by Mark N. Katz
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on February 13, hawkish scholar Michael Ledeen argued that “dismantling the Khamenei regime as peacefully as possible” is the best way to end what he describes as the Russian-Iranian alliance. His argument, though, contained several questionable assertions that cast doubt on the feasibility of his policy recommendations.
Early on in the article, Ledeen notes that before Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, the survival of the Assad regime was seriously threatened despite receiving military assistance from Iran. But his assurance that “[w]ithout Russian bombers and special forces, Iran would face defeat, as would Mr. Assad” is not necessarily true. Now that Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (as well as other Shi’a militia forces) have inflicted severe losses on the opposition to Assad, Iran and its Shi’a allies could likely defend Assad even if Russian forces withdrew. Further, with Saudi Arabia now preoccupied with the conflict in Yemen and Turkey focused on suppressing the Kurds in both Turkey and Syria, it is not clear that these two countries would be willing or able to support the Syrian opposition to the point where it could threaten the Assad regime as it did just prior to the Russian intervention.
Although Ledeen describes the Russian-Iranian relationship as “very tight,” he points out several reasons why Putin should prefer a “nonjihadi” Iranian regime. These include Iran’s strong military and nuclear capabilities. Although many in the West and Israel understandably fear Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, Russia is not equally fearful of this outcome. Indeed, many Russian scholars and observers I have spoken with over the years are incredulous that the U.S. actually fears an Iranian nuclear capability. America, after all, has tolerated a nuclear Pakistan, which many in Moscow see as far more erratic and threatening than Iran. They also wonder why the rules of nuclear deterrence—nuclear states are deterred from launching nuclear attacks by the knowledge that they will immediately come under nuclear attack themselves—are not seen as applying to Iran. The ayatollahs, after all, want to preserve their rule, not see it destroyed.
Ledeen’s assertion that Iran “supported separatist Muslim movements in the ‘stans and Chechnya” is just plain false. To this day, Russian observers express appreciation for Iran’s cooperating with Moscow to negotiate an end to the Tajik civil war in the 1990s instead of supporting the opponents of the Kremlin-backed post-Soviet regime there. And, unlike certain Arab countries, Iran did not support the Chechen rebels. The desire to maintain good relations with Moscow as well as the fear that Chechen secession would inflame secessionist movements inside Iran were far more important to Tehran than solidarity with fellow Muslims (especially ones who are Sunni).
This leads to another point that Ledeen overlooked: Russian and Iranian cooperation is not just based on common animosity toward America and Israel, but also on a common fear of Sunni jihadists. Just as groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are anti-Western, they are also anti-Shi’a as well as anti-Russian. Moscow and Tehran, then, have a common interest in working against them independent of their shared antipathy toward the U.S.
Toward the end of his article, Ledeen recognizes that the U.S. is not really in a position to offer a deal to Moscow that would draw it away from Tehran. His recommendation for breaking the Russian-Iranian alliance, then, is to help the “vast majority of Iranians” (whom he numbers in the millions) “topple the Islamic Republic and establish a secular government resembling those in the West.” But America’s efforts to promote democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya should raise doubts about its ability to do so in a much larger country such as Iran. Ledeen does not actually call for U.S.-led military intervention in Iran, but he doesn’t explain how some lesser degree of American support can enable even millions of Iranians to topple the Islamic Republic. The ayatollahs and their Republican Guard allies have, after all, been quite successful at suppressing the regime’s opponents. Ledeen does not explain how this is going to change now.
Further, it is not clear that the downfall of the Islamic Republic would actually result in a “secular government resembling those in the West.” One possibility is that an even more zealous regime could replace the current Islamist one. Another is that, like Iraq and Syria, the downfall of an authoritarian regime that holds the country together by force could result in an outbreak of secessionist conflict involving groups with cross-border ties: Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Baluchis. Despite the examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Ledeen does not acknowledge even the possibility that the downfall of the current authoritarian regime in Tehran could lead to indefinite conflict there—which would not benefit America’s allies or interests in the region.
Last but not least: If Tehran even suspects that the Trump administration is seriously attempting to topple it as Ledeen proposes, the immediate effect will be to motivate the country to strengthen its alliance with Russia. And if Putin thinks that Washington is attempting to topple the Islamic Republic, this will only increase his fears that Washington could try to topple him too. Following Ledeen’s policy advice, then, is only likely to strengthen the Russian-Iranian alliance and not end it.
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.