As President Donald Trump launched his latest broadside against the Islamic Republic of Iran on Sunday night, three theories surfaced. First, the president wished to shift the public conversation away from his fraught summit in Helsinki and the broader Russia narrative. Second, Trump was making President Rouhani the latest target of his good cop, bad cop routine: attacking an autocrat to get superior, future negotiating leverage. And third, there is significant donor and Congressional pressure on the Republican president to keep the heat up on Tehran. With a few clicks on his cell phone, Trump got three birds for one stone. For now.
Some restrainers and skeptics of U.S. foreign policy and the administration reacted to the latest development—a level of prominence for Iran in the news cycle not seen since May, when Trump nullified the JCPOA—as a sign of war.
Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy point man, notes the crucial difference between Washington attitudes toward Tehran and Pyongyang: “Predictions that Trump will eventually end up talking to Iran as he has with N Korea miss the fact that there's an entire industry in DC, backed by major GOP donors and regional clients, invested in conflict with Iran. Nothing similar with NK.” Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune predicts “an October surprise.” And Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, suggests Trump is going fully neoconservative.
But such concerns might mistake, or misunderstand, the mindset of those most earnestly clamoring for regime change in Tehran, if one is to take what they say at face value.
And for restrainers and skeptics of their approach, the reality could seem more demented than a simple plot for U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic.
In my interviews and interactions with the Iran hawks—the various think tanks, nonprofits, and White House staffers committed to eventual regime change—a common thread is the belief that Tehran will fall on its own. No active plans for war, as yet, are being hatched. A former senior U.S. military official friendly with the Israeli military leadership says no war is in the offing. Veteran defense analyst Mark Perry says Secretary of Defense James Mattis, himself historically an Iran hawk, would make stopping a U.S. invasion of Iran his last stand. Instead, for many of individuals committed to Iranian regime change, raised on Reagan, the reference point right now is 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, not 2003 and the fiasco in Iraq.
“The goal is very well defined,” Ali Safavi of the National Council for the Resistance of Iran (NCRI) told me at his offices in Washington in June. “What is that we’re looking for, what is that we’re looking to establish. And it has been very clear since day one, since ‘81, when the parliament in exile was formed.” In Iran, “the people feel the real problem, which is the regime itself,” said Safavi. The council is associated, some would say synonymous, with the Islamic Marxist People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a far more controversial outfit. On the wall in the offices in Washington, pictured are some of the groups’ past U.S. patrons, namely major figures in Trumpworld: National Security Advisor John Bolton, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. The outfits have been buoyed by Trump’s approach.
NCRI representatives told me that, for them, the problems with U.S. rapprochement began under George W. Bush, not Barack Obama. For Safavi, Washington’s failure on Iran began even in the first Bush term, with the invasion of Iraq. NCRI says Tehran, unofficially, wanted the U.S. to defrock Saddam, their bitter rival. They point out that Ahmed Chalabi, the charlatan would-be “George Washington of Iraq” kept his offices in Tehran before the war. That they are associating with Bolton, who still defends 2003, as well as Gingrich and Giuliani, two prominent Bush supporters, was not explained.
But NCRI says it does not need nor want military support: instead, with Washington backing, the grassroots protests in Iran, ongoing at present in a way not seen since 2009, the regime will fall naturally. For those concerned about the collapse or failure of another government in the Middle East—Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan do not provide heartening examples in the last two decades—NCRI draws a distinction between Arab and Persian culture. The group points out that the two major transitions in government in Iran—1953 and 1979—were disruptive, but relatively speaking, not terribly violent. Americans need not worry.
“Don’t fear regime change in Iran,” Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month. “The U.S. can draw on Persian history and on experience with the Soviet Union,” Gerecht and Takeyh say. “The Islamic Republic . . . is probably internally weaker than the Soviet Union was in the 1970s.” Gerecht’s FDD has functioned as the de facto Trump think tank on Iran for much of the administration, as I’ve previously argued.
The coalition seeking immediate change in Iran shrinks from the label “neoconservative.” “Critics use it as a pejorative. . . . Hawkish is OK,” FDD’s Joe Dougherty told me last year. And indeed, it may be misleading. Bolton is not a neocon: though he still defends flattening Saddam’s regime, he has long said, even while Bush was still in office, that U.S. support for democratization efforts there were misguided. Bolton would have just as easily taken a U.S.-friendly strongman. And this coalition also features figures like Steve Bannon, who has sometimes been called “Trump’s dove.” “Expansionist Persia,” along with Turkey, “the most dangerous country in the world” and China are the big fish to fry, forming an iron triangle in Eurasia that the United States should be concerned about.
But the big question remains: what if relatively peaceful regime change fails? What if the protests go on for years, to no avail? Or worse, what if, in order to survive, the regime turns its formidable Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force, as well as the countless militias across the Middle East whose loyalties it commands, on the Iranian people? Walter Russell Mead, who has been cited as Bannon’s favorite columnist, envisions the scenario if Iran responds to its increasing isolation and economic feebleness by restarting its nuclear programs and accepting the mantle of pariah state. “If they respond by restarting their nuclear program, Israeli-American airstrikes could both stop the process and inflict a humiliating blow to the regime’s prestige,” with its people and otherwise, Mead says.
For this reason, a former senior White House official tells me, despite assurances of possible peaceful transition, war with Iran is “very” possible.
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.
Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger