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On Iran, the Neocons Are No Ronald Reagan

In their pursuit of a policy of maximum pressure on Iran, America’s neoconservatives have pushed a nostalgic narrative: the Trump administration can bring down Iran’s theocracy the way that the Reagan administration helped defeat and dissolve the Soviet Union.

This comparison has been advanced by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which promotes draconian sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Its arguments figured prominently in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent speech [1] at the Reagan library in which he asserted that Iran is still a revolutionary regime “committed to spreading the revolution to other countries, by force if necessary.”

The strategy to confront and collapse the Soviet Union included military and economic pressure coupled with a focus on human rights abuses and corruption, as well as U.S. support for indigenous dissidents. The comparison to Iran is flawed on a number of levels, and even in those areas where some overlap exists, such a plan is unlikely to be successfully implemented by the Trump administration.

While neoconservatives have portrayed the Islamic Republic of Iran as a global bogeyman on the order of the USSR and argued that it should be President Trump’s “pre-eminent challenge [2],” it remains a mid-level power in a region that most Americans, including Trump, would like to quit.


Iran has never successfully exported its unique theocratic-led system, even to neighboring Iraq, with its Shiite majority, or Lebanon, where Shiites are a plurality and Iran has a potent ally in Hezbollah. The Soviet Union, by contrast, dominated Eastern Europe for four decades and supported communist parties throughout the world, including in Iran when it was under the Shah. It invaded other countries at will, crushing the Prague spring of 1968 and entering Afghanistan in 1979 to shore up a friendly regime.

The Soviet Union was also a nuclear peer competitor of the United States, possessing a massive atomic arsenal. Iran has never developed nuclear weapons and could be constrained for more than a decade from building them if the United States returned to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or if a rump JCPOA somehow survives the U.S. unilateral withdrawal.

The comparison to the Soviet Union does work in the sense that Iran’s economy is now under severe strain, although the reasons are not the same. The Reagan administration outspent the Soviet Union in a massive arms race that left Moscow unable to satisfy the growing demands of its long-suffering consumers and maintain its military edge and alliances, including the debilitating war in Afghanistan. The Trump administration is collapsing the Iranian economy through sanctions that have frightened away major multinational companies and destroyed confidence in the Iranian currency.

Both the old USSR and Iran have autocratic systems that repress political expression and jail dissidents. It is entirely appropriate for the U.S. and other countries to publicize these abuses and seek to penalize those most directly responsible. However, the Trump administration’s credibility in denouncing what Pompeo called a “mafia” government run by “hypocritical holy men” is undercut by egregious double standards. This is, after all, an administration led by a president who has called North Korea’s brutal leader Kim Jong-un “honorable,” sword-danced with Saudi autocrats, and fawned over reprehensible leaders from the Philippines to Egypt.

In his speech, Pompeo asserted that the U.S. would somehow bolster Iranians who have taken to the streets—in a very un-Soviet set of popular protests—since late last year. “In light of these protests and 40 years of regime tyranny, I have a message for the people of Iran,” Pompeo said. “The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you.”

That support, however, does not extend to allowing actual Iranians to come to America—unlike Reagan’s embrace of Soviet exiles and others fleeing persecution. Thanks to the travel ban, which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, most Iranian citizens are barred from even visiting the U.S. And while academic exchanges are technically still allowed, the “extreme vetting” required for Iranians—and their fear that they may not be able to return [3] to the U.S. if they have to leave for any reason—has severely undercut this key feature of old-style public diplomacy.

Iran and the United States, of course, lack diplomatic ties, which were so instrumental in promoting people-to-people contact with the Soviet Union. This author was an exchange student in what was then called Leningrad in the 1970s, an experience that humanized the Soviet Union in the eyes of the visiting Americans and performed a similar function for our Soviet counterparts.

Unfortunately, few Americans know the reality of today’s Iran and are thus easily manipulated by propagandists who cast the country in relentlessly negative terms.

If despite all these differences, the Trump administration really embraced a Reaganesque approach to Iran, it would not only rescind the travel ban but would sincerely pursue new negotiations that build on the JCPOA.

Instead, the administration is punishing Iran for non-compliance and demanding that it capitulate and reverse all its other foreign and domestic policies. This approach almost certainly guarantees that Iran will not produce an “Ayatollah Gorbachev” willing and able to resolve the long U.S.-Iran divide and further liberalize Iranian society. The main victims will be the Iranian people but American interests will also suffer.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are her own.

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "On Iran, the Neocons Are No Ronald Reagan"

#1 Comment By Charles City Co. On August 6, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

“Instead, the administration is punishing Iran for non-compliance”

I wish that were true. In fact, we are punishing Iran for compliance.

