Tehran could turn Trump into a regime changer
The President of the United States isn’t interested in overthrowing the Iranian regime. That idea has been a virtual political constant since at least 2016, when candidate Donald J. Trump used the presidential campaign trail to rail against the 2015 nuclear deal concluded by Barack Obama, but pointedly didn’t advocate the idea of regime change in Tehran as a substitute strategy. In much the same way, the Iran policy pursued by Trump’s administration has concentrated on applying “maximum” economic and political pressure on the Iranian regime to cease its malign regional behavior, while holding out the prospect of a new diplomatic bargain with Tehran as a reward for good conduct.
Perhaps the clearest indication of this approach was provided last week, when President Trump — in responding to the Iranian regime’s rocketing of military facilities in Iraq — emphasized that the pathway for Iran to return to the negotiating table remained open. In his televised address on Jan. 8, Trump stressed his desire to work toward “making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” and which “allows Iran to thrive and prosper and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential.”
Yet, in recent days, the White House has slowly but surely gravitated toward greater support for opposition elements within Iran that are now seeking an end to the Islamic Republic.
Over the weekend, the President put out a Tweet — in Farsi — that unequivocally sought to engage Iran’s protestors — and to do so at the expense of the Iranian government. “To the brave and suffering Iranian people,” the message said, “I have stood with you since the beginning of my presidency and my government will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely. Your courage is inspiring.”
Nearly simultaneously, he telegraphed a potentially significant shift in his administration’s Iran policy. Referring to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s turn on the Sunday talk shows, Trump tweeted on Jan. 12 that: “[The] National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran ‘choked off’, [and] 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.’”
So, what lies behind this apparent about-face? The answer, quite simply, is the behavior of Iran’s clerical regime itself.
Since the start of its “maximum pressure” campaign in May 2018, the central premise of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy has been to apply overwhelming pressure to the Iranian regime in order to change its behavior, both at home and abroad. That approach has been exceedingly successful in imposing significant economic costs on Iran’s already-ailing economy. More recently, with the Jan. 3 killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, it has also begun to impose real penalties on the regime for its regional meddling.
Yet throughout, American pressure has been coupled with inducements — such as the possibility of significant financial relief from U.S. sanctions or the chance for meaningful new diplomatic engagement — intended to “sweeten the pot” for Iran’s leaders if they make the correct choice and alter their conduct. Embedded in this approach is the notion that the Iranian regime is capable of toning down its regional activism and curbing its domestic brutality, if it makes the strategic choice to do so.
The President’s messages of recent days, however, provides a glimpse of what might happen if it doesn’t. Should that end up being the case, the White House could well consider throwing its weight in earnest behind the anti-regime protests now taking place throughout the Islamic Republic — with all that that implies.
Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, a non-profit dedicated to supplying expert analysis to those who make or influence U.S. foreign policy and to assisting world leaders with building democracies and market economies.