The Iran problem has metastasized and can no longer be shunted off or ignored. Disengagement is not an option: The situation has progressed to the point that Iran, in concert with Russia and China, is on the cusp of becoming a major-power member of the Eurasian revisionist coalition. It is no longer a question of whether Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, but when it does and whether a strike on its nuclear program can be successful. The good news for Washington is that a carefully crafted policy can delay the acceleration of the threat for some time.
The Iran threat stems from the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is distinct from other authoritarian regimes in that it is not wholly modern. (Even the Hermit Kingdom, despite its insularity, embraces a modern, if mixed, ideology.) Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s ideological progenitor and first leader, was steeped in the Shia political-theological tradition and there is no denying his intellectual authenticity or the degree to which pre-modern thought influences the regime he created. The Islamic Republic is intentionally modeled after a specific medieval Islamic interpretation of Plato’s Republic, complete with a guardian council selected for intellectual talent and a philosopher-king, styled the Supreme Leader.
Like Marxism-Leninism, Khomeinism identifies the nation as a springboard for global Islamic revolution (in its universalism at least the regime is modern). At a minimum, the Khomeinist Islamic Republic seeks to remake the Middle East in its own image, as a series of Islamic republics that comprise a truly virtuous Islamic civilization. The Westphalian state system, with its restrictions on borders and sovereign equality, is nonetheless instrumentally useful to Iran, allowing it to claim rights and privileges like any other state and cry foul when it perceives those rights to be violated. But fundamentally, the Khomeinist polity puts no stock in modern political concepts. It is by nature aggressive, expansionist, and acquisitive.
This explains Iran’s rapid shift in 1980 from defense to offense. The war with Iraq, begun by Saddam Hussein, transformed into an attempted struggle of annihilation. Much as the early Soviet Union sought to topple Poland and then spread communism to Germany, so did Khomeinist Iran seek to conquer Iraq, transform it into a Shia-dominated Islamic republic, and then in time connect a string of Islamic republics from the Zagros Mountains to the Levantine Basin through Syria and Lebanon.
The basic elements of this revolutionary strategy have not changed. This is not to deny the Iranian Thermidor, the Mohammad Khatami years when the Islamic Republic seemed less feverishly expansionist and the new Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei uncertain in his political position. But that Thermidor ended with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 and the reassertion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iranian politics. Since then, the regime has become more aggressive, afflicted by the excesses of dominion, even if rationalized defensively.
Iranian expansion has had three phases. Its first phase was partly defensive. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq created a unique threat, that of several hundred thousand U.S. troops directly on Iran’s borders along with permanent naval and aerial presence throughout the Middle East. Considering the state of Iranian air defenses and strike capability at the time, Tehran was mortally vulnerable to U.S. decapitation. A mid-2000s war with Iran, at least during its conventional phase, would have progressed almost identically to the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: America would have dismantled the Iranian military in months, if not weeks.
At the same time, Iran capitalized on the strategic opportunity American disruption provided. It reactivated its Shia networks in Iraq; forged ties with groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban; and served as a haven for al-Qaeda. Iranian training camps were crucial for Shia Iraqi paramilitaries and the IRGC’s Quds Force trained Iraqi insurgents in advanced improvised explosive device techniques, significantly escalating the Iraqi civil war.
This first, partly defensive phase of Iranian expansion transitioned rapidly from 2009 to 2013, when the United States rapidly withdrew from Iraq. This allowed Iran to co-opt the Iraqi state through Nouri al-Maliki. The U.S.-backed Iraqi prime minister had extensive ties to Iran running back to the 1980s, when he lived in Iran in exile and developed links with Hezbollah. By 2013, Iran had a political veto over Iraq’s foreign policy orientation and significant control over its domestic policy.
During this second phase, Iranian strategy shifted to outright offense in 2014. Iran intervened in the Syrian civil war for ideological and historical reasons. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafez al-Assad, remained a staunch Iranian ally. Allowing him to fall would have eliminated the only real strategic partner Iran had in the region. Furthermore, the Islamic State’s June 2014 offensive in Iraq gave Iran a unique strategic opportunity. The Iraqi Security Forces dissolved despite outnumbering Islamic State jihadists by thirty-five to one. The only competent combat units that remained, apart from the Kurdish peshmerga, were the Iranian-backed militias of the Iraqi insurgency. Renamed the Popular Mobilization Forces, these Iranian-sponsored units gained a controlling role in the Iraqi military and their ultimate success (ironically with U.S. support) enabled Iran by 2018 to build a land bridge to Lebanon.
