the IRGC leadership and the mass of the Basij, therefore, is one potential critical vulnerability if a way could be found to exploit it.
what the iranian regime will do
Implementing a strategy of maximum pressure—a Victory Strategy suitably adjusted for Iran—would exacerbate Iranian economic dysfunction to a high degree while simultaneously reducing the resources the regime could use either to buy off or oppress its population. Such a strategy could fuel the ongoing low-level popular protests and discontent and fan them into a mass protest movement that challenged regime stability and survival, although it is not inevitable that economic crisis obviously caused by hostile action of external foes would necessarily have this effect.
What would the regime do?
It would certainly repeat its actions in previous protests—IRGC-led Basij forces working with up-gunned and better-trained LEF would disrupt and put down the protests, using whatever level of violence was necessary to do so. The regime might also attempt to make certain limited economic concessions to peel apart the protesters, as it has done recently. If the situation became dire, the regime might consider attempting to focus popular discontent on the elected government, which could serve as a sort of blow-out panel to release some of the pressure. Since the elected government does not actually control anything vital, from the regime’s perspective, it can be cast aside if necessary.
It is almost impossible to imagine the current regime leadership losing the will to kill, nor is there any reason to think that the IRGC itself and the most IRGC-like of the Basij units would detach themselves from the regime and stand aside or join the protesters. The Artesh is similarly unlikely to join the protesters, and the regime probably would not attempt to use the Artesh to quell them anyway. Mass protests would therefore be hard-pressed to find the quantities of people trained in warfare and the use of advanced weapons, let alone equipped with them, that fueled the most deadly (to leaders) of the Arab Spring uprisings. The likeliest outcome of a mass protest movement at this stage in Iran’s history, therefore, would be bloody suppression and the reconsolidation of regime control. Any sort of Soviet-style collapse scenario seems extremely far-fetched.
It is also important to recognize that, the arguments of some excellent Iran analysts notwithstanding, the IRGC does not yet control the regime—but it could. Hitting Iran with a strategy of maximum pressure at the moment of the supreme leader’s succession, for instance, or at some other moment of distraction or weakness could tip the IRGC leadership in the direction of deciding to take control (although the Guards would likely attempt to maintain the fiction of serving some supreme leader for ideological reasons even if they did, in fact, take power). Such a development could radicalize the regime’s foreign policies even more while simultaneously forcing the principal executors of those policies to spend much more time and resources on internal control.
The regime’s economic response to an implementation of a Victory Strategy would also diverge from the Soviet response to Reagan. When Reagan took office, the Soviet leadership was just experimenting with the idea of economic reform. As his policies simultaneously pressured the Soviet Union and raised the bar for competing with the United States, the Soviet leadership moved more frantically into stages of trying to catalyze an economic renaissance without fully thinking through the possible consequences.
Iran’s leaders, by contrast, have been aware of their economic crises for some time. President Hassan Rouhani drafted the “Resistance Strategy” for Khamenei when he was still Khamenei’s adviser. Rouhani’s entire internal political platform has revolved around implementing his interpretation of that strategy. Rouhani’s interpretation diverges sharply from the supreme leader’s—the president seeks to integrate Iran deeply into the international community as a way of making it too painful for the international community ever to sanction Iran again, while the supreme leader seeks an autarky that would make future sanctions irrelevant. Both have thought their positions through very carefully for years and have observed the effects of various attempts to implement them.
But Rouhani has become widely discredited not only in the eyes of the regime, but among the Iranian people as well, even including the reformists. He has become the target of criticism from across the spectrum, and it is noteworthy that the most recent protests were against him and his government as well as against the hardliners. It seems likely that his ideas of reform and economic change are being discredited along with him. The normal Iranian political pattern, moreover, would see a hardliner president succeed this reformer (as has happened in previous elections when the incumbent could not run again). Iran seems set, therefore, to move back into a pattern of autarkic and oppressive governance and economic policy rather than into a serious policy of reform.
