President Trump says he hopes “maximum pressure” sanctions will coerce Iran into accepting a better and stronger nuclear deal, but with Tehran unlikely to accept concessions being demanded by the White House, many are beginning to suggest that the administration’s actual goal is regime change.
National Security Adviser John R. Bolton long argued for overthrowing Iran’s theocratic government prior to joining the administration a few weeks ago. Now in the White House, Mr. Bolton says the goal is to make the existing government in Tehran halt its “unacceptable behavior” on several fronts, such as backing proxies in Syria and Yemen, testing ballistic missiles and acting as “the central banker of international terrorism.”
Some analysts say the plan would work and that European countries clinging to the 2015 nuclear deal would come around and embrace Mr. Trump’s approach, but longtime regional observers see little success in overturning the regime in Tehran.
Mr. Trump’s demands are so broad that they “effectively give both the U.S. and its allies something that appears to be ‘mission impossible,’” said Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Amid reports that Israel and Iranian forces based in Syria were trading missile attacks across the border Wednesday, Iran’s top leaders showed no signs of accepting the terms Mr. Trump laid out Tuesday in pulling Washington out of the multilateral agreement and restoring the economic sanctions that were a key sweetener for Iran to agree to curb its suspected nuclear programs and allow international inspections.
Iran’s supreme leader lashed out by saying, “Mr. Trump can’t do a damn thing” to force new concessions.
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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds more power than any Iranian political leader, warned that Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign would meet the same fate as those of past U.S. leaders who tried to intimidate or undermine the Islamic republic.
“The same behavior was shown by previous U.S. presidents, yet the Iranian nation is persistent,” Ayatollah Khamenei told the official Fars News Agency. “This man’s corpse will also be worm food, one day, while the Islamic Republic of Iran is standing stronger than ever.”
Still, Iran’s leaders were scrambling to rally the other countries to see if the nuclear deal could be salvaged. The apparent goal is to persuade the European Union to find ways to protect European companies — some of which have invested heavily in Iran since the deal went into effect three years ago — from reimposed U.S. sanctions.
Even though the other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — still support the accord, the prospect of choosing between the U.S. and Iran, and the fear of “secondary sanctions” on foreign companies trying to do business with Iran, make the prospect of saving the deal uncertain.
“The allies will get over it, and their efforts to keep the [deal] alive will go nowhere,” predicted Ambassador Robert Joseph, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. “The new sanctions will force European companies to choose whether to do business with the U.S. or Iran, and none will choose Iran.”
He spoke at an event hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian exile organization that has long advocated regime change in Tehran. Its influence has grown with the appointment of Mr. Bolton, a regular participant in its events in recent years, as Mr. Trump’s top security aide.
Mr. Joseph said he’s not optimistic that Tehran will yield to the demands being placed on it by the Trump administration. But he stopped short of describing the administration’s approach as tantamount to a policy of regime change.
Mr. Trump’s critics are even more certain that the ultimate White House aim is not to negotiate with the Iranian regime but to overthrow it, saying if the U.S. was serious about Iran’s nuclear programs and regional adventurism, it would have stayed in the deal, not tried to blow it up.
“Abandoning the [Iranian nuclear deal] is based on the desire to ‘keep Iran in the penalty box’ and prevent it from establishing normal relations with the outside world,” Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, wrote on Foreign Policy.com Wednesday. “… At the core of this perspective is the siren song of regime change, which U.S. hawks and other anti-regime forces have been pursuing for decades.”
Violating the ‘spirit’ of the deal
Analysts say the Trump administration’s claim that Iran has cheated on the 2015 nuclear deal by blocking inspections by U.N. nuclear watchdogs may be debatable, but add that Tehran has repeatedly hurt its own cause through ballistic missile tests and other provocative actions over the past three years.
Amb. Joseph DeTrani, a former longtime U.S. intelligence official and expert on non-proliferation, told the NCRI event that Iran has “violated the spirit” of the nuclear agreement by carrying out “more than 20 ballistic missile tests” since it was signed.
“We’ve [also] seen regional aggression [and] ongoing support for terrorist organizations,” he said.
When U.S. and international sanctions were waived in 2015, Iran received billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Critics say Tehran has used much of the money to fund its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other proxy forces that have destabilized the region and threatened such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Mr. Trump claimed the money underwrote an expansion of Iran-backed military operations around the Middle East, including in Syria, where Iranian troops and proxy forces are supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran’s critics say the same strategy is backing Iranian-allied movement in Yemen, Iraq and in Lebanon.
Iran, the region’s largest Shiite Islam power, is offering to fellow Shiites in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon facing off against Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia.
The idea that regime change is the logical endgame for Mr. Trump’s policy shift flows in part from the list of demands the U.S. issued as it was withdrawing from the nuclear accord. According to the White House, the list of concessions Tehran must agree to include:
• Giving up all long-range ballistic missiles and stop proliferating ballistic missiles to others;
• Cease its support for terrorists, extremists, and regional proxies;
• End its publicly declared quest to destroy Israel;
• Stop its threats to freedom of navigation, especially in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea;
• Cease escalating the Yemen conflict;
• End cyber-attacks against the United States and our allies, including Israel;
• End human rights abuses and stop the unjust detention of foreigners, including U.S. citizens.
But Iranian officials seem to be moving in exactly the opposite direction.
The top commander of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, told Iranian state media that the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal means Iran’s armed forces “should pay more and deeper attention to enhancement of our defense power.”
Despite such comments, Mr. Trump reiterated Wednesday that his goal is to use fresh sanctions to push Iran back to the table for an all-encompassing negotiation.
“They’ve got to understand life, because I don’t think they do understand life,” the president said. “If you look at what’s happening in the Middle East with Syria, with Yemen, with all of the places they’re involved, it’s bedlam and death, and we can’t allow that to happen.”