The third phase of Iranian strategy formally began in 2018 and runs to today. Iran intensified its support for Yemen’s Houthis against Saudi Arabia and shifted away from conquest in the Levant to consolidation. Two key questions dominate Iranian strategy today: First, what is Iran’s relationship with Russia? Iran has had friction with Russia, particularly when Russia permitted Israel to strike Iranian assets in Syria. While the two have more recently engaged in defense cooperation, Iranian ideology demands more conflict in the Middle East while Russia’s primary focus is on the Mediterranean and Europe. The second and more critical question looming over Iranian strategy is how Iran can challenge Israel, the Gulf States, and the United States directly when, due to sanctions, it still lacks a massive conventional military. Iran has thus turned to specific technologies to leapfrog its strategic impediments.
The Consequences of a Breakout
The current Iran threat evolves from the geographical and ideological situation outlined above, combined with two additional technical factors: the advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program and the increasing sophistication of its missiles and unmanned aerial systems. Taken alongside Iran’s proxy network, these changes in the military balance have encouraged, and will continue to spur, Iranian aggression.
As for Iran’s nuclear program, it is now too advanced to destroy. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was not designed to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. It was, rather, intended to create a fifteen-year window within which the United States could “integrate” Iran into the Middle Eastern system—that is, shift Washington’s strategic emphasis from the Arabian Peninsula and Israel to Iran. A more reasonably balanced regional order would force Saudi Arabia, and implicitly the UAE and Israel, to “share” the Middle East with Iran, in the words of President Barack Obama. By transforming the nuclear question into the Iran question, and thereby treating Iran as a violator of international regulation rather than a legitimate strategic threat, the United States could extricate itself from the Middle East.
This plan completely misread the domestic roots of Iranian grand strategy, and the Obama Administration mistakenly assumed that four to eight more years of Democratic executive leadership were nearly guaranteed. It is no coincidence that the JCPOA’s two crucial “sunset” dates came in 2020, when major elements of the UN arms embargo were lifted, and 2023, when UN sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile imports and exports are due to elapse.
In the event, however, Donald Trump won the presidency, and the United States left the JCPOA in 2018. Israeli intelligence actively undermined the Iranian nuclear program through a strategic assassination campaign and, where possible, sabotage. The issue today is that such tactics can no longer prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout. Iran has trained enough scientists and engineers, and developed a robust enough nuclear apparatus, to sprint to nuclear weapons in between three and nine months, depending upon the precise sophistication of its technology, its ability to test or simulate weapons tests, and external support. 14
Yet Israel no longer has a great enough margin of military superiority to be able to enact such a plan without serious risks. Unlike in 2013 or 2018, Iran now has offensive military capabilities. Israel has prevented Iran from fully rebuilding Hezbollah, conducting a large-scale interdiction campaign against Iranian supply lines in Syria and likely working with the peshmerga in Iraq. But as Russia’s war in Ukraine demonstrates, Iran’s unmanned aerial systems and loitering munitions are cheap, mobile, and effective. Taken alongside the 2019 attacks on the Saudi oil installations of Abqaiq and Khurais, it is obvious that Iran can respond to any strike with large-scale strategic bombardment. Moreover, Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles can now target sites throughout the Middle East and, if deployed to Iraq or Syria, hit Western bases in Cyprus and ships throughout the Levantine Basin. Iranian air defenses, while currently still porous, are improving with the development of S-300-style air defenses and, quite likely, Chinese technological support.
Finally, Iran has solidified its regional proxy network. Hezbollah and various Iraqi militias are Iran’s primary partners, but it has expanded its reach in Yemen, sustaining the Houthis since 2014, and by becoming the primary benefactor of Palestinian terrorism through support for both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This gives Iran far greater capabilities against Israel and Jordan and raises the odds of a broader war during regional escalation.
Iranian breakout, meanwhile, would be immensely destabilizing to the region. It would provide Iran a nuclear umbrella under which it could intensify its proxy activities. It would trigger regional proliferation—Saudi Arabia would doubtless sprint to a nuclear weapon, the UAE would likely join it, and Turkey and Egypt would strongly consider following suit. The intervening period would involve intense proxy confrontation, airstrikes, sabotage, and cyberattacks. In turn, two critical international waterways, the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez-Indian Ocean route, would be continuously disrupted, thus destabilizing global trade.
