Is A Regime Change In Iran On Trump’s Agenda?
The Citizen’s regular Foreign Policy Primer
The trading of threats and insults has been escalating between Iran and the USA, more so in recent months following the US favourite Anwar al Hadi’s Hadi’s loss to Moqtada Al Sadr and Iran’s protégé Hadi Amiri in Iraq’s elections; President Bashar al Assad’s ability to suppress the rebels in Syria with Russian and Iranian help; the growing political influence and strength of the Iran backed Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Iran’s continuing support to the Houthis opposing the Saudi Arabian led coalition in Yemen. The Trump administration has been ratcheting up the pressure on the Islamic Republic to achieve its now publicly declared objective of getting rid of the clerical regime through, if possible, local unrest, with the declared intent of freeing the Iranian people.
Regime change appears to be very much on the American agenda despite denials by State Department officials who have couched the aim in the phrase “…we are not seeking regime change. We are seeking changes in the Iranian government’s behavior …” In fact separate articles have appeared in the Veteran’s Today in the USA and the Hurriyet in Turkey titled “Are the US and Israel looking for another coup in Iran?” and “Another US-sponsored coup in Iran or worse?” In a recent obvious anti Iran move the Trump administration was seeking to set up an "Arab Nato" named the Middle East Strategic Alliance involving six Arab States and Egypt and Jordan. According to a White House National Security Council spokesperson it would serve as a "bulwark" against Iranian aggression, terrorism, and extremism.
The appointment of hard -liners -on- Iran, Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Advisor is stark evidence of the Trump administration’s approach. Reports in the American media have also referred to the resurfacing of neo conservatives who had been ardent supporters of the invasion of Iraq and the regime change there.
The most definitive enunciation of this objective has come from US Secretary of State Pompeo. At a recent speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where Iranian Americans were present, he did not explicitly call for regime change but repeatedly urged the Iranian people not to put up with their leaders. When asked to give a brief precis of the administration’s policy he said “..the mission set for our team is clear. It’s to deny the Iranian leadership the resources, the wealth, the funds, the capacity to continue to foment terrorism around the world and to deny the people inside of Iran the freedoms that they so richly deserve….” He said the United States, while ratcheting up sanctions, was working with other countries to get them to reduce imports of Iranian to 'zero,' by November 4th2018.
Pompeo’s speech was laced with a wide range of allegations against the Iranian regime’s leadership. Among others named by him for corruption were Ayatollah Khamenei whom Pompeo called an international con artist who had amassed $95 billion in "his own personal, off-the-books hedge fund called the Setad”. Pompeo also said Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary in Iran was worth at least $300 million and that he got this money from embezzling public funds into his own bank account. He spoke about the people protesting against the regime mixing fact and fiction on various subjects- a trend that has been the hallmark of the Trump administration. Interestingly the New York Times carried an analysis of Pompeo’s speech highlighting those of his comments which had no basis in reality. Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Brooking Institution Think Tank’s Foreign Policy Program, said Pompeo’s speech did indeed amount to a strategy for regime change and that is how it has been received by the Iranian government. Pompeo tried to quash talk of war by saying Washington would lift punishing sanctions it was now moving to impose, restore diplomatic and commercial ties and allow Iran to have access to advanced technology if Washington saw tangible shifts in Iran’s policies.
There has long been an ideologically driven animosity towards Iran among the neo conservatives reflected in Trump’s administration. Factors that have fueled this animosity include the ouster of the late Shah of Iran-an American ally- by the Ayatollah Khomeini led Islamic Revolution; the disastrous rescue attempt to free the American hostages held for years in the US Embassy in Tehran; the ability of the clerical regime to fight a long war with Iraq despite facing sanctions; the development of a weapons capability including nuclear processing; the spreading influence of Iran in the neighbourhood; the softer approach adopted by European and other countries in dealing with Iran; the ability of the regime to hold an Iranian version of democratic elections; its ruthlessness in crushing dissent; the arrest of well known Iranian Americans on charges of spying; close relations with China and Russia; and above all the Islamic Regime’s refusal to be cowed down and to continue to oppose American strategic interests in the region. The list goes on and on.
On becoming President, Trump had demonstrated a perverse determination to undo whatever his predecessor had done including international agreements that the USA had been party to. He had called the 7 nation nuclear deal with Iran, brokered by former President Barrack Obama, “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” He had sought to persuade other countries party to the deal to abandon it and to renew sanctions on Iran which had been lifted when Iran signed the deal. France, Britain and Germany siding with the US had been trying to persuade their EU partners to back new sanctions on Iran, as a way to persuade Trump to stick with the nuclear deal curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. Their proposed sanctions would not involve measures that were lifted under the nuclear deal but would target individual Iranians that the EU believed were behind Iran’s ballistic weapons programme and its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
President Trump officially withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018. Washington has since told countries they must stop buying Iranian oil from Nov. 4 or face financial measures. Prior to Trump’s decision Pompeo had presented Iran with a list of wide-ranging demands. America wanted Iran to abandon its nuclear enrichment and its ballistic missile programme and its role in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and effect a wholesale change in its military and regional policies. Pompeo had threatened that Iran’s failure to do so would lead to the imposition of “the strongest sanctions in history”. Iran had responded with its own 15 demands calling for a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear accord and for the USA to stop providing arms to the “invaders of Yemen,” referring to Saudi Arabia, and to drop its opposition to the nuclear disarmament of Israel. Israel had already taken advantage of the growing tensions and claimed its jets had hit nearly all of Iran's military infrastructure in Syria claiming that it was retaliation for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds force launching an attack at the Israeli Golan Heights. The Israelis have been worried that Iran and Hezbollah were turning Syria into a new front against them.