That’s why the US allies party to the JCPOA are staring at us in anger and disbelief for pulling out. Parasitic clients like Israel and Saudi Arabia can’t believe their luck.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 7, 2018 @ 3:20 am

For the Reagan analogy to work, the Iranian people and their leaders would want to have a more democratic system than a dictatorship, as the Russians themselves did. The problem is, this already happened when the repressive and brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran was overthrown by Iran’s people.

The Russians learned the hard way that western designs were not as benign as western propaganda made out. Instead of peace, prosperity and cooperation after the Reagan/Gorbachev rapprochement, there was a Wall Street/oligarch cabal that proceeded to loot what had been state owned enterprises, while impoverishing the general population, who ironically had been better off under late communism. Now the Russians are a target for regime change, much like the Iranians, for spurning western globalist hegemony.

None of this foreign adventurism on behalf of elite interests, with enormous profits in the military corporations, serves the common folks’ own homegrown American values. We are being tossed under the wheels of the imperial assault vehicle, since the empire is bigger and more important than mere America.

#3 Comment By polistra On August 7, 2018 @ 3:39 am

The “Iran-US divide” doesn’t exist BECAUSE Persia has its own form of government. Every country has its own form of government but we don’t work nearly so hard to obliterate most countries.

The divide exists BECAUSE we are psychotic murderers acting as contract hitmen for Saudi and Israel. If we were serving American interests instead of Saudi and Israeli interests, we’d return to normal unexciting relations with Persia, neither friend nor foe.

#4 Comment By Hrant On August 7, 2018 @ 5:25 am

Enough with this nonsense that you pressured USSR into a collapse. One too many Hollywood movies maybe. The Soviet Union collapsed because of itself. Because it was an artificial, ideological structure that made no sense in any terms – economical in the first place as well as cultural, national, ethical you name it. With or without Ronal Reagan it would collapse sooner or later. The fact is when that happened, all the clandestine services, the CIA, NSA and the rest of the gang were surprised as never before.

#5 Comment By Christian Chuba On August 7, 2018 @ 6:22 am

The Soviet Union actually did occupy Eastern Europe and that was the power behind Reagan’s memorable ‘Mr. Gorbachev’ speech.

The Iranians have done no such thing, we have no moral authority to unilaterally overthrow their govt. We are the aggressors. Nothing good will come of this. In fact, we are already doing harm. We are supporting the Saudi genocide in Yemen. It kills me that we have so many wannabe pious, Reagans, and Winston Churchill’s going to bible studies convinced that God is on our side.

#6 Comment By HenonJD On August 7, 2018 @ 7:09 am

When your only goal is war, why bother with the arts of peace?

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 7, 2018 @ 9:26 am

Ms. Slavin is right:

“If despite all these differences, the Trump administration really embraced a Reaganesque approach to Iran, it would…sincerely pursue new negotiations that build on the JCPOA.”

#8 Comment By Hexexis On August 7, 2018 @ 9:34 am

“few Americans know the reality of today’s Iran”

Well, really, few Americans know the reality of their own country, much less the reality of foreign lands.

Major media outlets, including too often TAC, recycle only statements from the W.H. & a couple of Cabinet depts. Press releases from those quarters used to serve only U.S. interests; now those interests served are limited to the personnel that issue them. & By now, way too Americans remain indifferent to or obdurate about any differences betw. Shi’a & Sunni; or among Iran & other Islamic states.

But I remain convinced that official bellicosity toward Iran is hollow: the CIA learned in the mid-1990s that the Afghanistan Taliban planned to use its cache of Stingers against Iran; no official U.S reply to that lil’ caper.

As w/ the old USSR, our steadfast demonizing of other nations generally means the defense budget will remain outta control. & If this current admin. offers any actual policy, that’s pretty much it.

#9 Comment By Anne Mendoza On August 7, 2018 @ 9:35 am

Is our foreign policy establishment still brooding about the take-over of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis that occurred almost 40 years ago? Is that Iran’s unforgivable sin? It sure isn’t any threat to U.S. national security interests.

#10 Comment By SDS On August 7, 2018 @ 9:58 am

Don’t look to Washington to change any of our foreign policy until Israel says to….

We may be mutts; but we’re obedient…

#11 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On August 7, 2018 @ 10:51 am

Reagan hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the causes of its future collapse were described in the late ’70s by the West German political scientist Richard Lowenthal. If the devil is in the details, he provided the details. Rollback was never necessary; containment was the most that was needed.

