A military truck carries a missile and a picture of Ayatollah Khamenei to celebrate the Iran-Iraq War
A military truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a parade marking the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran, September 2015.
REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

The nuclear deal that the United States and five other great powers signed with Iran in July 2015 is the final product of a decadelong effort at arms control. That effort included sanctions in an attempt to impede Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapons capability. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, ranks as one of the most deficient arms control agreements in history. But U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to spend the remainder of his tenure fending off congressional pressures to adjust its terms.

An even larger issue, however, is Washington’s lack of a comprehensive Iran policy. For decades, the United States has refused to deal with the crucial subject that makes the nuclear issue so important, which is the nature of the Iranian regime. Any Iran policy worthy of the name must start from the fact that the Islamic Republic is not a conventional state making pragmatic estimates of its national interests but a revolutionary regime.

U.S. policymakers since the days of President Ronald Reagan have failed to understand that there can be no rapprochement between the two governments, because, as Iran’s leaders understand, that would undo the very existence of the Iranian regime. They have overlooked the fact that Iran is an exceptionally dangerous state—to its neighbors, to close U.S. allies such as Israel, and to the broader stability of the Middle East.

Given the serious challenge Iran poses to U.S. interests, Washington should seek to roll back the country’s growing influence in the Middle East while systematically eroding the foundations of its power. In the long term, the Islamic Republic will join the Soviet Union and other ideological relics of the twentieth century in eventual collapse. Until then, however, there can be no real peace between Washington and Tehran.


No sensible Iran policy can coexist with the JCPOA as it stands today. The agreement recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and eventually industrialize that capacity. It concedes that Iran can construct an elaborate nuclear infrastructure for research and development. It establishes a verification system that gives Iran far too much advance notice of inspections and does not meaningfully limit the development of ballistic missiles, a pillar of any nuclear weapons program. It does not provide adequate access to the facilities and scientists involved in Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons, thus denying inspectors the knowledge they need to assess the scope of Iran’s current program. And after 15 years, once the agreement expires, Iran will be free to build as many nuclear installations as it wants, accumulate as much enriched uranium as it wishes, and enrich that uranium to whatever level it deems necessary. In essence, the JCPOA establishes Iran as a threshold nuclear power today and paves the way for an eventual Iranian bomb.

The agreement will also encourage Iran’s regional rivals to go nuclear. Iran’s Sunni competitors for power, particularly Saudi Arabia, are unlikely to stand idly by as Iran looks forward to a near future in which it faces no nuclear restraints. The United Arab Emirates, which had renounced uranium enrichment as part of its civilian nuclear agreement with the United States, is now reconsidering its pledge. Ironically, the Obama administration will likely provoke the very nuclear arms race it hoped to avoid.

Supporters of the deal point to the economic exigencies that compelled Tehran to agree to it, but Tehran was also motivated by the scientific imperatives of building nuclear weapons. For much of its existence, Iran’s nuclear program was subject to sabotage and sanctions and relied on primitive centrifuges. As Hamid Baeidinejad, one of Iran’s lead negotiators, has admitted, the Iranian scientific establishment appreciated that a reliable industrial-size nuclear program required advanced centrifuges, ones that operated as much as 20 times as fast as the primitive ones. And Iranian officials understood the need to shield their program from sabotage and possible military retribution. The problem was that it would take approximately eight to ten years to introduce the new generation of centrifuges. So the challenge for Iran’s diplomats was to legitimize the nuclear program while negotiating a research-and-development schedule that fulfilled the scientists’ requirements.

The final agreement met these needs. The JCPOA allows Iran to develop advanced centrifuges and begin installing them in the eighth year of the agreement. Thus, not only did Iran get the sanctions removed and its nuclear program legitimized; it also obtained the timeline it needed for the mass production of advanced centrifuges. Indeed, in highlighting the achievements of his negotiators, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emphasized “the development of new centrifuges—from concept to mass production.” So fast and efficient are the new generation of centrifuges that Iran could easily build a small facility producing weapons-grade uranium that would evade detection. And once Iran is in possession of weapons-grade uranium, it will also have a fleet of reliable ballistic missiles at hand.


Given the many disturbing aspects of the JCPOA, the next U.S. president must revise it. Even Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged that a future administration might want to find “some way to strengthen it.” Indeed, there are a number of ways to do so.

Most important, the United States should undo the sunset clause, which lifts some of the most essential restrictions on Iran’s program within as little as eight years. Instead of having an arbitrary timeline determine the longevity of the accord, U.S. officials should insist that when the deal expires, the United States, the five other great powers that signed the deal, and Iran hold a majority vote on whether to extend the agreement’s restrictions for an additional five years—and that such a vote be held every five years thereafter. The precedent for such a move is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: after that treaty expired, the vast majority of the member states voted to extend it in perpetuity.

