By Edward Carney
Following weeks of escalating tensions between Iran and the US, President Donald Trump elaborated upon prior reassurances on Monday, when he said that his administration is “not looking for regime change.” Of course, Trump’s own perspective on the future of American relations with the Islamic Republic is generally recognized to be somewhat at odds with that of his leading foreign policy advisors, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has openly advocated for regime change and has repeatedly endorsed the efforts being made toward that end by Iran’s leading democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Since Bolton declared early in May that an aircraft carrier group would be making an accelerated deployment to the Persian Gulf, President Trump and others have taken care to insist that such measures are intended only to deter against threats from the Islamic Republic. The carrier deployment was reportedly ordered in response to credible intelligence regarding the posture of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxy groups outside Iran’s borders. But an expanded US military presence has also been widely regarded as part of the administration’s declared strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran’s theocratic regime.
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained in his first major foreign policy speech one year ago, the purpose of that pressure was to compel the regime to make a dozen significant changes to its behavior and to thereby act “like a normal country.” However, Trump’s latest remarks, delivered in a joint news conference during a visit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seemed to draw back from that broad-minded goal. Instead, Trump returned to the sort of narrow focus upon the issue of Iran’s nuclear program that had characterized the policies of his predecessor.
Nevertheless, Trump continued to assail the nuclear agreement that was negotiated with Iran by then-President Barrack Obama and five other world powers in 2015. While campaigning for office, Trump promised to withdraw from what he called “the worst deal ever,” and he followed through on this promise last May, setting the stage for the re-imposition of sanctions that had been suspended under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This took place in two stages in August and November, effectively starting a process of escalation that is ongoing today, but is regarded by the White House as part of a successful campaign to compel Tehran toward compromise of negotiation.
However, a number of commentators and Middle East experts have speculated that the actual purpose of that campaign was to create the conditions for regime change. In past speeches, President Trump himself has lent some credence to that notion, and more specifically to the notion that his administration hoped to use economic and diplomatic pressure to weaken the regime and encourage domestic activism in support of a new Iranian government.
For instance, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly last year, Trump called attention to a nationwide uprising that began in the final days of 2017. In so doing, he also described the Iranian people as the leading victims of the regime’s terrorist proclivities, and he proclaimed that the US stands with those people in their struggle for freedom. Such statements seemed to hint at general agreement between the president and his arguably more hawkish officials, like Bolton and Pompeo, even if there was disagreement over the precise means by which an agreed-upon outcome would be achieved.
But with Monday’s press conference, Trump seemed to draw back from the subtle endorsement of regime change, as well as from equivalent emphasis on nuclear and non-nuclear issues. After suggesting that Tehran “would like to make a deal” and praising the country for its economic potential, the president went so far as to say that that potential could be realized “with the same leadership” as is currently in place.
This comment seemed to reflect the belief that the existing regime is on the verge of complying with the various demands laid out by the Secretary of State last year. And in this sense, the president did not undermine his own past criticisms of the Islamic Republic. To the contrary, he stated that Iranian and Iran-backed forces had been “behind every single major attack” in the region at the time that he took office. “Now they’re pulling back,” he said, “because they’ve got serious economic problems” stemming in large part from re-imposed and expanded sanctions.
The recent arrival in the Persian Gulf of the USS Abraham Lincoln may have supported the perception that Iran has been cowed by an assertive American policy. The aircraft carrier’s transit through the Strait of Hormuz was described as the first instance in months of an American vessel passing Iranian territory without being harassed by the naval forces of the IRGC. But on the other hand, Iranian officials have received an abundance of verbal harassment from the IRGC and Iranian officials, to say nothing of the material threats that spurred the Lincoln’s arrival in the first place.