#12 Comment By Sid Finster On August 7, 2018 @ 11:02 am

I am not a Marxist-Leninist, but the Soviet Union, like most other systems, worked, and even achieved monumental things (and horrifying things) for so long as people by and large continued to believe in it.

About when L.I. Brezhnev made his “stability in cadres” pronouncement was when the looting began in earnest. Even then, the Soviet Union continued to make some gains, and held on for another thirty years.

When the Soviet Union did finally fall, almost everyone was astonished at how quickly this happened.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 7, 2018 @ 11:51 am

” Republic of Iran as a global bogeyman on the order of the USSR and argued that it should be President Trump’s “pre-eminent challenge,” it remains a mid-level power in a region that most Americans, including Trump, would like to quit.”

it is tiresome to make excuses for the president. Look, if he in fact wants to quit the region, he should do so.

Instead, he panders to the interventionists which gradually erodes his initial correct foreign policy advances for the region which as I recall was less is more.

There are plenty of reasons to mistrust Iran, but this far minus any actual violations to the agreement, which for the US no longer is in play – the complaint we have doesn’t add to US credibility or the presidents.

The policy to bring down the Iranian theocracy to what vend, it will just be rep[lace by another. And one doesn’t need to be an expert in international economics to know that Iran and the former soviet state did not have similar economies. So minus the ethics, strategically it’s an incorrect comparison — At the moment Iranians are not dissatisfied with their government to the extent that a revolution is on the horizon, Chances are that our blatant manipulations will foster more entrenched support, in which case the Iranian theocracy will have even deeper support if the economy depresses, because the fault will be at the feet of the “evil americans” who are forever meddling in Iranian affairs — so will go the argument. so the supposed military intervention will have widespread support.

Note, the economy of the soviet union was unsustainable of its accord. And while competing with the US may have sped the process — far too much is made of the US defeating the soviets. We would do well to remember that western europe was sitting in their hands during that period. But the real issue for the soviets was the failure, ultimately of central planning — noted previously

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 7, 2018 @ 11:52 am

There is little chance that sanctions will do for the current government what it did to the Shah’s.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 7, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

Pres Reagan’s Iranian policy

Ahh, the ever so successful Iranian policy, that gave us Iran-Contra and cocaine.

Let’s hope not.

#16 Comment By b. On August 7, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

“the Reagan administration helped defeat and dissolve the Soviet Union”


Gorbachev helped unwind the Soviet Union despite Reagan’s bad decisions in his first term. The US – DoD, CIA etc. – did not see it coming. Reagan was a decent enough man to concern himself with the existential threat of nuclear weapons – something which Bush 43, Obama and Trump utterly failed to do – and lucky enough that Gorbachev accepted reassurances – e.g. on NATO expansion – that were not backed at all by US government commitments.

Slavin appears to contribute not much useful here. Larison points to her comment on the lack of diplomatic relations, which is a very relevant information – esp. in comparison to the way the US approached the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or, in the extreme, the Republic of Cuba.

But, as many comments have pointed out in both threads, this is not a grudge match, but simply US government services delivered to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and the US oligarchs that have those nation’s interests at heart. The cause here is the cause of profit and money. The lack of diplomatic relations is easily understood in that context, and as long as Slavin cannot speak truth to wealth, her observations will remain at the fringe of relevancy.

#17 Comment By JPK On August 7, 2018 @ 1:09 pm

This article fails to mention that Iran, because of its incompetence and mismanagement, is quickly running out of water. Also, Iran is in severe demographic decline. Iranians have one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. Its economy is severe decline, as Iran is quickly running out of cash reserves.

So yes. We can hasten the Mullah’s collapse.

#18 Comment By sglover On August 7, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

An article premised on fantasy — here, the loopy notion that the USSR imploded because of Saint Reagan’s genius and grit — simply isn’t worth anybody’s time. But TAC being TAC, it’s a headliner.

#19 Comment By LM On August 7, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

“They think they can pressure Tehran to collapse a la the USSR. That’s nonsense.”

Actually this is not nonsense. I refer to Yuri Brezmenov KGB Defector who said that the Soviet and KGB policy was not invasion but subversion. “In one 2-3 generations we could take a stable democracy or republic and bring them to indebtedness, waring factions, addiction thru vice, destruction of families, etc through political and cultural subversion.

Cultural subversion has been at work in Europe since WWII ended and in the US and Canada since the German and Jewish war refugees resettled (many attaining positions in and subverting our colleges and universities from which they launched the counter-cultural revolution in the late 1960s).

It was a subversive cultural revolution that turned China on upside down from an imperial monarchy, Buddhis and capitalist to totalitarian atheist communist.