Autarkic and repressive economic policy will do great harm to the Iranian economy and may hasten its ultimate collapse regardless of Western pressure. Increasing Western pressure will likely exacerbate that trend. But as the Soviets, North Korea, Cuba, and other heavily sanctioned dysfunctional economies have shown, a government that does not lose the will to oppress can very likely survive economic crises of a massive scale.
The U.S. should therefore proceed on the assumption that no amount of external pressure will cause the rapid collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but that such pressure could instigate a large-scale bloody crackdown that initially strengthens the control of the IRGC and other extremists. A Victory Strategy will require patience and a tolerance for having things get worse initially rather than better. Conditions within the U.S policy community and among the American people do not appear to be set to handle such a development well.
We must also consider one final critical difference that could lead to the complete failure of any Victory Strategy. The Soviet Union was by far the largest and most powerful state that was not in the Western alliance. When it weakened and teetered, there was no other state to which it could turn for help. That is not true in Iran’s case. If Tehran is able to weld suitably strong ties with China and Russia, for example, both are strong and wealthy enough to give Iran a lifeline if they so choose (although Russia probably could not and would not do so on its own). Iran is, in this respect, somewhat more like North Korea than like the Soviet Union—it can probably survive as an economic client if it can persuade a great power to patronize it while it tries to wait out the “Victory” strategy.
And the Victory Strategy will fail quickly, of course, if the U.S. loses the ability to sustain a united front toward Iran with the Europeans. The collapse of a strong Western alliance against Iran will allow too much capital and intellectual property into the Iranian economy to lead to the kind of pressure on this determined and still ideological regime that would cause it to collapse. Scale matters here. Trickles of resources into the Soviet Union were irrelevant in the face of its economic decline, but relatively small amounts of money and know-how can make a large difference in the ability of Iran’s much smaller economy and military to stay alive.
The most important conclusion of all is, therefore, the most unpalatable. Any attempt to replicate the Victory Strategy against Iran probably requires establishing that strategy as the accepted policy on both sides of the political aisle in the U.S. and on both sides of the Atlantic. The time likely required for a maximum-pressure approach to succeed is long enough that this presidency would probably be able only to set conditions for its success to hand over to a successor or maybe even multiple successors. This administration, therefore, must strive to avoid the enormous error of its predecessor—implementing a unilateral policy without obtaining cross-party and (in this case) international support that a subsequent president simply reverses or weakens.
how to formulate a victory strategy
The ultimate question is: What must the strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the Cold War that could accomplish those goals given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were, as discussed above. A Victory Strategy can accomplish most American security requirements without actually leading to the rapid collapse of the Iranian regime. This is a feasible undertaking.
Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. The centers of gravity in this effort are:
- Separating Iran’s external supporters and suppliers from the Islamic Republic;
- Preventing Iran from gaining and using control of resources beyond its borders (particularly in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq);
- Inflicting defeats on the IRGC in critical theaters (Syria and Iraq especially) to discredit the organization’s internal narrative supporting its supremacy in national-security policy;
- Disrupting Iran’s efforts to secure the material required to build its nuclear arsenal and expand its conventional military capabilities;1
- Encouraging domestic dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime within Iran (but without expecting that dissatisfac- tion to lead to regime change in any particular period of time);
- Encouraging and enhancing dissension within the regime over the desirability of continuing aggressive policies of regional expansion; and
- Taking advantage of the trauma of the upcoming supreme leader succession, which will be akin to the death of Stalin and the most meaningful transfer of power since the death of Khomeini.
It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a Victory Strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.
Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel the IRGC to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle.2
Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).
A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement the Victory Strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.
This is the correct strategy.
1 I assume here that Irkan continues to lack indigenous sources of uranium, maraging steel, and other materials critical to its nuclear and missile ambitions.
2 The protests that began in late 2017 and have continued to the present are the first open manifestations we’ve seen of Iranian popular resentment against the regime’s adventures abroad. Protesters regularly chant slogans complaining of Iranian involvement in Syria and regime support to Palestinian movements.