The United States should also call on Iran to ship all its enriched uranium out of the country for good. After all, the JCPOA itself stipulates that Iran’s spent fuel from its plutonium production will be sent out permanently; a similar process should be put in place for its enriched uranium. And given that the new generation of centrifuges would dramatically expand Iran’s enrichment capacity and shorten its nuclear-breakout time, the United States should insist that Iran’s centrifuge stock be limited to the rudimentary centrifuges. As for Iran’s ballistic missiles, they have no legitimate function other than delivering a nuclear payload, and so the international community should continue to demand that Iran permanently forgo the development of such missiles.

No sensible Iran policy can coexist with the nuclear deal as it stands today.

The United States should also press for more intrusive inspections. The current plan gives Iran 24 days to admit inspectors to certain sites—a far cry from the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that the White House had promised. A revised deal should draw on the experience of South Africa, which dismantled its nuclear weapons around 1990. It provided the International Atomic Energy Agency a full accounting of its previous nuclear history and allowed inspectors to visit military installations with as little as a day’s notice. Since it was determined to disarm, South Africa had no qualms about such requirements. If Iran is committed to proving its goodwill, it should accept a similar verification system.

According to the Obama administration, any attempt to revisit the JCPOA’s procedures would spark an international outcry, isolating the United States from its allies. Such overwrought claims ignore the fact that the JCPOA is not a legally binding treaty but a voluntary political agreement. Moreover, the JCPOA commands the support of neither the American public nor its elected representatives in Congress. A new president can and should reconsider it.

Admittedly, U.S. allies might not be so eager to revise the JCPOA. The product of a painstaking multilateral effort, the agreement has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council. Still, most of Washington’s Middle Eastern allies would welcome changes. Israel opposes the deal, and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia have made it clear that their support for the JCPOA is tepid at best and largely an effort to please the Obama administration.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will prove harder to convince. The next president should make it clear to these allies that he or she is prepared to negotiate with Iran but intends to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear capability. In private, U.S. diplomats should convey the message that the way that European countries react to amendments to the JCPOA will affect their relations with the United States. A determined president could mobilize the international community behind a set of demands that would measurably strengthen the agreement and broaden its bipartisan appeal at home.

Supporters of the JCPOA suggest that Iran will never agree to such revisions. But nations do end up negotiating agreements that once seemed impossible. During arms control negotiations with the Soviets in the early 1980s, the commentariat blasted Reagan as naive for insisting that the Soviet Union remove all its intermediate-range missiles from Europe. And yet in 1987, Moscow did exactly that. Facing grave internal problems, the Soviets had little choice but to negotiate; the same should hold true for Iran today, especially with greater pressure from and patience on the part of the United States.


In addition to revising the nuclear agreement, the United States should punish Iran for its regional aggression, sponsorship of terrorism, or human rights abuses. To do so, it should segregate Iran from the global economy by restoring as much of the sanctions architecture as possible. (As Kerry has conceded, even with the deal in place, any Iranian entity that participates in terrorism or human rights abuses could still face sanctions.) And it should launch a campaign of political warfare to intensify the Iranian public’s disenchantment with the regime and deepen dissension within the ruling circle.

The Obama administration has shown a curious reluctance to criticize the Islamic Republic for its domestic abuses. The White House appears to have wanted a nuclear deal so desperately that it declined to pass judgment on Iran’s rulers, even as the Islamist regime jailed dissidents, rigged elections, censored the media, and set records for executions of prisoners. The United States has a moral obligation to speak out against such transgressions. And no strategy of pressure can succeed without a concerted attempt to stress Iran at home.

Future historians will look back at 2009 as the year modern Iran changed decisively. That June, a placid presidential race featuring lackluster candidates suddenly turned into an intense contest for political power as Iranians took to the streets to protest the fraudulent results. The episode delegitimized theocratic rule and severed the bonds between the state and society. Since then, the political space in Iran has narrowed, as the hard-liners have eviscerated the left wing of the body politic. The country’s most popular politicians have been either excluded from the corridors of power or thrown in prison.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani smiles at a panel in Davos
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani smiles during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 2014.
Ruben Sprich / Reuters

The election of Rouhani in 2013 did not, as some in the West naively believed, signal the advent of a newly reformist regime. Rouhani has demonstrated no interest in pursuing democratic or human rights reforms; his charge was merely to stabilize the nuclear file. Today, the guardians of the revolution preside over a state that has been systematically hollowed out and increasingly relies on fear to perpetuate its rule.

