All is not necessarily lost with respect to Iran. But we must be clear on our objectives, strategy, and tools. There is urgency and opportunity if we do so.
US Objectives: What objectives are core to US national security? First, elimination of the threat posed by the Islamic Republic regionally and globally. This requires elimination of its nuclear, chemical, and biological programs and their means of delivery. It also requires eliminating its support for terrorism.
Second, since all previous efforts to achieve the first objective have failed, we need regime change. With Libya, we achieved change in the most threatening regime behaviors, and thus regime change did not require change in the political structure. The Islamic Republic, however, is a different matter. It would be foolish to continue to hope sanctions alone will persuade the Islamic Republic to abandon WMD and terrorism. A change in the regime sufficient to eliminate the threats posed and enable development of a new Iran is necessary.
Strategy: While the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic is exacerbated by Ahmadinejad and his messianic vision, the threat has been growing since the 1980s, well before he emerged. So-called moderates, like Rafsanjani, directed development of the WMD programs. If Ahmadinejad was the core of the problem, a popular uprising might eliminate the threat. But just as the WMD programs preceded him, his removal will not terminate them.
Clausewitz, the pre-eminent strategist, wrote: the ultimate substance of enemy strength must be traced back to the fewest possible sources, and ideally to one alone. These are centers of gravity, the the point against which all our energies should be directed.
The center of gravity for the threat posed by the Islamic Republic is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC leads Irans WMD programs and its Qods forces conduct Irans support for terrorism. While efforts to impose sanctions on IRGC leaders are positive, the IRGCs resources and pernicious web in the political structures and economy will render even very strong sanctions alone unable to eliminate the threat, especially urgently.
But pressure on the Islamic Republic is certain to mount as their nuclear program progresses and their population continues to express its discontent. As pressure grows, there is a significant risk the IRGC will strike out against its perceived internal and external enemies. The regime has accused the opposition of being part of a Washington-led anti-Islamic plot. We cannot rule out an external attack, either directly or by employing terrorist proxies. Such an attack could employ chemical, biological or radiological weapons targeting include US forces, neighboring states, Europe or the US. Use of terrorist proxies has been suggested by IRGC Commanders. We do not know Irans plans, but we do know the tools and rationale have been developed and are consistent with the Islamic Republics agenda.
Strategic planning must begin. The IRGC leadership, and all of its known facilities, including WMD facilities and Qods forces, must be put in jeopardy of prompt destruction. Accomplishment would result in regime change sufficient to remove the threat and enable development of a post-Islamic Republic Iran.
Tools of US Power:
Military: The failure of diplomacy and enforcement, have led to calls for military action against the Islamic Republic. Most advocate targeting known nuclear facilities. While this would set back the nuclear weapons program, it is would not necessarily end it and would leave the chemical and biological threat and conventional forces intact. Given the costs, we must destroy both the who and the how. Military planning must ensure that the IRGC leadership, and all of its known facilities, including WMD facilities and Qods forces, are put in jeopardy of prompt destruction. The regular military, IRGC rank and file, and religious and political leadership would not be targeted. In the absence of the IRGC leadership and WMD facilities, the remaining structures may be unpleasant, but would not pose a threat to national security.
The challenges cannot be underestimated. Intelligence regarding the identity and locations of IRGC leadership and facilities must be acquired. A targeting plan that strictly minimizes collateral damage to the population must be developed. An operational plan to include Special Forces has to be developed. Implementation must be swift to preclude IRGC retaliation.
Diplomatic: Diplomatic tools should pursue four goals. First, the Islamic Republic, especially the IRGC, needs to know that the US, with or without allies, is prepared to destroy to IRGC. Second, the Iranian public needs to know they are not our targets and that we support their aspirations. Third, the international community needs to understand they can support our efforts or not, but their inability to address the threat since 2002 has left the US no option but to address the threat as best it can. Finally, diplomacy should support a post-IRGC Iran, especially support for democracy.
Economic: Our economic tools should support the aspirations of the Iranian population. It would be prudent to avoid support for any particular group or individual. But we should communicate US goals and interests and assist all Iranians interested in and willing to establish positive relations. As with the Marshall Plan, we should support a move to an economy freed of the costs and corruption of the regime, the IRGC, and the massive expenditures the regime has invested for over two decades in WMD.
Technology: Communications technology should underscore our other tools. Protests since the June 2009 election have demonstrated the power of email, Twitter, and video cell phones in the hands of Iranians. The regime has sought to deny their use. We should empower the Iranian people by enabling them to overcoming such denial.
Conclusion: Iranian protesters cannot be expected to overthrow the Islamic Republic, particularly the IRGC. The US must begin to develop and use our military to destroy the IRGC, and our diplomatic, economic, and technological tools to support the Iranian people.
The future of a post-IRGC Iran cannot be predicted. We cannot be certain that even a democratically elected post-IRGC Iran would be to our liking, but we know the majority of the Iranian public views the US favorably, and that Iran has a young, well-educated population hungry for change. Freed from the corruption and the massive expenditures for WMD programs, Irans economy holds the promise of an economic powerhouse. Following regime change, we could lend a helping hand. But beyond this, we could leave the future of Iran to Iranians.
Paula A. DeSutter, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation from 2002-2009.