One of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the incoming Donald Trump’s administration could be countering Iran’s expansion throughout the Middle East. Energized by an infusion of resources and legitimacy following last year’s nuclear agreement, Tehran has doubled down on efforts to shift the Middle Eastern balance of power in its favor, as witnessed by the country’s military interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and has increased its support to long-standing terrorist allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Those who stress the urgency of reversing Iran’s external advances usually focus on scaling back its gains in Iraq and Syria and somehow defanging its terrorist proxies. Although countering Iran’s foreign interventions would be sound policy, the most reliable means of dealing with the threat from Iran is to pressure the regime at home.

Tehran’s relentless expansionism stems in part from the belief that the Islamic Revolution can be consolidated at home only if it is exported abroad. This was always, after all, a revolution without borders. Moreover, threats from the outside have always been a convenient way for the Revolutionary Guards and other state instruments to seek to justify their brutality. Hundreds of executions this past year, including of political prisoners, testify to the oppressive nature of the regime and to its overriding goal of shoring up its rule at home, particularly by eliminating the threat that emanates from its own people.

Today, the theocratic state is ruled by clerical ideologues who claim to know the mind of God. For them, the Islamic Republic is not merely a nation-state seeking independence within the existing international system. It is also a combatant in a struggle between good and evil, at home and abroad—a battle waged for moral redemption and genuine emancipation from the political and cultural tentacles of a profane West. The mullahs’ internationalist vision has to have an antagonist, and the United States and its allies, particularly Israel and the conservative Arab monarchies, are it.

Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2011.
Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2011.
For these reasons, the regime in Tehran will never abandon its conflict with the West. Those who argued that the nuclear agreement would strengthen the moderate forces in Iran have to face realities: the country remains the most aggressive sponsor of terrorism upending the regional order. Even the more narrow hope of ending Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon through the 2015 agreement has similarly been dashed by the regime’s continued pursuit of an intercontinental ballistic missile (which makes sense only when it is armed with a nuclear tip) and its continuing advancements in uranium enrichment.

There is only one long-term solution to the strategic threat posed by Iran today: the emergence of a democratic, secular state. The fundamental weaknesses of the present theocratic rulers make this goal achievable. Perhaps their greatest vulnerability is a lack of legitimacy. Since the Green Revolution of 2009, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has purged the Islamic Republic’s most credible and popular politicians. A restive public whose political aspirations cannot be met and whose economic predicament worsens thanks to incompetence and corruption cannot be held back forever. The gap between the state and society has never been greater. The regime spends billions promoting religion and enforcing cultural strictures, to little effect. The Islamic Republic has lost its public and is poised for another uprising similar to the one in 2009, which shook the foundations of the regime and came close to toppling it. No less than Khamenei has acknowledged that the movement brought the system to the “edge of the cliff.”

Although Iran’s internal struggle will take its own course, there is a role for the United States to aid those who share its values. For one, Washington should construct a sanctions regime directed against Iran’s human rights abuses. The financial sanctions that have been most effective in constraining Iran’s trade should be imposed on human rights grounds.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani waits to address the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani waits to address the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013.
Ray Stubblebine / Reuters
The experience of eastern Europe has demonstrated that economic pressure is a critical aspect of any democracy-promotion strategy. The fewer resources the regime has at its disposal, the less capable it is of sustaining a cadre whose loyalty is purchased. The guardians of the revolution are well aware of the unreliability of their coercive services; the government had difficulty repressing the Green Movement in the summer of 2009. The only thing that has changed since then is that the Islamic Republic has become even less sensitive to the desires of its public.

The United States should also develop a public diplomacy campaign seeking to delegitimize the regime by challenging its core values. The Islamic Republic is, after all, a relic that, unlike most past ideological experiments, has managed to creep into the twenty-first century. In the meantime, working with external opposition groups, there should be a multifaceted effort to establish links with, and provide support to, oppositionists in Iran, as the United States did with Solidarity in Poland and other civic forces in eastern Europe.

The emerging Trump administration has pledged to push back on Iran. Doing so will require the reestablishment of U.S. leadership and credibility abroad, focused diplomatic initiatives, and a viable military presence. But the most certain means of fighting back against Iran’s imperial surge is to imperil its revolution at home. By exploiting the country’s internal vulnerabilities, the United States can not only deter Iran from pursuing its regional exploits but hopefully create a situation from which a democratic government can emerge. After years of negotiating with Iran, it is time for a bold policy designed to secure Western interests and values.

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  • ROBERT JOSEPH served as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2005 through 2007.
  • RAY TAKEYH is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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