To delegitimize the Islamic Republic, U.S. officials must begin by sharply challenging the regime’s values and viability. They should castigate Iran as a remnant of twentieth-century totalitarianism that will inevitably go extinct. No one has a greater power to mobilize dissent abroad than a U.S. president. Reagan’s denunciations of the Soviet Union did much to galvanize the forces of change behind the Iron Curtain. It is unfortunate that Obama, a gifted speaker, has declined to embrace the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom. The next president should.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government should take to television, radio, and social media with the message that clerical misrule has resulted only in economic deprivation and political disenfranchisement. It should showcase Iran’s costly imperial ventures and the diversion of its scarce resources to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and despots such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It should contrast life in Iran as it is with what it could be under more responsible rulers. At the same time, the United States should encourage and publicize defections from inside the regime. These could sow confusion and distrust within an already paranoid government.

The United States made a tragic mistake in staying silent during Iran’s 2009 protests.

To add to the pressure, the United States should target some of its sanctions on the part of the regime most responsible for repression, terrorism, and regional aggression: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That group boasts substantial business holdings in a range of areas, including the automotive sector, telecommunications, energy, construction, engineering, shipping, and air transportation. Washington should subject these interests to secondary sanctions in addition to primary ones, meaning that any firms dealing with the entities would lose their access to the U.S. market. To facilitate such a step, the State Department should designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, which would mean that international firms that established commercial ties with the group would jeopardize their access to the U.S. market. And the U.S. government should designate a greater number of officials within the group as human rights abusers.

Washington should also keep in place sanctions against Iran’s financial institutions. These restrictions have succeeded in preventing Iran from conducting normal transactions through the global financial system. And with good reason: as the U.S. Treasury has repeatedly found, the country’s leading banks have been implicated in a range of crimes, including nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and money laundering.

The United States made a tragic mistake in staying silent during Iran’s 2009 protests, but the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to popular revolt. Indeed, since its inception, the theocracy has battled protest movements demanding accountability and freedom. In the early years of the revolution, the mullahs had to repress a range of secular forces that wanted to steer the nation in a more liberal direction. In the 1990s, reformers insisted on an Islamic government that nonetheless accommodated democratic norms. And in 2009, the Green Movement rocked the foundations of the system. The only certainty about Iran’s future is that another protest movement will eventually emerge. And at that time, the United States must be ready to stand with it.

Supporters of the Iranian Green Movement march in protest at rigged elections in Tehran, 2009
Protesters march during a demonstration against the results of the Iranian presidential election in central Tehran, June 2009.  
Demotix / Reuters


For Iran’s recalcitrant mullahs to yield to international norms, all the walls around them have to close in. So as it stresses Iran’s economy and divides its society, the United States should also push back against its influence around the Middle East. By contesting Tehran’s gains, Washington can impose additional costs on the regime and contribute to regional stability.

That means helping the region reconstitute its failed states and end its many civil wars, since Iran thrives on chaos. At the moment, Iran seems to have reached the zenith of its power. Its clients dominate three Arab capitals—Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa—and are highly influential in a fourth, Beirut. Hundreds, if not thousands, of its agents and soldiers have entered Syria to fight for the Assad regime. In Hezbollah, it has an obedient force of guerrillas, light infantry, and terrorists.

Yet these activities carry the risk of overextension. Already, Iran has suffered battlefield casualties among the officer corps of its elite Quds Force, part of the Revolutionary Guard, and as it sends more fighters to Syria, it may be making itself a bigger target. In the meantime, Iran has to bear the costs of sustaining the myriad of militias and terrorist organizations that it subsidizes across the region. Imperialism may be tempting, but it is also financially draining.

As the United States confronts Iran, it will need regional actors to bear their own measure of responsibility. None of these players wishes to succumb to Iran’s imperial pretensions, but as the United States has retreated, they have hedged their bets between the two adversaries. Those days must end. Iraqi politicians, Gulf princes, Syrian rebels—all must play a role in pushing back against Iran. U.S. officials should make it clear that in exchange for American guardianship, Arab allies will have to curtail their commercial links to and lessen their diplomatic representation in Tehran. As Iran’s leaders look over the horizon, they should see an Arab world coalescing against them under the auspices of the United States.