These threats continue to the present day, even in the face of Trump’s optimism. Visiting Baghdad on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared engaged in efforts to elicit support from regional powers over which it wields influence, while warning off those who maintain close alliances with the United States. As part of that effort, Zarif promised that Tehran would respond to any aggression, whether military or economic. Days earlier, he responded to harsh words from President Trump by declaring that Iran will see the end of the American leader, whom he described as befitting the “terrorist” label.
For their part, Zarif’s hosts, including the Iraqi prime minister and foreign minister, expressed their support for Iran’s position. This will no doubt be met with alarm by those who remain skeptical about the Iranian regime’s forthcoming response to American pressure. After all, numerous reports have warned of the danger that Iran’s regional proxies could pose to American assets in the event that hostilities break out. And other reports have emphasized the rising levels of influence that such proxies in Iraq wield within the national government.
At the same time, President Trump’s optimism may be justified by evidence that Iran’s influence over those proxies is diminishing in turn. Last week, an article in the Washington Post explained that parts of Iran’s regional militant network are already “more than willing to ignore what Iran tells them to do.” And there are signs that that tendency is growing even stronger. The Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad, for instance, recently declared that despite Tehran’s backing, it will not be drawn into any future war between the Islamic Republic and the US.
As the regime has felt the bite of US-led sanctions, it has reportedly been less able to provide continuous financing to this and other foreign entities, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. These groups have in turn adopted austerity measures as well as appealing to their public supporters for additional funds. Similar phenomena will likely be observed in Iraq, especially considering that Iran-backed Shiite militias in that country face competition from persistent American influence and also from nationalist militias that oppose influence from both the US and the Islamic Republic.
Prominent among these groups are the supporters of the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Reuters highlighted their influence on Friday, reporting that they had protested in the thousands against prospective Iraqi involvement in a developing conflict between the nation’s two leading sources of foreign influence. It was not immediately clear whether, by rejecting Baghdad’s involvement, the protesters also opposed certain officials’ offers to mediate between Iran and the US in an effort to calm the existing tensions.
While hosting President Trump on Monday, the Japanese prime minister made a similar offer, anticipating his own visit to Tehran in the month ahead. In keeping with his newly dovish commentary on Iranian affairs, Trump eagerly embraced the offer. And while Trump’s calls for negotiation have evidently been adequate to convince Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, that he “appears not to want a war with Iran,” Ravanchi still used an editorial in the Washington Post to accuse the White House of pursuing a “contradictory” strategy through alternating threats and diplomatic appeals.
Yet Trump himself has indicated that this may be exactly the point. Earlier in May, he said it “may very well be a good thing” that Iran doesn’t know what to expect from his administration. His apparent disavowal of regime change will presumably add to the uncertainty, coming as it does, just two days after his bypassed Congress to expedite an eight billion dollar arms sale to Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s explanation of the sale specifically cited Iranian threats against a steadfast US ally, as well as describing current tensions with the Islamic Republic as a national emergency. Secretary of State Pompeo added, in reference to the pending exportation of arms not only to the Saudis but also to the United Arab Emirates and Jordan: “These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
While Iranian diplomatic figures like Ravanchi can be counted on to decry such measures as needless provocation, the country’s political and military establishment continues to rebuff the US president’s appeals for dialogue while further justifying his warnings about the threat of Iranian violence.
IRGC deputy commander Ali Fadavi recently declared that negotiations with the US would be like “negotiations with Satan.” He went on to effectively encourage military confrontation with American forces by saying that they are “at their weakest in history in West Asia.” Meanwhile, General Morteza Qorbani, an advisor to Iran’s military command, spoke to state media about the arrival of new US warships in the region and said, “If they commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons.”
But in an interview with CNN on Sunday, retired US Admiral William McRaven said in no uncertain terms that the US knows how to deal with threats and provocations from the Iranians at sea, and that Tehran knows better than to launch a strike, either directly or through proxies. Such statements seemingly reflect President Trump’s confidence in the potential for American pressures to eventually compel the existing regime toward negotiation and reform – perhaps even toward the sort of reform that makes long-anticipated regime change unnecessary or redundant.