foreign policy

Trump’s Iran Strategy: Regime Change on the Cheap

Iranians hold an anti-U.S. demonstration in Tehran on May 11, 2018.

A week ago, President Donald Trump tweeted in all caps at the Iranian government, warning of “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” if Tehran ever dared threaten the United States. Predictably, this tweet set off a frenzy of speculation that the Trump administration was planning to declare war on Iran imminently — or even worse, that Trump was about do so impulsively.

Within 36 hours, Trump had walked back his bombast, saying the U.S. was ready to make a deal with Iran and insisting that his decision to tear up the agreement over its nuclear program and reimpose sanctions had put Iran in a situation where it would have to take whatever deal it was offered. Crisis averted, or so it seemed.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials hit back at Trump’s Twitter tirade, saying that they would respond in kind if the U.S. stepped up its efforts to cut off markets for Iran’s oil exports, and stressing that Iran would not negotiate with the U.S. under threat of force. General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, hit back with his own dire warnings on Thursday, saying a war with Iran “will destroy all that you possess” and that if the U.S. starts that war, Iran will decide how it ends.

In the event of a war, Iran does indeed have ways of inflicting pain on the U.S. and its allies, including some that are not available to other adversaries like North Korea. It can step up its ongoing cyberespionage and cyberwarfare activities, use its regional proxies to attack U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East and exacerbate ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

Iran’s trump card, which its officials alluded to last week, is the power it has to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 18 million barrels of oil travel per day, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the world’s supply. Even a partial blockade of that strategic waterway could send global oil prices skyrocketing. Such a move would be economically disastrous for Iran as well, but in the face of an existential threat, the regime in Tehran might decide it’s worth the price.

So far, Iran isn’t taking Trump’s bait by engaging in escalatory measures of its own, but it is taking steps to prepare for an American siege. The country continues to adhere to the nuclear deal even as the U.S. has rendered it effectively a dead letter. Iran is trying to retain trade with E.U. countries and keep European companies from withdrawing their investments, though the countervailing threat of Trump wrecking those countries’ trade relations with the U.S. if they don’t participate in sanctions makes that a Sisyphean task.

A more likely partner for Iran in evading or mitigating the impact of U.S. sanctions is Russia, which for various reasons is more resilient to U.S. pressure and also more amenable to doing deals under the table. Meanwhile, the Iranian government is courting local private investors to take over government projects and restore liquidity to the economy as foreign money flees the country.

Iran is also moving, through diplomacy with both Damascus and Moscow, to protect its interests in Syria in the event that pressure from the U.S. and Israel forces Iran to scale back its military activities there. These moves are in response to one of the Trump administration’s explicit goals in applying pressure to Iran, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated in remarks at the Heritage Foundation in May: “After our sanctions come in force, Iran will be forced to make a choice: either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or squander precious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the resources to do both.”

Yet the administration’s choice to reapply the economic stranglehold of sanctions on Iran also serves a darker purpose. The Trump administration isn’t looking to invade and occupy Iran, but it does have a fairly clear goal of regime change. Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and other key figures in Trump’s circle, including key Republicans in Congress, are open advocates of overthrowing the Islamic Republic and its effective ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These hawks’ preferences for war have been stymied by the resistance of the military establishment to starting yet another large-scale war in the Middle East, the true costs of which the real generals understand better than their armchair counterparts. Accordingly, the strategy the administration appears to have settled on is to have the Iranian people do the legwork of overthrowing their government for us.

Iran has recently faced the largest wave of popular protest since the Green Movement of 2009, mainly focused on economic stagnation but also bleeding into more political issues of foreign policy, personal freedoms, and human rights. The rising wave of discontent is pushing the government to make some concessions. Just yesterday, the regime’s security council approved the release of opposition figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the 2009 protest movement, from house arrest after seven years.

This move illustrates the regime’s unease with the rising pressure from the streets, but also shows that it has some tools available to alleviate that pressure. The latest protest movement, unlike the Green Movement, is divided in its agendas and lacks both organized leadership and an appetite for violent confrontation — both of which the regime has in spades.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration seems to view these protests as the best avenue for regime change in Tehran without a U.S. military intervention. In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last Sunday, Pompeo cast Trump officials as champions of the Iranian people’s desire for freedom from a regime “that resembles the mafia more than a government.” He noted that the U.S. was stepping up its propaganda broadcasts to Iran and portrayed the sanctions as targeting the country’s corrupt ruling elites, even though the economic devastation ultimately touches Iranians of all walks of life.

“While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country, the United States, in the spirit of our own freedoms, will support the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people,” Pompeo said. “Our hope is that ultimately the regime will make meaningful changes in its behavior both inside of Iran and globally.”

The subtext of the secretary’s talk was unmistakable, however, especially in light of previous statements from other key players like Bolton: Through sanctions, isolation, and propaganda, we are empowering the Iranian people to cast off the Islamic Republic (so we don’t have to). Yet as the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who attended the event at the Reagan Library, pointed out, “When coupled with U.S. moves that directly hurt Iranians … it is difficult for the administration to support its own claims that the well-being and prosperity of Iranians matter.”

Furthermore, the notion that Iranians are clamoring for the fall of the regime and welcome American assistance in precipitating that fall is the same kind of “we will be greeted as liberators” nonsense the Bush administration believed in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Just as Iraqi expatriate con artist Ahmed Chalabi nursed that delusion at the time, the exiled Iranian militant group the Mujahedin-e Khalq has stoked this administration’s regime-change fantasies for the purposes of its own aggrandizement (Bolton believes the MEK could serve as a ready-made government for a post-Khamenei Iran).

Iranians may want change, but the collapse of their economy, society, and state is surely not the kind of change they have in mind. Besides, history has shown that there is no better way to discredit a legitimate protest movement than by linking it to a nefarious foreign enemy; this is a well-rehearsed move in the Iranian regime’s playbook. Full-throated U.S. support for these protesters such as the administration is voicing could be their death sentence (perhaps literally).

The other leg of the administration’s Iran strategy is regional: solidifying and formalizing an alliance of Iran’s Sunni-Muslim-majority rival nations in the Arab world. Billed as an “Arab NATO” and tentatively titled the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), the alliance would include six Gulf Arab states plus Egypt and Jordan. Its key members would of course be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for which it would effectively serve as a U.S.-backed supranational enforcer of their regional interests.

The fact that Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and of course Israel are influencing the Trump administration’s Iran strategy is further evidence that the aim of this plan is not for Iran to pursue internal reform and external dialogue, but for its government to collapse entirely so that it can no longer threaten these countries’ interests. If Iran is violently destabilized in the process, they could hardly care less. These countries would also be entirely amenable to an American military intervention that produces the same result, and are unlikely to dissuade Trump from pursuing such a course of action should the mood strike him.

War with Iran would be a disaster, but the administration’s apparent plan A of indirectly fomenting regime change in Iran also carries grave risks. For one thing, even if it succeeds, the collapse of a state governing over 70 million people and controlling a vast, well-funded, fanatical paramilitary force will necessarily be a chaotic and traumatic process for Iran. It’s just as likely, however, that in its effort to achieve the outcome of a war without the cost and complications, the Trump administration will stumble into an inescapable spiral of escalations and we will end up at war anyway.