Analyzing the policy decisions of the Trump administration is something of a fool’s errand. Priorities seem to shift weekly, while “influential” advisors change daily, if not hourly. Foreign policy, and particularly Middle East policy, is a mess.
The one foreign policy area in which there has been at least a degree of consistency throughout the Trump political experiment — from the campaign to the Oval Office — is Iran. Iran, in the eyes of this administration, is an evil despotism bent on regional domination. This makes the policy choices surrounding it quite easy: such tyranny must be countered on all fronts.
Even so, for a while, the form that confrontation would take was something of a mystery. Trump quickly reneged on his campaign promises to “tear up” the nuclear deal on his first day in office, but he continued to promise more action. Not long after that, Michael Flynn, in one of the only significant acts of his brief tenure as National Security Advisor, placed Iran on the diplomatic equivalent of Double Secret Probation — he called it “on notice” — without explaining what that meant.
It took a while, but we finally got our first glimpse of the Trump Iran policy over the last two weeks. Regime change is back.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 14, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out in the clearest language to date what policy objective the United States is seeking with regard to Iran: “Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony…and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government in Tehran.”
Tillerson’s testimony came on the same day that the U.S. declassified a trove of documents related to the 1953 Iran coup d’etat, in which U.S. operatives helped overthrow the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restore the Shah to power. Whether this timing was coincidental or deliberate is tough to say. Personally, I tend to err on the side of relative ignorance to world history when it comes to this administration.
Tillerson’s message was reinforced this week by a chorus of Trump allies calling for a more aggressive approach to Iran. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who advises the President on matters of foreign policy, said this week that “the policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran.” He continued, “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.”
The administration hasn’t yet offered any details of what this proposed regime change might actually look like beyond Tillerson’s vague quote about working with “those elements,” but it’s worth taking a moment to speculate about where this policy comes from and what form it might take.
Based on recent Republican history, I wouldn’t be surprised if this push is at least partially motivated by outside forces. Politico notes the circulation of a memo advocating regime change written by Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation For Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hardline lobbying group with ties to the American and Israeli right. According to the article, the memo “included a discussion of ways to foment popular unrest with the goal of establishing a ‘free and democratic Iran.'”
Not mentioned are any connections to the Mujahideen E Khalq (MEK) organization, a Marxist-Islamist Iranian opposition group that was once a designated terrorist organization, but it’s possible it has a role in this as well. Two of Trump’s biggest supporters during the campaign, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have appeared at MEK gatherings and accepted payments in exchange for speaking engagements. In 2014, Giuliani said that regime change in Iran would be “easy” since the MEK would be on hand to step in to run the country.
Finally, there’s the Israeli-Saudi angle. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have at various times suggested that the only solution to the Iranian issue is some form of regime change. Likewise, Saudi Arabia is engaged in several bitter proxy wars against Iran throughout the region. In 2016, the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud appeared at the MEK’s annual gathering in Paris at which he recited the slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” Building a front against Iran was a major theme of President Trump’s first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel earlier this year.
There are several ways in which the United States might attempt to carry out regime change. It could attempt a covert operation to foment domestic unrest and spark a popular uprising against the regime. Alternatively, it could start directly funding groups dedicated to the overthrow of the regime. Finally, there’s the Iraq model of regime change, in which U.S. military force is applied directly to removing the current government.
None of these options make much sense, not least because there’s no obvious plan for what would come next once the regime falls. It hardly seems worthwhile breaking down the negatives of direct military action to overthrow the Iranian government. Simply saying “Iraq” out loud ought to be enough. Still, it’s worth noting that if Trump or his advisors think that an invasion of Iran would be as simple as the 2003 invasion of Iraq was, they are dreadfully mistaken. Iran’s more advanced military capabilities aside, the Iranian population is over twice as big as Iraq’s, and the country nearly four times as large geographically. The logistics of such an operation would be the stuff of nightmares and would require a military commitment of blood and treasure far beyond the price already paid for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Covert action is probably the more popular option in the White House right now, but realistically, this is the stuff of fantasy. Any indication of U.S. involvement in a plot to overthrow the government would engender a massive public backlash in Iran. Unlike Americans, Iranians know their national history, and the memory of 1953 still lingers in the national consciousness. The regime is hypersensitive to even the appearance of American intervention in their national affairs so it will be difficult to conceal any covert action.
Plus, the United States is already doing the job of counterespionage for them by announcing their intentions so publicly. Tillerson’s statement about regime change may have been buried in the U.S. press behind more prominent stories about Russia or healthcare, but it was front page news across Iran the next day. As if to drive home the point, many headlines juxtaposed Tillerson’s words with notices about the release of documents pertaining to the 1953 coup. It’s hard to surprise someone when they know you’re coming.