Stop Comparing Iran to the USSR

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Frederick Kagan invokes U.S. policy towards the USSR under Reagan as the model for a similar policy towards Iran today:

The attractiveness of applying to Iran the set of policies that caused the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s, often called the “Victory Strategy,” is obvious. The strategy produced the most desirable possible end to the Cold War – victory for the United States and its allies without a major direct conflict with the Soviet Union. Similarities between Iran and the Soviet Union make it reasonable to assess that applying a similar set of policies would yield a similar result [bold mine-DL]. That assessment may indeed be accurate, and some variant of the strategy is almost certainly the correct policy to pursue against Iran today.

The silliness of comparing Iran and the Soviet Union ought to be self-evident, but for various reasons Iran hawks love to use this comparison in their arguments for regime change. The vast differences between the two states make the comparison useless for thinking about what the best policy towards Iran should be, and it is clear that the comparison is being made purely for rhetorical and ideological reasons. Kagan himself spends most of his essay detailing the significant differences between the two states, but still assumes that a variant of the same “strategy” is appropriate now.

The question that Kagan never asks or answers is why the US needs a “victory strategy” against Iran in the first place. He simply takes for granted that seeking regime change in Iran is desirable and advances US interests without bothering to explain how or why that is the case. The Soviet Union posed a real threat to the security of the US and western Europe, but Iran poses no threat to Europe and has no ability to threaten the US The USSR was a nuclear-armed superpower, and Iran is a medium-sized regional state with limited power projection. There is no need for a “victory strategy” because there is nothing for the US to win from regime change in Iran.

Thinking about US Iran policy in these terms leads to some bizarre conclusions. For example, Kagan writes:

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan – it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the US can compel the IRGC to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle.

Iraq is Iran’s Poland – the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The US is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

If the comparison between the USSR and Iran doesn’t make sense, likening other countries in Iran’s orbit to Soviet-era countries is even more misleading. For one thing, Iran doesn’t…

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