Insider news & Analysis in Iran

On Monday, the Washington Examiner published an opinion piece on the provocative subject of regime change in Iran. That topic has arguably become more prevalent in public discourse, especially in the United States, since beginning of the Donald Trump presidency and the consequent shift in foreign policy away from the conciliatory diplomacy pursued by the White House under President Barack Obama.

Although the Trump administration has been unmistakably assertive in its Iran policy, it remains to be seen how far that assertiveness will reach or what specific forms it will take over the long term. But many analysts have suggested that ongoing changes could be pointing in the direction of explicit advocacy for regime change. The Washington Examiner piece contributed to this very discussion but also emphasized the fact that Mr. Trump is apparently wary of direct involvement oversees, which could lead to unmanageable entanglements reminiscent of the Iraq War.

The same article reconciles these two observations by pointing out that policies leading to regime change need not involve military action or any sort of direct involvement in the affairs of the target country. The author, Tom Rogan, presented this in the context of a rebuttal against a Washington Post article penned by two academics arguing against the prospect of regime change.

Rogan says that action is needed in response to the fact that “Iran's regime cannot be considered compatible with US interests” while its policies “directly harm US national security.” But he recommends that this action take the form of economic and political pressures along the lines of those already implemented by both the Trump administration and the US Congress in the form of sanctions on the Iranian ballistic missile program and the terrorist activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Limiting Iranian Expectations

The White House claims to currently be engaged in a comprehensive review of its Iran policy, and it is not presently clear whether the recent pressures are being pursued explicitly for the sake of encouraging regime change. What is clear, however, is that tensions between the US and Iran are growing, and that this is having an adverse effect on the policies and long-term goals of the Islamic Republic.

This was the focus of an analysis published on Monday by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. It called renewed attention to the long-sought oil field development deal signed by Iran, the French energy giant Total SA, and a Chinese partner. Iranian officials had proudly boasted the agreement would lead to many more of its kind, and that it would break the “taboo” of American sanctions that remained in place after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action led to the lifting of sanctions specifically targeting the Iranian nuclear program.

But however serious these expectation may have been at the time the Total deal was signed, they have certainly been much diminished by the subsequent passage of new executive sanctions and the expected passage of congressional sanctions in August. The AGSIW article pointed out that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi acknowledged the potential for the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act to diminish Iran’s economic prospects under the JCPOA.

Leading Iranian officials had already been complaining about supposed American obstruction of those benefits even before Mr. Trump took office. Nevertheless, many of those same officials maintained substantial expectations regarding the recovery of the Iranian oil industry and other aspects of the national economy. The country repeatedly indicated that it was pursuing at least 200 billion dollars’ worth of foreign investment. But that capital has proven very difficult to acquire, since international lending institutions are wary of dealing with Iranian entities, not just because of US sanctions but also because of the Iranian market’s lack of transparency and its reputation for corruption.

What’s more, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic expects to increase oil output from its current, apparent plateau of 3.8 million barrels per day to 4.7 million barrels per day by 2021. AGSIW identifies this figure as highly optimistic even under the best possible conditions. Newly instituted US sanctions would diminish those prospects even more, especially if the Trump administration succeeded in garnering European support for its assertive policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

European Pushback

Unfortunately for the White House, the AGSIW report indicates that if Trump cancels the JCPOA unilaterally, as he would seemingly like to do, he would almost certainly face serious backlash from European allies. Additionally, LobeLog reported on Monday that the European Union and some member states already appear to be pushing back against Trump’s plans to undermine the nuclear deal and diminish Western investment prospects in the Iranian market.

The report pointed out that French President Emmanuel Macron had denounced aspects of the American sanctions bill that act upon entities based outside of the US. The French Foreign Ministry followed up by urging coordinated European action against supposed American overreach. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini has continued to pursue open dialogue with the Islamic Republic, and has underscored the friendly tone of those relations by announcing her plans to attend the August 5 ceremony in which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will be inaugurated for a second term.

Rouhani was reelected on May 17 amidst renewed promises of reform in both domestic and foreign policies. Similar promises failed to actually materialize during Rouhani’s first term, with the successful negotiation of a nuclear deal being the possible sole exception. Iranian reformists and dissident groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran dismissed Rouhani’s reelection campaign, branding him an “imposter” via illegal political banners and graffiti. The persistence of Iran’s foreign provocations and domestic crackdowns on free speech throughout Rouhani’s first term has helped American pundits to justify Trump’s efforts to move Iran policy back to sanctions-focused strategies.