Mike Pompeo had accused Iran of funding Shia militias in Iraq and supporting groups like Hezbollah and the Syrian President and the Houthis rather than using its resources for its own people. These arguments justified the campaign to economically strangle Iran and stoke public discontent with the leadership to force Iran to further curtail not only its nuclear program but also its regional ambitions failing which to seek an implosion in Iran and the unseating of the clerical regime. The hawks in Washington refuse to recognize that there are moderates in Iran and were ignoring advice from experts and officials that Western countries should be aware that if they put too much pressure on Iran, it could unleash radical Shia forces and trigger a new wave of Islamic radicalism. The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had said that the Iranian nation had successfully resisted bullying attempts by America and other arrogant powers and would continue to resist. He had called on all Muslim nations to stand united against America. Already President Rouhani was under pressure and some hard-liners had called for new elections or for Rouhani’s civilian government to be replaced by a military-led one. The Fars news agency, believed to be close to Iran’s hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, had published an article describing the Rouhani government as being ready to “bow down to foreign threats and sit at the negotiation table.”
President Rouhani had hinted that Iran could severely disrupt the oil trade in the Persian Gulf by blocking the Strait of Hormuz while Iranian officials spoke of the possibility that Iran country might restart its nuclear program in the face of new American sanctions. Iran had made it a point to display its latest nuclear achievements including a nuclear battery and centrifuges for the oil industry to mark National Nuclear Technology Day. President Rouhani was quoted on his official website as saying: “Mr Trump! We are the people of dignity and guarantor of security of the waterway of the region throughout the history. Don't play with the lion's tail; you will regret it.” Speaking to Iranian diplomats he had cautioned against the Trump administration’s attempts to overthrow the Iranian regime saying "America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,". This led to the highly publicized tweet in capital letters from Trump addressed to President Rouhani “"NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE." It drew an equally hard response—not from the Iranian President but Major-General Qassem Soleimani the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who told Trump that he should address any threats against Tehran directly to him, and mocked the U.S. president for using the language of “night clubs and gambling halls”. Solemani said “As a soldier, it is my duty to respond to your threats ... If you want to use the language of threat ... talk to me, not to the president..It is not in our president’s dignity to respond to you,”. His message to the Americans was “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine ... Come. We are ready ... If you begin the war, we will end the war,” …“You know that this war will destroy all that you possess.”
The imposition of new sanctions and the USA threatening its partners if they did not fall in line in bankrupting Iran has not been well received. The European Union, once Iran’s biggest oil importer, has vowed to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive without the United States by trying to keep Iran’s oil and investment flowing. But European officials acknowledge that U.S. sanctions would make it difficult to give Tehran guarantees. President Rouhani was reported to have said in May that Iran would remain committed to the nuclear deal if the deal’s goals could be achieved in cooperation with other partners in the deal. He had undertaken a tour of European capitals some of which like Germany France and Britain had substantial economic interests in Iran and did not wish to sacrifice them to Trump’s agenda. France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire had said EU states would propose sanctions-blocking measures to the European Commission and that Europe would not accept the that United States was the economic gendarme of the planet. The Iranians had been in touch with the Russians also.
As part of the anti-Iran campaign the Trump administration had charged and sanctioned nine Iranians and an Iranian company for attempting to hack into hundreds of universities worldwide, dozens of firms and parts of the U.S. government, including its main energy regulator, on behalf of Tehran’s government. U.S. officials are reported to have said the campaign against Iran that is underway involves an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran to end its nuclear program and its support of militant groups. At the centre of the campaign, according to Mike Pompeo, is diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off sources of funds for Iran and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran’s banking and energy sectors. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors is to launch a new 24/7 Farsi-language TV channel spanning not only television, but radio, digital, and social media format, so that the ordinary Iranians inside of Iran and around the globe are made aware of American support. The White House has cheered all glimmers of protest within Iran and inflated the magnitude of the anti-regime sentiment and there could be some truth to Iranian allegations that funding for the protests that have occurred in Tehran and other cities since late last year is coming from abroad.
What comes next as the war of words escalates. Cliff Kupchan, Chairman of the political-risk firm Eurasia Group has said that the biggest risk most likely lies in a provocative maneuver gone wrong, which could result in a real conflict this time. Even though Iranian’s have been protesting against economic shortages the levers of power still lie with the hardliners and Iranian nationalism remains a potent force that was most evident in the war with Iraq. While in terms of armament Iran would be outclassed by the USA and Israel, its capability to spread mayhem in countries allied to the USA and to hit American interests cannot be discounted. Moreover as the mass annual celebrations commemorating the victory of the Iranian revolution and the determined Iranian role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have shown, the spirit and ideology of Ayatollah Khomeni is still relevant to the mass of the people particularly when faced with an outside threat. Analyses based on the views of Iranians settled in western countries or the small percentage of city dwellers in Iran looking for a more westernized lifestyle could lead to faulty conclusions about the ultimate fructification of what Trump wants.