The Art of the Regime Change

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has one goal in mind — and no plan to achieve it.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks towards Air Force One in Morristown, New Jersey, on September 22, 2017. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump walks towards Air Force One in Morristown, New Jersey, on September 22, 2017. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As long expected, Donald Trump has bowed to his ego, his petulant envy of Barack Obama, his hard-line donors, his 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 from 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 here. 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 firmly committed to the deal and eventually negotiate to make it permanent. After all, both the International Atomic Energy Agency (which monitors and inspects Iran’s facilities) and U.S. intelligence agree that Iran has been in full compliance with the JCPOA since it was signed. Indeed, as Peter Beinart points out, it is the United States that has arguably been failing to live up to its own 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 United States and pressure Iran on these matters of concern. 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 United States now that Trump has shown that America’s word simply cannot be trusted.

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 hard-line wing of the Israel lobby (e.g., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Foundation for Defense 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 that the United States and its Middle East allies might eventually have to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power and grant it some 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 that its preferences need to be considered when important regional questions are being resolved. This is anathema for U.S. hawks, whose primary goal is to ensure that Iran remains an isolated pariah forever.

At the core of this perspective is the siren song of regime change, which U.S. hawks and other anti-regime forces have been pursuing 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 U.S. terrorism watch list. The MEK is despised inside Iran but defended by both Republican and Democratic politicians (including Bolton), on whom it has lavished sizable payments in the past. Who says you can’t buy — or at least rent — a U.S. politician? (Actually, nobody says that anymore.)

Hawks see two possible routes to regime change. The first approach relies on ramping up economic pressure on Tehran in the hope that popular discontent will grow and that 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.

Regarding the first, the belief that ever-tighter sanctions will cause the regime to collapse is wishful thinking. The U.S. 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 Raúl just stepped down in favor 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 from acquiring a usable nuclear arsenal. We’ve been told for years now that Iran was on the brink of collapse, and it never seems to happen. Sanctions didn’t topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya either. Hard-liners 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 U.S. cities since Trump was elected are signs that regime change is imminent here. 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 did collapse? As we have seen in other settings, the result is not likely to be a stable, well-functioning, and pro-American regime. U.S.-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 United States 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 U.S.-backed regime change in Iran — which ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and reinstated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1953 — spawned the anti-Americanism the United States has had to deal with ever since the 1979 revolution. And don’t forget that 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 were somehow to come to power.

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 U.S. and/or Israeli air campaign against Iran would trigger Iranian nationalism and cement the population’s loyalty to the regime even more tightly.

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

And make no mistake: If war does come and the result is more lives lost and more dollars squandered, and it maybe even ignites a broader regional conflict, the fault will rest solely with the man who currently sits in the Oval Office. No amount of dust kicking, blame casting, and semiliterate tweeting will be able to disguise that fact.

In short, Trump’s latest blunder shows that 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 militarized 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 that the United States is not really capable of learning from either. And it suggests that Winston Churchill’s apocryphal comment about the United States always doing the right thing should now be revised. Under Trump, it appears, the United States 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.

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