The creation of a new anti-Iran coalition will require something that the Obama administration has lacked: a strategy that tightens the constraints on Tehran and consolidates Washington’s relationships with its traditional allies. That won’t be easy. American passivity has allowed the region to devolve into a vortex of conflicting groups and interests, and the American public understandably worries about any policy that requires large numbers of American boots on the ground. The recent addition of Russian military power into the equation only heightens the degree of difficulty.

Of course, many of these problems could have been avoided had the United States provided effective aid to the reasonable elements of the Syrian opposition back in 2011. Doing the same today would be difficult, if not impossible, as the Syrian population has become more radicalized and extremist groups have seized more territory. Nonetheless, the United States can still train and equip surrogates who are capable of inflicting greater losses on the regime—chief among them the Kurds, Arab tribal fighters, and the Druze. But these groups will achieve meaningful battlefield gains only if the United States allows them to attack the Assad regime. Previous training programs failed in part because they required the rebels to limit their attacks to the Islamic State, or ISIS, and so they faced difficulties with recruiting. Greater support and leeway for the opposition would no doubt ease these problems, as would the presence of more U.S. Special Forces personnel, including forward air controllers, inside Syrian borders.

Tipping the balance of forces against the Assad regime will also require convincing Turkey to reorder its priorities in Syria. To date, the Turks have focused first on fighting the Kurds and second on fighting Assad, with the battle against ISIS a distant third. Bringing Ankara into closer alignment with U.S. policy will require a real exchange of views, rather than the dialogue of the deaf that has gone on since 2011. U.S. diplomats will have to demonstrate that they share Turkey’s desire to rid Syria of the Assad regime. The Turks, in turn, will have to abandon their fixation on waging war on the Kurds and agree to make the fight against Assad and ISIS their top priorities. Turkey needs to be convinced that the best way to improve relations with the Kurds is for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to return to his earlier policy of improving their plight within Turkey.

Washington also needs to back a safe zone for refugees, which would almost certainly require a no-fly zone. (Turkey has long wanted the United States to establish a safe zone, but its request has been met with indifference and disdain.) A safe zone that protected the Syrian populace from Assad’s barrel bombs and chlorine gas attacks would help stanch the flow of refugees and manage the tragic humanitarian consequences of the Syrian civil war. Properly administered, it would also provide a visible alternative to the cruelties of life under ISIS rule and help create the space in which a moderate Sunni Arab opposition to Assad could grow.

Critics of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone object that given the presence of Russian aircraft, the risks of an accidental conflict are too high. For that reason, the Obama administration seems to have taken a no-fly zone off the table. But Russian President Vladimir Putin no doubt shares U.S. concerns about an unintended confrontation and would have every reason to refrain from challenging a no-fly zone. And the ongoing discussions between Moscow and Washington to “deconflict” their air campaigns over Syria ought to limit the chances of a clash.

When it comes to the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration appears to have taken the position that there is no military solution and that a diplomatic solution requires a political settlement that only Iran and Russia can broker. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that those two countries are open to such a settlement, but in the event that they are, they will do everything they can beforehand to advantage their client Assad. In that case, anti-Assad forces will still have to make gains on the ground in order to create the conditions for an acceptable settlement. Otherwise, the result will be capitulation to an Iranian-Russian condominium.


Washington should also seek to reduce Iran’s influence in Baghdad—a difficult task, but one made easier by the fact that most Iraqi Arabs, Shiites included, have no interest in serving Iran. The main goal should be to destroy ISIS, thereby diminishing the Iraqi government’s reliance on Iranian support. If the United States built on its relationships with the Iraqi Kurds, moderate Iraqi Shiites, and Iraqi Sunnis, Iran would at least have a harder time using Iraq as a base for its larger schemes.

At a practical level, Washington should push Baghdad to govern more inclusively, so that the central government is seen as benefiting Sunnis and Kurds, and not just Shiites. It should make an outreach to the Sunni tribes on a scale equivalent to what took place during the 2007 surge of U.S. troops. And it should ramp up its military assistance to the Kurds and Sunni tribal forces, intensify the air campaign against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, and embed U.S. personnel in the Iraqi military at lower levels than it currently does. A heightened U.S. presence in Iraq need not entail a massive combat force there, but it would mean a larger troop presence and thus a greater risk of casualties. Again, the price for greater U.S. involvement should be a commitment on the part of local actors to press back against Tehran and its enablers.

