Ousting the Mullahs

As engagement fails, it looks like the White House is considering regime change in Tehran.

Is the Obama administration quietly moving to shift its Iran policy from engagement to regime change? The president began his term of office promising that if the Islamic Republic took concrete steps to address U.S. concerns-most notably about its nuclear program-Washington would be prepared to reevaluate its stance toward the current regime in Tehran. Some observers even speculated that the administration was considering the so-called "grand bargain" approach: in return for Iran giving up its ambitions to master the nuclear-fuel cycle (and so be in a position to fabricate nuclear weapons) and ending its support for terrorist movements in the Middle East, the United States would give security guarantees to Iran.

But the Islamic Republic has, so far, not been responsive to this approach. And the Obama administration has run into two additional difficulties. The first was the creation of a self-imposed deadline of December 31, 2009, for diplomacy with Iran to bear some tangible fruit-in part to reassure both domestic skeptics and foreign partners such as Israel that Iran could not use the pretense of negotiations to cross the nuclear finish line. The second was the rise of the "Green Movement" in the wake of the disputed presidential elections in Iran, leading some to call into question the legitimacy, durability and staying power of the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Critics of President Obama have argued that there is no reason to negotiate with a regime that might be on the verge of collapse.

The signals coming out of the administration are quite mixed. Officially, the policy line remains what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the dual track approach: using a combination of diplomacy and sanctions to encourage the current government in Tehran to come to the negotiating table with proposals that meet what the United States (and, in theory, the rest of the P-5 countries) is concerned about. But this past week the secretary also began to indicate that this approach might not be pursued indefinitely. "We will not be waited out, and we will not back down."

Tougher sanctions against Iran are being drawn up. But is the goal to pressure the current government in Iran back to the negotiating table, or to direct pressure against the regime in order to bring about a change? Jay Solomon's recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that a shift in American focus may be coming. While U.S. officials stressed that there is no official change-and the dual-track approach remains American policy-the leaks to Solomon from a series of "senior officials" in the administration indicate that the United States may be moving to what I would characterize as a "dual-use" policy. In other words, tougher measures directed against Iran to pressure the Ahmadinejad government to come to the table. But if these efforts accelerate the possible demise of the Islamic Republic altogether, then fine. As Solomon notes:

The Obama administration is increasingly questioning the long-term stability of Tehran's government and moving to find ways to support Iran's opposition "Green Movement," said senior U.S. officials. . . .
The tone has changed in the conversation," said one scholar who discussed Iran with senior U.S. officials. "There's realization now that this unrest really matters." . . . Do we expect the current government to be overthrown? I wouldn't say that at the current time," said a senior State Department official. "But a crack can certainly grow over time."

But what sort of additional pressures are being considered? So far, the military option appears to have been ruled out-for now. Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned the efficacy of a strike on the Iranian nuclear sites, arguing to it would only slow Iran's nuclear ambitions by one to three years while driving the program further underground. On the other hand, the Pentagon has gotten plans to get a major new tunnel-busting weapon, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, back on schedule, with this device scheduled to be deployed on B-2 stealth bombers by next summer. Nor has the possibility of military force ultimately being used at some point in the future been taken off the table by the administration.