It was also subversive cultural revolution that turned Iran and the Islamic world from westernization and modernization to Shariah and totalitarian enforcement of radical islam. President Jimmy Carter handed Iran on a silver platter of apathy and neglect. Iranians will tell you that the Iranian Revolution was a student protest and they fully expected the Shah to retaliate and put down the protest rather than following President Jimmy Carter’s demands to leave the country.

There is every reason to believe that regime change can happen in Iran particularly with Israel’s Mossad at work and Kurdish and Sunni rebels in their Iranian territories sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia.

However regime change in Iran is a very dangerous thing. If Iran were to fall as Iraq did then that would embolden Turkey’s Erdogan into further expansion of his version of radical Islam which already shows great power and domination over Netherlands, Belgium and Germany to name a few. It would also embolden radical elements in Saudi Arabia which has been spreading radical Wahabism and radical Zionism in Israel. Iran may be a trouble maker but it has stymied worse elements from manifesting in the middle east. THE REAL QUESTION WHICH IS A WORSE SCENARIO. A NUCLEAR IRAN THAT SETS OFF A NUCLEAR ARMS RACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST AMONG SUNNI AND SHIA AND ISRAEL OR A REGIME CHANGE IN IRAN (IE COLLAPSE OR WAR) WHICH NEUTERS IRAN INTO A VERSION OF IRAQ BUT WHICH THEN LETS RADICAL ELEMENTS IN SAUDI ARABIA, TOTALITARIAN EXPANSIONISM WITH TURKEY’S ERDOGAN AND RADICAL PARANOIA IN ISRAEL COME INTO ASCENSION.

#20 Comment By Sean On August 7, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

b., I am not American, and old enough to remember that Gorbachev faced the Leipzig protests, the huge costs of Chernobyl, the collapse of oil prices, and a lingering demographic calamity…the death of so many young men in WW Two.

When I think of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech I ask myself: besides American journos, who was listening?

#21 Comment By gdp On August 7, 2018 @ 4:49 pm

@Anne_Mendoza: The Iranian Gov’t true sin is that they opened a Euro-denominated oil bourse in 2008-Feb, and switched from US$ to Euros for doing their international accounting in 2018-Apr.

The former move threatens the “Petrodollar” hegemony, while the latter move threatens the “Reserve Status” of the US$ as the preeminent “International Currency”. Neither move is acceptable to the U.S. Powers That Be, nor the International Banking System — and hence the renewed U.S. calls for “Regime Change”.

As always, “Follow the Money.”

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 7, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

“It was also subversive cultural revolution that turned Iran and the Islamic world from westernization and modernization to Shariah and totalitarian enforcement of radical islam.”

No. it was a stifled economy in which basic goods and services could not be obtained, which eventually led to food, water and medicinal shortages and which led to protests . . . and the shah responded brutally or at least the police did eventually causing the country to turn on him completely.

there was no cultural revolution. In fact, the students and intellectual elite had more progressive policies in mind, but the religious factions won the day.

As for your shouted warning, it’s premised on a false dichotomy, there are plenty of possibilities here, including, we abide the agreement, encourage the reduction of tensions, including instigation by Israel, and Iran abides the agreement as well — and nuclear competition subsides, i it ever existed. Though, that might mean alleviating israel of our nuclear weapons.

after all based on your comments, the point is to avoid nuclear competition . . . surely , you meant everyone in the region must play by the same rules.

#23 Comment By Christian Chuba On August 8, 2018 @ 8:24 am

@Sean, Regarding ‘Tear down that wall’, it was an iconic statement, it was broadcast in the U.S. and Gobachev personally felt compelled to respond to the statement. More to the point, it indicated that the Soviet Union was over-extended. As the USSR faced economic pressure could they really justify the expense needed to keep unwilling subjects while proclaiming moral superiority? I’m not naive enough to say that it ended the Soviet Union but Reagan grasped the true reason why it needed to be rolled back (peacefully). Unlike today’s neocons who wanted to dance on their bones, he was gracious afterward.

@LM / @JPK, we might have the power to destroy Iran economically but if we do that just shows our aggression while claiming to be the victim. But there is no one who can stop the strong from taking from the weak.

#24 Comment By Sean On August 8, 2018 @ 10:10 am

Christian Chuba, Gorbachev pivoted because of Chernobyl, oilshock, demography and Leipzig. Not Reagan. My news anchor snickered at Reagan’s bluster. As did I.

But Iran is the topic here. America has no compunction about taking Iranian lives, if it can do it with impunity. Iran’s only deterrent is to threaten corporate pocketbooks.