Iran’s influence in the Middle East extends beyond Syria and Iraq. In Yemen, it stems from the success of the Houthi rebels, a Shiite group that now controls large swaths of the country. The Gulf states have taken the lead in pushing back the Houthis. If those states need help with, say, maintaining a blockade to prevent Iranian ships from resupplying their clients, then the United States should offer it. Only Washington can provide the capabilities for patrolling the global commons, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels protest in Sanaa, Yemen
A Houthi follower carries a mock missile as he shouts slogans during a demonstration against the United Nations in Sanaa, Yemen, July 2015.  
Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters

As Washington attempts to weaken Iran’s hand in the region, it will need to earn back the trust of Israel and the Gulf states. It cannot simply buy these countries off with more arms sales, although those will be necessary. Rather, U.S. officials will have to consult with them regularly and in depth about the nature of the Iranian problem. The goal should be to generate an overall strategy that builds on the tacit understanding that Israel and the Gulf states are in the same strategic predicament regarding Iran. Once that is done, Iran’s regional opponents will have an easier time coordinating policy, as well as covert activity, and the United States will have an easier time publicly defending measures aimed at countering Iranian influence.

Getting the Gulf states to agree to take common action has always been hard, but after years of neglect from the Obama administration, they are now more likely to be receptive to a new U.S. strategy against Iran. The United States should help the Gulf states not only as they battle Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen but also as they deal with a range of other challenges. These include protecting themselves against Iran’s efforts to undermine their internal security, defending their economic infrastructure (such as oil and gas platforms, water-desalinization plants, and tourist sites), and preventing Iran from interdicting their energy exports along key transit routes.

To confront Iran, the Gulf states will need capabilities commensurate with the challenge. In particular, the United States should consider supplying them with systems that defend against guided rockets and mortars, such as the Centurion C-RAM. The United States could also broker cooperation with Israel aimed at giving the Gulf states their own version of the Iron Dome defense system, which they could use to defend their vital economic and tourist infrastructure against Iranian missiles. And in the long run, the Gulf states have the financial resources, even at current oil prices, to invest in the next generation of missile defense technologies, such as directed-energy weapons, which would diminish Iran’s ability to attack them.

The countries in the region with formidable special-forces capabilities, such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, should use that advantage to help some of the more vulnerable countries, such as Bahrain, deal with their internal security problems—arrangements that Washington could help broker. Iran’s adversaries could even develop a subset of special forces capable of operating inside Iran to exploit the grievances of various ethnic minorities. The goal would be to make Iran think twice about its campaign of regional subversion by demonstrating that two can play that game.

Finally, the Gulf states need to further reduce Iran’s ability to choke off oil exports by blocking the Strait of Hormuz. Although they have already built pipelines to bypass the strait, they should also take steps to increase those pipelines’ capacity. The Gulf states should invest in capabilities such as advanced air-to-air missiles to take down Iran’s aircraft and land-attack cruise missiles to destroy its antiship cruise missiles. And they should augment that effort with the undersea capabilities needed for a campaign against Iran’s surface naval assets, including its many small boats.

This agenda would represent a tall order for U.S. diplomats and military officials, yet even merely consulting allies about efforts to roll back Iranian influence would immediately get Tehran’s attention. As big an effort as it might represent, a plan on this scale will be necessary to awaken Iranian leaders to the costs they will suffer if they continue to destabilize the Middle East. If properly executed, such a strategy might even bring about a change of course—or a fatal increase in the contradictions that beset an already overstretched regime.


A regime as dangerous to U.S. interests as Tehran requires a comprehensive strategy to counter it. That means exploiting all of Iran’s vulnerabilities: increasing the costs of its foreign adventures, weakening its economy, and backing its domestic discontents. Pursuing that strategy will take time, but eventually, it will put the United States in a position to impose terms on Iran, including in the nuclear realm. Washington should strive for a stringent arms control agreement, not one that presages an Iranian bomb. It should compel Iran to cease much of its regional subversion, not create power vacuums that encourage it. And it should move human rights up the agenda, not look the other way as Iran’s leaders oppress their people.

Some in Washington believe that the Iran problem is of secondary importance to the United States compared with violent jihadist groups such as ISIS. Not so. For all their achievements in the chaotic lands of Syria and western Iraq, those radical movements do not yet possess the resources and capabilities of a large, sophisticated state. Iran does. Remember, the Iranian regime was the original Islamic revolutionary state. Its successes inspired a wave of radicals across the Middle East.

At its most basic level, the confrontation between the United States and Iran is a conflict between the world’s sole superpower and a second-rate autocracy. Washington does not need to settle for a disastrously flawed arms control agreement and hope that theocrats with no interest in relaxing their grip will somehow become moderates. A determined policy of pressure would speed the day when the Iranian people replace a regime that has made their lives miserable. And in the interim, it would reduce the threat that a triumphant, nuclear-armed regime would pose to the Middle East and the world beyond.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now