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Is the Obama administration hoping for regime change in Iran?

Is the Obama administration hoping for regime change in Iran?

All the chatter online is about the Cheney-Biden Sunday talkshow dustup, which was heavy on drama and light on news.

But the real story today is what the U.S. national security advisor, Gen.  James L. Jones, said:

“We are about to add to that regime’s difficulties, by engineering, participating in very tough sanctions,” Jones said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” Combined with internal dissent, the sanctions “could trigger regime change,” he said.

First, let’s get one thing straight: There will be no tough sanctions. As FP‘s Colum Lynch has reported, China doesn’t even have a go-to Iran hand right now, and has shown little interest in damaging relations with a country that supplies 11 percent of its oil imports. Beijing will see to it that whatever sanctions do pass the U.N. Security Council are toothless, as the Chinese have done on all previous occasions. They’ll give just enough to allow the Obama administration to say it passed something, while wringing concessions out of Washington that we may never know about.

Second, whatever fresh U.N. sanctions do pass will not "trigger regime change," and I hope the White House doesn’t really believe that. Yes, Iran’s economy has real problems, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being criticized for them. There’s a danger, though, that new sanctions will only allow him to blame his screwups on the West without forcing his government to cry uncle on the nuclear issue. After all, we’re talking about a regime whose founding ideology is built on isolation in the world and standing up to the "global arrogance." Sanctions, for Iran’s hard-line leaders, are the diplomatic equivalent of throwing Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch.

The most optimistic scenario that I can come up with, realistically speaking, is that there’s going to be a lot going on behind the scenes — the kind of economic warfare waged by the Treasury Department’s Stuart Levey, for instance, will scare off a good number of potential investors in Iran’s overt economy. Some European countries, like France, will do their part. And meanwhile, continued sabotage operations (much of it through doing things like setting up dummy companies to sell Iran faulty nuclear-related equipment) will keep Iran’s scientists from making any major breakthroughs. Hopefully, oil prices won’t climb too high and over time the opposition will be able to build in strength. But regime change is a long-term hope, not a plan.

UPDATE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric has shifted, too. Speaking in Doha, Qatar, she said Iran is "moving towards a military dictatorship" as the Revolutionary Guards assume ever more power. She’s right, by the way. But I don’t think sanctions will work, and Clinton is about to get an earful from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah about the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Stay tuned.