Is Obama really trying to overthrow the Iranian regime?

Is Obama really trying to overthrow the Iranian regime?

In a bombshell revelation sure to reverberate around the world, the Washington Post quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official seeming to suggest that the United States’ goal in Iran is now the collapse of the regime. The story’s headline: "Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. official says."

I say "suggest" because the Post never directly quotes the official saying outright that regime change is the policy. Here’s the key passage:

The goal of U.S. and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran’s government as it is on engaging with it.

The official, speaking this week on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the administration hopes that sanctions "create enough hate and discontent at the street level" that Iranians will turn against their government.

What’s more, the story’s authors — Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson, two very seasoned and careful reporters — also spoke with a "senior administration official" who contradicted that line:

A senior administration official, speaking separately, acknowledged that public discontent was a likely result of more punitive sanctions against Iran’s already faltering economy. But this official said it was not the administration’s intent to press the Iranian people toward an attempt to oust their government.

"The notion that we’ve crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect," the administration official said. "We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behavior as it’s related to their nuclear program."

Dennis Ross, a top Middle East advisor who recently left the White House, also told De Young and Wilson that regime change was not the goal of the sanctions. And he should know, because he helped design them.

So what’s going on? I suspect that the first source, the "senior U.S. intelligence official," may have misspoken, or been somehow misinterpreted. Pursuing regime change in a well-armed country of 78 million is no small matter, nor is it the sort of thing that can be ascertained from a blind quote that’s immediately contradicted by other sources. (It’s also very much worth noting that the harshest sanctions — on Iran’s central bank — were imposed by Congress over the White House’s objections.) 

Still, as my colleague Dan Drezner noted yesterday, the Obama team may be hoping that sanctions can open up fissures within the Iranian regime and provoke internal political strife — thus giving the United States and its allies more leverage. That’s not quite the same thing as regime change, however.

It’s important to remember that Iranians themselves haven’t called en masse for regime change. The protests that broke out over the stolen 2009 presidential election were mainly about calling for a recount or a revote, not about bringing down the entire clerical system. More Iranians may eventually conclude that "everything must go," but as far as we can tell they aren’t there yet.

There is a certain political appeal in calling for regime change in Iran, I’ll admit. Obama is being pilloried daily by the Republican presidential hopefuls for not doing enough to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and he seems highly unlikely to agree to a bombing campaign that may or may not succeed in doing the job. But if he can say that he’s trying to overthrow the mullahs rather than negotiate with them, he might be able to neutralize that line of attack. That’s probably a bad idea, and it’s no way to make foreign policy, but it wouldn’t be the first time an American politician behaved like, well, a politician.

UPDATE: The Post has now changed its headline, substantially revised the top of the story, and appended a correction. The new headline reads: "Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, U.S. official says." That’s more like it.