#25 Comment By cka2nd On August 8, 2018 @ 11:44 pm

“It invaded other countries at will, crushing the Prague spring of 1968 and entering Afghanistan in 1979 to shore up a friendly regime.”

You forgot Hungary in 1956.

Of course, the U.S. record includes the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama, not to mention North Korea and Cambodia, or the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors.

And if you don’t like the “whataboutism,” my heart bleeds for you.

#26 Comment By cka2nd On August 8, 2018 @ 11:52 pm

Hell, Trotsky not only predicted the eventual dissolution of the USSR but correctly predicted how it would happen, with the bureaucracy itself restoring capitalism and looting the country in the process.

#27 Comment By Jeeves On August 9, 2018 @ 3:11 pm

Ms. Slavin constructs a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade-sized straw man out of FDD’s unilluminating comparisons of Iran with the Soviet Union. Then she demolishes it.

I still say she’s an apologist for Iran, viz., Instead, the administration is punishing Iran for non-compliance and demanding that it capitulate and reverse all its other foreign and domestic policies.

“…its other foreign and domestic policies”?
What, you mean like international terrorism and torture and repression at home? Those policies?

#28 Comment By Tomonthebeach On August 9, 2018 @ 3:54 pm

Because Trump is ignorant of even recent history (like the Russia – Trump Tower meeting), he probably does not know that the every time the USA decided to overthrow the Iran government, it did not turn out well – Ask Jimmy Carter.

#29 Comment By cka2nd On August 9, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

Jeeves says: “What, you mean like international terrorism and torture and repression at home? Those policies?”

What, you mean you want the US to be hypocritical and sanction Iran for actions no worse than those of our allies or the US’ own?

#30 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On August 10, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

Recently, I accidentally read Gorbachev’s book on perestroika in the Soviet Union, published in 1986. One thing surprises me. The head of a large country, having at his disposal a huge army of advisers, analytical institutions, closed information, writes a book, the text of which, in three decades, looks naive, not clever, having nothing to do with reality. For the sake of justice, it should be noted that the Western analytical centers were likewise unable to foresee the rapid disintegration of the USSR and what to do about it. There is a superstition – not to talk about plans for the future, not to jinx it.
In futurology there is an understanding that the promulgated forecast will not necessarily be realized. In Russia they like to say: there is one step from love to hatred. Perhaps the distance is not much more in the opposite direction.
I have no doubt that Ms. Slavin deeply understands Iran. Yet it will not surprise me if in 10 years Iran will be a strategic ally of the United States and will join NATO equally with Georgia. Sometimes the future is connected with the present not in linear dependence, not with sinusoidal and not spiral functions, but rather with the help of a fractal figure – too complex for human prediction.

#31 Comment By Moi On August 14, 2018 @ 8:03 am

Slavin needs to brush up on history–because Ronnie failed to honor the Algiers accord reached with Iran:


#32 Comment By didi On August 14, 2018 @ 9:02 am

Barbara Slavin is a very poor analist to name only “the Trump Administration” and “Pompeo”. The boss of the “Trump administration” and of “Pompeo” is a man named Trump who is the only one who should be held responsible for our Iran policies. As Truman was wont to say “the buck stops here” that is to say on the President’s desk.
Her miserable analysis is doubly true when I note that Trump and his minions never blame “the Obama administration” but always Obama himself.
Yet there is some progress. Barbara does not blame the “Deep State”.

#33 Comment By rta On August 14, 2018 @ 9:21 am

The Soviet Union would have collapsed if Kermit the Frog had been president. The Raegan myth lives on.

#34 Comment By didi On August 14, 2018 @ 9:24 am

Allow me a comment on Ken Zaretzke’s contribution. Richard Lowenthal was a Johnny-come-lately. The dyed-in-the-wool Marxist Rosa Luxemburg broke with Lenin because she considered his Marxist revolution to have been wildly premature. Yes Czarism was dead as an economic system and a governance but it was not dead in the minds of millions of agrarian workers. Capitalism was still in its infant stages. Rosa predicted that Leninism would fail.
Luxemburg was not alone in her critique. It was shared by reformists such a Kautsky.

#35 Comment By se1 On August 14, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

Good article. Just a few points. Reagan’s administration was capable signing deals with the soviets and sticking with them as necessary. Also Reagan made overtures towards normalizing relations with Iran. Moreover the Reagan’s administration was capable of trying different approaches when one failed. The policies pursued by Trump are the rehash of old failed ones. Also Reagan was not in favor of Direct military intervention. Economic sanctions and military attacks aimed at regime change in Iran have failed in the past so to try more of the same, seems less than sane.