Talk of “regime change” is once again in the air, and this time Iran is in the gun sights.
President Trump — who withdrew from the nuclear deal Iran had signed with the United States, Europe, Russia and China — still insists that his goal is diplomacy. Only “maximum pressure” will bring Iran back to the negotiating table, the White House says: That’s the rationale for punishing economic sanctions that are aimed at reducing Iran’s exports to zero.
Even as the United States showily dispatched an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Middle East last week, the president asked Iran’s leaders to call him, with the White House going so far as to send Tehran a telephone number through the Swiss Foreign Ministry. Tehran said not to expect a call.
Trump’s talk of negotiations rings hollow. Washington’s strategy, it has been clear for some time, is to oust the current Iranian leadership through economic pressure and, if necessary, a nudge from the military. No wonder national security adviser John Bolton and other hawkish officials had asked the Pentagon for a plan that includes sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East, should Iran (or a “proxy”) make an aggressive military move. The White House is discussing an even broader range of military responses to Iranian provocations, according to recent reports.
Bolton has long promoted the idea that the United States should do what it can to spur a popular uprising that would push aside the Islamic Republic in favor of a democratic government ready to do business with Washington. If this sounds like Iraq War redux, that’s no accident: Bolton was among the chief advocates of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. (On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Trump was irritated with Bolton and other advisers for their overly bellicose plans. But he hasn’t disavowed their regime change strategy.)
The circumstances are different, but once again the White House is looking at regime change through rose-tinted glasses. While there’s little doubt that Iranians are unhappy with their lot and that they blame their rulers for their economic woes, the notion they would embrace a toppling of their government by the United States is sheer fantasy. Iranians hunger for more social and economic freedom than their leaders permit, and Iranian civil society is far stronger than that of pre-invasion Iraq, but Iranians are also deeply nationalistic. And they see evidence all around them that regime change can have catastrophic results (evidence American hawks bizarrely fail to absorb). What’s more, domestic Iranian politics is more complex than American policymakers fathom.
The discontent is real — the administration is right about that. Protests have become common across the country, and newspapers are filled with tales of elite corruption and government mismanagement. Iranians are tired of social and political restrictions, and their country’s isolation. They do not want to be in perpetual war with the West. They want regime change, of a sort.
The problem, for U.S. hawks, is that Iranians think they already signed up for a version of it, on their terms: Iranian citizens looked to the nuclear deal as the first step in repairing Iran’s relations with the West and changing the character of their country’s politics. If the nuclear deal held, then other deals would follow, they thought, each further opening Iran’s economy and relaxing its politics.
Iranians voted in record numbers to reelect Hassan Rouhani as president, not primarily to reward him for signing the nuclear deal but so that he can sign more deals. If Trump’s goal is to install a more moderate regime, then he should have stuck with the nuclear deal and backed moderates who were using it as a lever for change.
Instead, Trump turned Iranian hopes into despair. Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by some 6 percent this year, and that number is likely to grow as new U.S. sanctions take effect. Surging inflation and unemployment, as well as shortages of food and basic staples, are taking a toll on standards of living. Nonetheless, disgruntlement and sporadic protests have not exploded into the mass uprising Washington has been hoping for.
Yes, security forces have been quick to clamp down on protests in an effort to stamp out unrest before it spreads, but the real reason for the lack of revolutionary fervor is that few Iranians want to upend order and stability — especially to serve Washington’s goals. The Arab Spring, Iranians have not failed to notice, did not turn out well for the Arab world. Its legacy is civil war, broken states and more authoritarianism.
America’s record of regime change in Iraq and Libya speaks for itself. Tens of millions of Iranians have visited Iraq since 2003; they have seen Iraq’s chaos and insecurity firsthand, and can imagine a similar catastrophe at home.
Iranians know that Trump has engineered this crisis and is holding their economy hostage (and is now threatening war). They see through his bluster. They know that, on the nuclear issue, they are not isolated, that Europe, Russia and China have stayed in the deal and do not support either regime change or war.
Iranian have plenty to not like about the Islamic Republic, but they will resist being used as an instrument of U.S. policy. The memory of the 1953 U.S. meddling in Iranian politics (principally the toppling of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh) — which animated the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis — still looms large in popular consciousness. If it comes to confrontation, many will rally to the flag. And the Trump administration has alienated the Iranian public further by aligning its policy so closely and publicly with Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (The closeness with Israel comes as less of a surprise.)
But, in another complicating twist, it is not the hard-liners who have suffered the worst of popular anger, but Rouhani, who reached out to the West to sign the nuclear deal. In fact, Trump’s “maximum pressure” has brought about a regime change of sorts in Iran, just not the one Washington had hoped for. Undermining the nuclear deal and choking Iran’s economy discredited moderate voices in Iran who argued for engaging with the West.
The nuclear deal had been a victory for moderates, and it rallied large segments of Iran’s population, hungry for change, to their side. Trump has showed both the moderates and their supporters to have been naive about trusting the United States. Now it’s the hard-line voices, who all along argued against talks, that have the upper hand.
The more pressure Trump puts on Iran, the more he strengthens the hands of the conservatives. Trump says he wants to talk, but ripping up the nuclear deal had consequences. No one in Tehran can argue for another engagement with the United States. And so, as Iran prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections, hard-liners who had opposed the nuclear deal in the first place are poised to win. They have Trump to thank for the turn in their fortunes.
The Trump administration looks ready to shift from economic pressure to war if sanctions alone don’t produce regime change. But the lessons of our last attempt at such a strategy should be clear: 16 years on, the wounds of the Iraq War still run deep, yet some officials now want to repeat that folly with a far larger, more complex and more strategic country — a nation with 80 million residents that sits at the geostrategic crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus and South Asia. The outcome in Iran is not going to be different, except that it will be far costlier, and with more devastating consequences for U.S. interests and for the future of the region.
And as the United States ramps up pressure, it risks losing control of the situation. Iran’s hard-liners have concluded Washington construes willingness to engage as weakness. The more pressure Trump applies, the more likely Iran could resort to aggression of its own — putting the Middle East on the knife’s edge.