War Stories

Trump’s Regime Change Delusions

The administration is hellbent on overthrowing the Iranian government. It should be careful what it wishes for.

Side-by-side images of Ali Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani
Ali Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images and Maysam Dehghani/AFP via Getty Images.

Qassem Soleimani is dead. The drone and missile strikes have stopped. Now what? Many Western leaders see an opportunity for renewed diplomacy with Iran. President Donald Trump doesn’t care about that. It’s clear that he and his top advisers want only one thing to come out of this moment: regime change in Tehran.

There are two problems with this single-minded obsession. First, it isn’t likely to happen; the regime, though weakened, is less fragile than Trump and his team seem to believe. Second, if it does happen, the mullahs’ successors are likely to be more oppressive at home and more aggressive abroad. In short, Trump and his advisers should be careful what they wish for.

Trump’s foreign policy, in the Middle East and elsewhere, comes down to one slogan: Look strong. What to do with this strength, and how to parlay it into geostrategic advantage, doesn’t seem to be a question that’s crossed his mind.

For instance, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said on Fox News Sunday that Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” was working. “Iran is being choked off, and Iran is going to have no other choice but to come to the table,” he said. O’Brien didn’t make clear what they would come to the table for—maybe a better nuclear deal, some accord that involves an end to their support of terrorists. Leaving aside the matter of plausibility, there are any number of possibilities.

But Trump was having none of it. Almost immediately, he tweeted, “National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran ‘choked off,’ will force them to negotiate. Actually, I couldn’t care less if they negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and ‘don’t kill your protesters.’ ”

If Trump’s main desire is “no nuclear weapons” he shouldn’t have pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal), which states, in its preamble, “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”—and which, in the 159 pages that follow, lays out measures and verification procedures (all of which Iran had been obeying) to block even a deceptive Iran from getting any nukes for at least 15 years.

As for “don’t kill your protesters,” it’s quite likely that more will be killed given the protests’ persistence and the regime’s brutality. What will Trump do if this happens? Will he kill Soleimani’s successor, or bomb a police headquarters? Then what?

It’s laudable for a president to stand up for the protesters of any oppressive regime, but that’s not quite what’s going on here. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a clearer message: “The voice of the Iranian people is clear. They are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality of the IRGC under @khamenei_ir’s kleptoocracy. We stand with the Iranian people who deserve a better future.”

On Monday, during a speech at Stanford University, Pompeo spelled out his idea of what a “better future” should be: “We just want Iran to behave like a normal nation—just be like Norway.”

First, it’s worth noting that “the voice of the Iranian people” is far from “clear.” The hundreds of thousands protesting the regime’s corruption and the hundreds of thousands protesting the U.S. killing of Soleimani are all voices of the Iranian people. Some of them are even the same Iranian people.

Second, even if the voice of the people was clear and monolithic, that doesn’t mean they want—or the government would agree—to be like Norway. As Daniel Larison spelled out in the American Conservative, “No offense to Norway, but telling [the Iranians] to ‘be like Norway’ amounts to telling them that they should accept having little or no influence in their region. … No nation would accept the reduced role that Pompeo demands, especially when the demand comes from the world’s only superpower that behaves more abnormally than any other nation in the world.”

In short, “be like Norway” is code for regime change.

Now, regime change might be a good idea—Iran’s regime is horrible in many ways—if it was also a sensible idea, but it isn’t. Iran’s economy is rocky: Many of its citizens, especially young people in the cities, detest the regime’s controls. But as Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, told me in an email, “The regime is firmly entrenched and has a monopoly on the use of force, which it does not hesitate to use.” If the demonstrations get more serious and widespread, he continues, the elite military units in the IRGC—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—“will use brute force to keep in power.”

If the protests get out of control and the current government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, can’t control the crowds, then the true power, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would usher in a new government. And in the very improbable event that Khamenei and his regime tumbles, his successors are not likely to be the young pro-Western street protesters. They are much more likely to be the officers of the IRGC, who would be still less inclined than the Ayatollah to negotiate about democracy with the protesters or about disarmament with the West.

Colin Kahl, a former Middle East specialist at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, now a professor at Stanford, draws a parallel with Egypt, where young protesters forced Hosni Mubarak out of power—but ultimately the military seized control. (Like the IRGC in Iran, the Egyptian military controlled many of the state’s economic and political levers.)

None of this is to say that Washington should simply accept, much less appease, Iran’s behavior domestically or across the Middle East. However, it is possible to pressure the leaders of a country like Iran while also negotiating with them for the sake of common interests. The United States did this with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. And many countries have done it with rivals throughout history.

Trump tolerates, and in some cases coddles, far more oppressive and dangerous regimes than Iran. He does this with China, mainly because he has no choice, given its size and its integration with much of the world economy, including its holding of a huge share of the U.S. debt. He also does it with North Korea for reasons that remain unfathomable, at least when it comes to his affection for Kim Jong-un.

One thing that Russia, China, and North Korea have in common is they all possess nuclear weapons. Iran does not—though, as its rulers compare U.S. policy toward those other countries with its policy toward Iran itself, they must feel a sharper incentive than ever to resume its nuclear program. Even a pocketful of nukes can deter a foe from aggression. And the Iranians have every reason to fear, even to expect, aggression from the current American president.

In short, the standoff with Iran is far from over. Trump may have gained some leverage from the latest exchange. But his unwillingness to exert the leverage as a diplomatic overture is only making things worse.