Privilege for Existing Allies

The lack of internal moderation in the Iranian regime has also been used by Iran hawks in the West and by the PMOI and its parent organization the National Council of Resistance of Iran, in order to call for a policy of regime change. As the Trump White House has yet to explicitly endorse those calls, much less frame recent policy initiatives in terms of that ultimate goal, it remains to be seen how this position would influence the reactions of European allies.

At present, the EU may only see the White House as presenting a choice between either pursuing new business prospects in Iran or abandoning them for no clearly defined reason. And some analyses, such as that provided by AGSIW, additionally hint at possible European concerns about losing ground to the likes of Russia. After all, this is one area in which most European officials would apparently be interested in coordinating with the White House for greater pressure.

Yet, the trouble with trying the JCPOA to a broad-based confrontation with Moscow is that the Russian Federation also benefits from the nuclear agreement, and may continue to acquire more leverage than its European adversaries over the long term. AGSIW points out that Russia has gotten the largest share of post-JCPOA memoranda of understanding. And while it might be possible to attribute this discrepancy to American “obstruction” of Western investment, it should also be noted that Araghchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, recently declared that the continued expansion in relations with Moscow is a particular priority for the Islamic Republic.

Tehran Times noted that Araghchi made these remarks at the time of the signing of a 2.5 billion euro contract between Iranian and Russian firms. He also reportedly described the deal as a marker of expanding cooperation with a range of European and Asian countries. Even these broader remarks retained special emphasis on Moscow, however. And this phenomenon appears to be repeated elsewhere as Iranian officials and state-affiliated businesses keep their focus upon expanding relations with staunch allies before broadening relations to include neutral or adversarial nations.

In the first place, Payvand reported on Monday that Iran and Iraq had concluded an agreement for the construction of a pipeline to take Iraqi crude oil through Iran. The report went on to say that Iran was planning to increase its exports of natural gas to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad by a factor of five. On the other hand, pipeline and export discussions between Iran and India, which has long been a trading partner to the Islamic Republic despite also participating in US-led sanctions, have grown increasingly heated in recent weeks. According to India TV News, India has committed to an investment of 11 billion dollars in the development of the Farzad-B gas field. But the report goes on to say that Iran escalated a “war of words” between the two countries, taking issue with Indian demands for a reasonable return on the investment and warning that Iran is under no obligation to follow through on plans to award India the relevant contract.

Threats from an Emerging Eastern Bloc

Advocates of stepped-up sanctions – and particularly advocates of regime change – tend to recognize substantial danger underlying the possibility of this disparate treatment continuing after sanctions have been further reduced. If Western powers vigorously pursue investment opportunities only to be rebuffed when Iran sees fit, then Iran’s existing allies will see greater benefit from the JCPOA while also freely building closer connections with the Islamic Republic.

Apart from Russia, this situation also stands to benefit China, which is also a signatory to the JCPOA and which has been building not just economic but also military ties with Tehran over the years. On Monday, an editorial by Michael Rubin in Commentary Magazine pointed out that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had conducted artillery and paratrooper training in China with the assistance of Chinese Special Forces. The article emphasizes that any skills the IRGC learns from foreign militaries could in turn be passed along to IRGC-sponsored terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

Closer ties to China also stand to give the Islamic Republic a more direct line to another staunchly anti-American ally, the rogue state of North Korea. Congressman Ted Poe, writing in the National Interest, called renewed attention to the longstanding collaboration between Iran and North Korean over nuclear-capable missile systems. With this in mind, Poe urgently recommendation elaboration upon recent, sanctions-centered US policies, targeting North Korea directly, as well as the Iranian and Chinese banks that provide so much support to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Naturally, it is expected that the implementation of such recommendations will be more effective if there is consensus among Western powers regarding strategies for confronting the traditionally anti-Western members of this growing alliance. But for the time being, major questions remain regarding the ability of the United States and the European Union to effectively coordinate their foreign policies under existing circumstances, at least where Iran is concerned.

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