If significant political change were to occur in Tehran in the next couple of years—especially after everything the Trump administration has done, including reneging on the nuclear agreement, to discredit moderates such as Rouhani—that change would most likely be in a hardline direction. One possibility would be the Revolutionary Guard acquiring more extensive powers, even to the point of a military dictatorship.
Change is unlikely to be in a more democratic direction. Indeed, the regional rivals of Iran with sway over the administration’s policies do not want more democracy (or any democracy, for that matter), in Iran. Such a development could become a basis for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that they definitely do not want, and that could lessen their own privileged positions with Washington. An Israeli intelligence officer told a visiting scholar when Iran’s Green Movement was active in 2009 that a victory by the movement would be “Israel’s worst nightmare” because it would mean less Iranian isolation and more resulting Iranian power.
The Saudi regime needs to worry not only about a possible tilt by the United States toward a more democratic Iran but also the example that such a democracy would set for subjects of the Saudi regime’s own highly autocratic rule. Herein lies another curiosity in Pompeo’s speech, which made a big deal about Iranian leaders enriching themselves, and this being a reason to look for regime change in Iran. Wouldn’t there be similar political implications of the rake-offs of Saudi oil revenues that sustain the expensive tastes of the royal family?
The best outcome—and it isn’t good at all--that one can hope for from the administration’s current course on Iran is endless tension, more antagonizing of Iranian citizens who see the United States as hostile to their own interests, and a constant risk of escalation to open warfare. If the remaining parties to the nuclear agreement cannot keep that accord going, and if the Trump administration’s threats continue to revive thinking in Iran about the value of a nuclear deterrent, then a new nuclear crisis might be added to the mess.
Armed conflict would, of course, be even worse. Donald Trump probably is not now seeking such a war, but one cannot rule out that someday he would as a way to escape from greater political troubles he encounters concerning the Russia investigation or anything else. The bigger worry in the meantime is Bolton, who has long yearned for such a war and in his current job is in position to increase the chance of something sparking one.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World .