The most critical impact, however, would be on Iranian prestige. As a nuclear power with links to Beijing and Moscow, Tehran would become a bona fide international force. It would be capable of dealing as a near-peer with the other authoritarian powers on the Eurasian landmass, thereby contributing to its goal of regional Islamic revolution. The United States would thus face three major power threats in Eurasia, not two.
Indeed, Iran is actively manipulating the international environment to prepare for its emergence as a great power. Iran is now Russia’s most critical public international ally. It has provided Russia with the military capacity to prosecute its bombardment of Ukrainian energy infrastructure throughout the winter, and, come October 2023, will transfer Russia advanced ballistic missiles as well. While Russia is unlikely to involve itself directly in a Middle Eastern contingency, at minimum it could transfer Iran advanced military technology, including S-400 air defenses and Su-35 fighter jets, and provide Iran some early warning of a strike through its presence in Syria.
The window for an independent Israeli strike with a high probability of success likely closed in 2019 or 2020. However, Israel’s strategic incentives have not changed. The military cost to it of an Iranian nuclear breakout would be high—Israel has every rational incentive to attempt some sort of strike to delay or disable Iran’s nuclear program. Given the altered landscape today, an independent Israeli strike is unlikely to do more than delay the breakout by a few months, if at all. In the best scenario, Israeli deception, electronic warfare, direct action by Special Operations Forces, and cyberattacks disable Iranian air defenses and disrupt Iranian and proxy positions in the Levant, clearing a corridor for multiple strike waves. Nevertheless, Israel has only eleven tankers and its fighter fleet is not optimized for strikes deep into Iranian territory. Naval power would help, but the only real strike implements Israel could use are its submarines, which exist for strategic deterrence.
A botched strike, meanwhile, would spark a legitimate regional conflagration. Israel would lose a significant number of its combat aircraft and immediately face a major retaliation from Hezbollah and Hamas, along with violence in the West Bank. Iran would unleash its missile arsenal on Israel, the Gulf States, and Western bases and assets in the region. Further horizontal escalation is foreseeable, particularly if Russian assets are caught in the crossfire or if Turkey or Azerbaijan choose to exploit the confusion for territorial gain in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, respectively.
This provides the United States with three options.
First, the United States could restrain Israel from a strike while also planning for a nuclear Iran. This would involve a massive transfer of forces to the Middle East, however, because of the active contest that Iranian nuclearization would launch. It would also demand that the United States play a far more active role managing the Gulf States and Turkey, or risk them veering off in aggressive, strategically counterproductive directions. This option has the least apparent immediate risk but entails the greatest medium-term cost. Most critically, it also accepts a third major power on the Eurasian landmass hostile to American interests.
Second, the United States could encourage greater Israeli-Gulf State cooperation, at a minimum facilitating Gulf State support for a strike and ideally encouraging Gulf State participation. Israeli access to Saudi and Emirati facilities would make a strike far more viable, allowing the Israel Defense Forces to bypass Iran’s hybrid defense network in Syria and Iraq while also cutting transit time. Gulf State participation, meanwhile, would give a strike a reasonable chance of success. It would add two hundred to four hundred additional strike aircraft, multiple tankers and electronic assets, and provide an air defense belt for forces returning to base after delivering ordinance. Of course, such open coordination between Israel and the Gulf States would be difficult to achieve absent direct U.S. involvement and would require extensive U.S. exercises to harmonize military planning.
Third, the United States could support an Israeli strike directly through Special Operations Forces and electronic and cyber means, and could even provide refueling aircraft, suppress Iranian air defenses, and join in the actual strike. This option has the greatest chances of success—actual American participation would greatly expand the odds of an effective strike that destroys Iran's nuclear infrastructure and pushes the breakout of its nuclear program to the early 2030s.
Yet such participation carries the risk of triggering a diplomatic row with America’s European allies and almost certainly would draw Chinese and Russian ire.
If at the summit politics and strategy are one, then strategy, like politics, is the art of the possible. The United States has allowed the Iran threat to grow for far too long. Though a successful strike would only serve to defer the Iran threat for some years, deferral is more prudent than relying on deterrence. The United States cannot afford to allow another major threat to emerge on the Eurasian landmass.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy from 1984 to 1989, and is author of Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do about It (2017).
Image: Limestone frieze depicting combat between a lion and a bull, Persepolis, Persian Empire, 350 BC. (Pixabay: PeggyChoucair)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe