Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a Hoover fellow at Stanford University and a contributing columnist for The Post. He was previously special assistant to President Barack Obama at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. Abbas Milani is a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.
After President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, many analysts wondered whether he was primarily motivated by the desire to undermine yet another of his predecessor’s foreign policy achievements. Among the rationales Trump gave for abandoning the deal were that “it didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
Since then, Trump administration officials and surrogates have offered only vague outlines of their Plan B. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced 12 conditions for returning to talks with Tehran, and his conditions make clear that the administration has no interest in a new arms-control deal. Instead, the president and his entourage want to use a new round of economic sanctions to put more pressure on the regime. Trump and his advisers believe that, at minimum, the resulting societal suffering will compel the mullahs to offer even greater concessions to the United States — or perhaps even trigger regime change.
Officially, national security adviser John Bolton has stated that regime change is not administration policy at this time (even though both Bolton and Pompeo have advocated just such a position for years). Iranians of many different political persuasions believe that neither their supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nor his Revolutionary Guard Corps would ever be able to accept such terms. The only remaining option is greater confrontation — maybe even of a military kind.
Over the long term, certainly, a transition to democracy in Iran would be the most effective way to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States and to guarantee a less disruptive regional role for Tehran. A democratic Iran could potentially become a strategic partner for the United States (and even Israel). Yet Trump’s actions and Pompeo’s 12-step program make that outcome less likely while damaging other core American national security interests. Tough rhetoric doesn’t always translate into effective policy. Some hope that this new confrontational tone coming from Washington might weaken Iran’s theocracy. In fact, however, the opposite is more likely.
For several weeks starting in December, Iran’s working class and poor, usually the bulwarks of regime support, took to the streets to protest gross mismanagement of the economy by the supreme leader and his conservative allies. Many Iranians have taken to blaming domestic corruption rather than American imperialism for their country’s dismal state. In Friday prayers around the country, the faithful jeer and boo their prayer leaders, on several occasions declaring “our enemy is here, not in the United States.” Commentators inside Iran have been questioning the hundreds of millions spent on foreign adventures in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Some also have assailed the vast and opaque sums paid to religious foundations. Until this month, much to the consternation of Iranian hard-liners, many Iranians were urging greater engagement with the West as a solution to the country’s problems.
Trump’s decision, however, has turned attention inside Iran back on the United States. The regime now has new evidence for its argument that the United States — pressured by Israel and Saudi Arabia — is seeking to impoverish the Iranian people. Patriotic Iranians, including those opposed to the autocratic regime, are now likely to rally around the flag, just as they have done during earlier periods of rising external threats.
The hard-liners in Iran, who agreed with Trump that the nuclear deal was the worst agreement in modern Iranian history, now trumpet that they were right all along about the deceptive Americans. The theocratic regime finds itself in the unusual position of enjoying good standing with the international community while the United States is isolated. This reversal in roles between the United States and the Islamic republic strengthens Iran’s autocrats.
Almost all of those fighting for democratic change inside Iran welcomed the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions that went with it. Initial signs suggest that they oppose the Trump administration’s new confrontational moves. While some in the Iranian diaspora and even inside Iran embrace the new tough rhetoric of the Trump administration — repeating the refrain that the current leadership only understands force — most seem to fear that this rhetoric will ultimately benefit the same mullahs whose despotic rule has been a disaster. Many also worry that the new policy will further push Iran into even closer ties to Russia and China — for years, a strategic objective of Khamenei and his allies.
Containing Iran’s belligerent actions abroad should be a high priority for the Trump administration, as well as engaging in arms control to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program and supporting ideas of democracy and human rights. Yet all these elements of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Iran could have been pursued without withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
And they can still be pursued without pursuing coercive regime change — not because the goal of democratization is a bad one, but because the strategy selected by Trump will not succeed. Democracy will come to Iran when the people of Iran have their reckoning with their ruthless and incompetent rulers. Tragically, the new Trump strategy delays that reckoning.