Donald Trump, scrapping the Iran deal, and the art of the regime change

President Donald Trump signing a Presidential Memorandum on the Iran nuclear deal at the White House. Trump has called ...

President Donald Trump signing a Presidential Memorandum on the Iran nuclear deal at the White House. Trump has called the Iran nuclear deal "defective at its core". Evan Vucci
Australian Financial Review, Thursday May 10

By Stephen M WaltAs long expected, Donald Trump has bowed to his egohis petulant envy of Barack Obamahis hardline donorshis new set of hawkish advisors, and above all his own ignorance and walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement that prevents Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Together with his foolish decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this is likely to be his most consequential foreign-policy blunder yet.

It is important to understand what’s really going on. Trump’s decision is not based on a desire to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; if that were the case, it would make much more sense to stay committed to the deal and negotiate to make it permanent. After all, both the International Atomic Energy Agency – which monitors and inspects Iran’s facilities – and US intelligence agree Iran has been in full compliance with the JCPOA since it was signed. Indeed, as Peter Beinart points out, it is the US that has arguably been failing to live up to its commitments.

Nor was Trump’s decision motivated by a desire to counter Iran’s various regional activities, such as its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If that were his goal, the sensible course of action would have been to stay in the deal (which keeps Iran from going nuclear) and to line up other countries to join the US and pressure Iran on these matters. Not only will Trump find it impossible to assemble the same multinational coalition that produced the JCPOA, but Iran is going to be doubly reluctant to negotiate with the US now Trump has shown America’s word cannot be trusted.

The ultimate goal

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday he would send his Foreign Minister to negotiate with countries ...
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday he would send his Foreign Minister to negotiate with countries remaining in the nuclear deal after Donald Trump’s decision to pull America out, warning he otherwise would restart enriching uranium “in the next weeks”. AP

So what is going on? Simple: abandoning the JCPOA is based on the desire to “keep Iran in the penalty box” and prevent it from establishing normal relations with the outside world. This goal unites Israel, the hardline wing of the Israel lobby (e.g. the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Foundation for Defence of Democracies, United Against Nuclear Iran), and hawks including national security advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and many others. Their great fear was the US and its Middle East allies might eventually have to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power and grant it a degree of regional influence. Not regional dominance, mind you, which Iran probably does not seek and is light years from achieving, but rather the recognition that Iran has regional interests and its preferences need to be considered when important regional questions are being resolved. This is anathema for US hawks, whose primary goal is to ensure Iran remains an isolated pariah forever.

At the core of this perspective is the siren song of regime change, which US hawks and other anti-regime forces have pursued for decades. This is the ultimate goal of groups such as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that used to be on the US terrorism watch list. The MEK is despised inside Iran but defended by both Republican and Democratic politicians (including Bolton), on whom it has lavished sizeable payments. Who says you can’t buy – or at least rent – a US politician? (Actually, nobody says that any more.)

Hawks see two possible routes to regime change. The first approach relies on ramping up economic pressure on Tehran in the hope popular discontent will grow and the clerical regime will simply collapse. The second option is to provoke Iran into restarting its nuclear program, which would give Washington the excuse to launch a preventive war.

Let’s look a bit more carefully at each of these options.z

Government collapse

US Vice-President Mike Pence, from right, national security adviser John Bolton and US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin ...
US Vice-President Mike Pence, from right, national security adviser John Bolton and US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin listen to Trump’s announcement. AL DRAGO

Regarding the first, the belief that ever-tighter sanctions will cause the regime to collapse is wishful thinking. The US embargo on Cuba has lasted more than 50 years, and the Castro regime is still in place (even if Fidel is now dead and his brother Raul just stepped down in favour of a chosen successor). Sixty-plus years of ever-increasing sanctions haven’t brought the North Korean regime crashing down either and didn’t stop it acquiring a nuclear arsenal. We’ve been told for years that Iran was on the brink of collapse, and it never seems to happen. Sanctions didn’t topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya either. Hardliners got excited a few months ago when anti-government demonstrations occurred in several Iranian cities, but by this logic the massive demonstrations that have occurred in numerous US cities since Trump was elected are signs that regime change is imminent in the US. Not likely in either case. Economic pressure can sometimes help convince opponents to negotiate and maybe even alter their policies, and they can weaken an enemy’s economy during wartime, but leaving the JCPOA isn’t going to bring Iran to its knees.

What if I’m wrong and the clerical regime collapsed? As we have seen in other settings, the result is not likely to be a stable, well-functioning, and pro-American regime. US-sponsored regime change in Iraq led to a civil war, a brutal insurgency, and the rise of the Islamic State. Ditto with foreign-imposed regime change in Libya. The US has also intervened repeatedly in places including Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria in recent years, and all it reaped was additional instability and fertile ground for terrorists. And let’s not forget that the original US-backed regime change in Iran – which ousted democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq and reinstated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1953. It spawned the anti-Americanism the US has had to deal with ever since the 1979 revolution. And don’t forget many prominent opponents of the regime – including leaders of the so-called Green Movement – also support Iran’s nuclear program and aren’t about to become Washington’s lackeys even if they somehow came to power.

Preventive war

As for the second option – war – here the hawks’ hope is that if push comes to shove and an opportunity for war presents itself, the familiar combination of shock and awe will simultaneously eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and inspire its people to rise up and overturn the leaders who had (supposedly) led them into this sorry situation. This scenario is risible: if America drops bombs on Iranians, you can bet their first reaction will not be one of gratitude. Instead, a US and/or Israeli air campaign against Iran would trigger Iranian nationalism and cement the population’s loyalty to the regime more tightly.

Trump says the US will withdraw from the 2015 accord to curb Iran's nuclear program and that he would reinstate ...
Trump says the US will withdraw from the 2015 accord to curb Iran’s nuclear program and that he would reinstate financial sanctions. AL DRAGO

Moreover, a military strike by Israel or the US would not prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon; it would delay it by a year or two. Such an attack would convince just about everyone in Iran the only way to be safe is to get a deterrent of their own, as North Korea has, and the safe bet is Iran would simply redouble its efforts in hidden and better-protected sites. Once the US forces Iran down that road, it’s likely other states in the region will follow. If you think the world would be better with several nuclear-armed regimes in the Middle East, by all means choose this option. Just don’t complain to me about it afterwards.

And make no mistake: if war does come and the result is more lives lost and more dollars squandered, it may ignite a broader regional conflict, and the fault will rest solely with the man who sits in the Oval Office. No amount of dust kicking, blame casting, and semi-literate tweeting will be able to disguise that.

In short, Trump’s latest blunder shows he’s not giving the American people the more restrained foreign policy he promised back in 2016, or correcting the various mistakes made by his predecessors (of which there were many). Instead, Trump is taking us back to the naive, unsophisticated, unilateralist, and overly militarised foreign policy of George W. Bush’s first term. The appointment of Bolton at the National Security Council, Pompeo at State, and the nomination of former torture supervisor Gina Haspel to run the CIA – it is a return not to realism but to Cheneyism. Remember how well that worked?

Otto von Bismarck once quipped that it was good to learn from one’s mistakes but better to learn from someone else’s. This latest episode shows the US is not capable of learning from either. And it suggests Winston Churchill’s apocryphal comment about the US always doing the right thing should be revised. Under Trump, it appears, the US will always do the wrong thing but only after first considering – and rejecting – all the obviously superior alternatives.

 Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Foreign Policy

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