On Tuesday, the Washington Post quoted White House National Security Advisor John Bolton as saying that the Trump administration is “very serious” about fully implementing new and re-imposed sanctions following US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but is not pursuing a policy of regime change in the Islamic Republic.
Sanctions on various Iranian imports and exports went back into effect at 12:01 AM on Tuesday, and sanctions on the country’s banking and oil sectors are set to return on November 4. The White House maintains that these pressures might be alleviated if the Iranian leadership sits down for negotiations that lead to a more comprehensive agreement regarding nuclear weapons, terrorism, and Iran’s intrusive role in the broader Middle East. But some commentators have described the administration’s strategy as a de facto regime change policy, even as US officials steadfastly avoid using that phrase.
This interpretation of the administration’s trademark assertiveness is arguably justified by the fact that Bolton’s recent denials are at odds with the positions that he has taken regarding Iran in the past. The current National Security Advisor has previously attended several major gatherings organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, where he has repeated the assertion that the declared policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran. It was not clear from those remarks what means Bolton envisioned for the pursuit of that goal, but the NCRI has long maintained that regime change can be achieved through protests by the Iranian people alone, and that foreign intervention should be neither sought nor accepted.
On one hand, it is possible that Bolton has changed his position or that he is dutifully advancing the official position of the White House even though it does not reflect his ideal policy preferences. Either of these conclusions could be supported by the fact that Bolton recently said, according to Reuters, “If the ayatollahs want to get out from under the squeeze, they should come and sit down.” This apparent invitation is reminiscent of President Trump’s recent statements indicating that he would meet with his Iranian counterpart without precondition to discuss a new agreement. Both remarks suggest that the administration believes it can reach an acceptable agreement with the existing government, and thus does not need to promote an alternative.
On the other hand, Trump’s statement to this effect was quickly undercut by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who outlined definite preconditions that the existing government would have to agree to before meeting with White House officials. Furthermore, Bolton was seemingly at odds with his own words when, according to The Hill, he dismissed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s declared willingness to engage in dialogue with the US, saying that his return of Trump’s outreach might be “just more propaganda.”
Along the same lines, the Washington Post quoted Bolton as saying that although the latest sanctions pressures are only intended to change the behavior of the current Iranian leaders, “so far, they’ve shown no indication they’re prepared to do that.” This arguably implies that Bolton, and perhaps the Trump administration in general, is superficially open to the concept of negotiations with the Iranian regime, but does not seriously expect those negotiations to have a significantly positive outcome.
In other words, it may be that the administration intends to use economic pressure to bide its time until the Iranian nation experiences a change of government that is independent of any intervention by the US or other foreign powers.
This ambition would give greater context to Bolton’s remark, highlighted by the Associated Press on Tuesday, that Iran’s existing leadership is on “very shaky ground.” The comment was made in reference to the large-scale protests that have spanned the entire Iranian nation over the past several months, some focused on an escalating economic crisis and some giving voice to explicit calls for regime change and “death to the dictator.”
Other Trump administration officials, including the president himself, have called attention to these protests repeatedly since the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in December, which lasted through much of January before being partially suppressed by Iranian security forces. The protests were given new life in March when Maryam Rajavi, the head of the NCRI coalition and its leading constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, issued a statement urging a “year full of uprisings” leading to “final victory” over the clerical regime.
Trump and other US officials have expressed clear support for the resulting protests and for the Iranian people’s overall struggle against their theocratic overseers. Such statements fall just short of endorsement for the established Iranian Resistance, and they help to fuel speculation that the White House is maintaining an unspoken policy of promoting regime change at the hands of the Iranian people. If that speculation is accurate, it would be in keeping with the administration’s maximal pressure on the regime, and it would lead to the conclusion that the Trump team intends to maintain that pressure until the Iranian people rise up en masse, and not simply until the mullahs submit to a deal.
While such a conclusion cannot be proven based on current information, the Trump administration’s deep antipathy toward the Iranian regime is well-known, and now that sanctions are coming back into effect, the White House has shown little willingness to ease any pressures on that regime. The Hill quoted the president as proudly describing the current sanctions on Iran as “the most biting… ever imposed.” At the same time, he and his foreign policy principals have been pushing for the broadest possible cooperation with the sanctions, warning European firms of severe consequences for continuing to do business with Iran and refusing to publicly consider waivers for at-risk countries until last month.
On Monday, just before the suspended sanctions came back into effect, Trump said, “We urge all nations to take such steps to make clear that the Iranian regime faces a choice: either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation.”
Nonetheless, he has continued to face pushback from the European Union, which initiated sanctions blocking measures at the same time that the US re-imposed its sanctions. As The Hill reported, an aide to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s head of foreign affairs, said on Monday, “If EU companies abide by U.S. secondary sanctions they will, in turn, be sanctioned by the EU.” Nevertheless, many European firms have already ceased their Iranian operations, and it is generally expected that all large companies with business interests in both the US and Iran will do the same.
As responses to US pressure vary between European political and business leaders, so do they vary among other foreign partners of the US and Iran. On one hand, Reuters reported on Tuesday that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said he does not agree with the Iran sanctions but will abide by them anyway, in the interest of avoiding harm to the Iraqi economy. But on the other hand, Voice of America News described the government of Turkey as being on a collision course with Washington over the issue. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that Ankara is only bound by international agreements and will not comply with the US. But it remains to be seen how much weight such warnings carry, considering that Turkey had previously helped Iran to evade sanctions, leading to legal consequences and the obstruction of former pathways to this circumvention.
The Trump administration’s ability to overcome foreign defiance may depend in large part on the depth of its commitments in this area, which may in turn reflect its unspoken desire for regime change. In the same tweet in which Trump described the current sanctions as “the most biting,” he declared that his goal in isolating Iran is to achieve “world peace, nothing less.” It is difficult to imagine that Trump, who has described the Islamic Republic as a “murderous regime” that has “funded its long reign of chaos and terror by plundering the wealth of its own people,” sees the preservation of such a regime as being compatible with that goal.