War Stories

Regime Change By Any Other Name

There’s only one plausible motive for Trump’s Iran policy.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers in Tehran on Sept. 14, 2007.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers in Tehran on Sept. 14, 2007. Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

Make no mistake: The purpose of President Trump’s revived sanctions against Iran is to foment the overthrow of its government. The questions: Will the tactic work; and, if it does, who will step into power? The answers: Probably not, and they won’t be pro-American democrats.

The renewal of sanctions, the first stage of which went into effect Tuesday at midnight, is a logical extension of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The terms of that deal were that Iran would dismantle its nuclear machinery and, in exchange, the United States and the other signatories (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) would lift sanctions that had been imposed as a penalty for its nuclear program.

Ordinarily reimposing U.S. sanctions would have had little effect, as the United States does next to no business with Iran. But Trump went an extra step: He imposed “secondary sanctions”—meaning that any country continuing to do business with Iran will also come under sanctions and will be barred from doing any financial transactions with the United States, including simply dealing in U.S. dollars.

This is an extraordinary thing by any measure. Trump is not imposing, and has never imposed, secondary sanctions against North Korea’s trading partners, despite his claim that he is continuing a policy of “maximum pressure” until Kim Jong-un “denuclearizes.” Nor, despite renewed pressure on Cuba, has he—or any previous president—penalized other countries for trading with Havana.

EU countries, which continue to back the Iran nuclear deal, say they will resist the U.S. sanctions, which could entail penalizing European companies that comply with Trump’s policy. But this is easier said than done. Most of these companies have much bigger stakes in dollars than they do in Iranian transactions. And as for the EU penalties, there’s no way to prove that some company canceled a contract strictly in order to go along with Trump; it could claim that it did so for any number of commercially sound (or unsound but legal) reasons.

However, China (especially the Chinese state bank, which deals in its own currency) may operate according to a different calculus. The same is true of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have enormous interests in Iran. Russia as well might keep doing business there, figuring that Trump won’t impose more sanctions on Vladimir Putin. Many small entities are capable of smuggling goods and currency in and out of Iran, under the radar. And if the Europeans do openly resist, will Trump really crack down on them?

Renewing sanctions on Iran would be a tough sell, even in the most harmonious climate. Certainly it was bad diplomacy for Trump to come out with a policy of pressuring the Europeans and China to follow Washington’s lead on an economic embargo against Iran, while, at the same time, confronting them in a trade war and alienating them on so many other fronts. Trump is now facing a situation where our closest allies are not just grumbling about him but trying to figure out a way to thwart his will.

And for what? When Trump announced his withdrawal from the deal in May, he said, “We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction,” in that “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States.” But no nation’s economic transactions with Iran are doing anything to aid its “quest for nuclear weapons,” mainly because there is no such quest. The International Atomic Energy Agency has attested several times that Iran is in full compliance with the deal’s (very restrictive) terms. Most military and intelligence officials—in the United States, Europe, and Israel—support the deal. (Only the anti-Iranian Sunni Arab states and very conservative politicians oppose the deal. Most notable here is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has boasted that he convinced Trump to pull out of the deal.)

National security adviser John Bolton denies that Trump wants regime change in Tehran. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly suggested otherwise in a speech last month to Iranian Americans in California. Not long before that, in a May speech at the Heritage Foundation, Pompeo demanded that Iran halt uranium enrichment (not just reduce it to the point where it can’t make a nuclear weapon), stop developing missiles, withdraw its forces from Syria, and end its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other militias. These are the sorts of demands a country makes of a defeated power at the end of a war, and it’s unimaginable that Iran’s current government would comply with them as long as it remains in power.

One could make a case that it would be in the best interest—for the United States, Israel, Middle Eastern stability, the West at large, and not least the Iranian people—if the Iranian regime folded and was replaced by more peaceful and democratic leaders. But this also isn’t likely to happen. More to the point, Trump’s policies—the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the stiffening of sanctions—are weakening Iran’s moderate factions and strengthening its hardliners.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, in their briefings to Trump and other senior officials, that the sanctions would likely weaken Iran’s pragmatic factions—including President Hassan Rouhani—and strengthen the grip that the hard-liners, especially the Revolutionary Guard, hold over the country’s economy and politics.

Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at Stanford University who worked on Iran policy in the White House and the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said in an email on Tuesday that, since the signing of the Iran deal, Rouhani had “made incremental but real progress” in getting Ayatollah Ali Khamanei to reduce the Revolutonary Guard’s role in politics. But Trump’s withdrawal, Kahl said, “has reversed Rouhani’s gains. He’s now having to defer more to the Guard, who are in ‘I told you so’ mode about ‘American treachery.’ ” Kahl says he can’t rule out regime change—if fully enforced, secondary sanctions can have a brutal effect on Iran’s economy—but he added, “It is hard to see how this all leads to a reduction of Iran’s malign activities.” Instead, the Guard “may actually be positioned to capitalize on domestic turmoil to seize power.” If this happened, Iran’s new leaders would be even more hostile to Western interests, and more keen to restart the nuclear program, than the current leadership.

So, with this one move, Trump has irritated the allies, opened a new avenue for Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East, strengthened the hard-liners in Iran, and heightened the chances that they’ll revive Iran’s nuclear program—all for the sake of killing a deal that blocked this program for the next two decades, and in pursuit of the pipe dream, which has been punctured in so many other dark escapades in U.S. foreign policy, that ousting an unfriendly regime will bring to power a much friendlier one.

Further evidence that Trump’s vision of “America First” is, in fact, America alone.