Regime Change is Back

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.

Where’s Iran?

I’m at the Association for Israel Studies annual conference right now. It’s a pretty typical academic conference in most ways. There’s an abundance of panels on a melange of topics. Some are interesting, many are not. The size of the conference (there are nearly one hundred panels) means that nearly every element of Israel’s politics and culture is covered in some way. In terms of international relations, there are discussions on Israel’s relationships with Palestinians, the broader Arab world, and the Western — and even Far Eastern — world. Just about everything is covered. Everything that is, except Iran.

Other than two presentations on the negotiations over the nuclear agreement, no one is presenting any research on Israeli-Iranian relations. I just came from listening to one of those presentations. It mostly amounted to a rehashing of the nuclear deal and why, despite its flaws, it’s still worth keeping. Yet even in this benign take, the presenter found time to rehash many of the common stereotypes about Iran, including that it is ruled by religious extremists who are so “hell-bent” on destroying Israel that they might endanger the survival of their country just to achieve this goal. In this professor’s view, the Iranian nuclear and missile programs exist solely for the sake of targeting Israel. It’s like Saudi Arabia doesn’t exist.

For what it’s worth, I decided to attend the conference pretty late, well after the deadline for paper submissions for panel participation, so I didn’t have the chance to correct that imbalance myself. Still, it’s amazing to me that no one else studying Israel appears very interested in what is happening in Iran and how that relates to Israel. In trying to figure out why that is, I’ve come up with three possible explanations:

1. The perception that the Iranian issue is overblown: Back when I was looking into doing a Ph.D., I recall having several exploratory conversations with academics who expressed skepticism at my proposed topic of Iranian-Israeli relations. The Iranian issue, they said, wasn’t really a big part of Israeli society. Sure, Israelis love to talk about Iran, but ultimately, all this bluster doesn’t have much influence on Israeli politics or foreign policy. If there’s no effect, the thinking goes, then the alleged cause isn’t worth studying.

I find this rationale odd. Typically, the idea that words matter is a pretty fundamental premise for academics, who spend most of their time analyzing every detail of language. Furthermore, even a cursory glance at Israeli media or political discourse over the past several years reveals an intense Israeli interest — some may even say preoccupation — with Iranian affairs. For evidence of this trend, look no further than Prime Minister Netanyahu. Many, if not most, of his major international speeches over the past five years have focused on the existential threat Iran poses to Israel. Similarly, there has been an explosion in Israeli media discussion of Iran over the past decade, dating back to the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian President. Given this level of interest and volume of discussion, how could Iran NOT have an effect on the country’s politics?

2. There’s nothing to study:  Another strange argument I’ve heard from Israeli scholars is that the Iran issue doesn’t offer any interesting angles for innovative research. Iran hates Israel. That’s it. Of course, this explanation does little to address the why of that statement. When pressed on this question, the answer usually involves some vague references to Anti-Semitism and/or Islamic fundamentalism that is built into the Iranian regime. This version of Iran is ruled by a group of long-bearded “Ayatollahs” and robed-and-turbaned “Mullahs,” for whom hatred of Israel is a core religious tenet.

This explanation is as lazy as it is ignorant. It reflects a strange antipathy to learning rarely seen in academic circles. Moreover, it is a rejection of the historical record. Iran wasn’t always an enemy of the Jewish State. Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule, Iran was an ally of Israel under the Periphery Alliance. Even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Israel continued providing Iran with weapons and military supplies during the Iran-Iraq War. Some of the motivation for that decision stemmed from a belief that Iran represented the lesser of two evils, but it was also partially driven by a desire to maintain relations with a state they believed still harbored a faction sympathetic to Israel. Somewhere along the way, this nuanced perception of Iran faded and was replaced with the more simplistic view that dominates today.

3. Everyone’s already an Iran expert: Over the course of my research, I’ve identified something I like to call the “Transitive Property of Iranian Knowledge in Israel” (it’s a working title): if you know x, and Iran is related in some way to x, then you must know Iran. Take nuclear proliferation, for example. One Israeli expert on nuclear proliferation I interviewed for my research began by stressing that she was not an Iran expert before later telling me that she’s certain that Iran hates Israel because of “its ideology.” Another researcher who writes extensively on Iran said he had never even heard of two of the most prominent books on Iranian-Israeli relations, Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance and Haggai Ram’s Iranophobia.

This logic also applies to broader regional or Arab experts, as well. If you know Iraq, or Syria, or Lebanon, then you must also know Iran. They’re both Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East — how different could they really be? Sometimes, even the most surface level exposure is all it takes to become an “Iran expert” in Israel. The result is that Iran is boiled down to a single issue or characteristic while the larger whole is ignored.

Whatever the actual reason, the scant attention paid to Iran by Israel scholars is an unfortunate outcome. I would have hoped that by this point, the quality of Iranian analysis in Israeli academic circles might have progressed beyond “they hate us,” but that will have to wait until next year’s conference.

Maybe I’ll write a paper for that one.

“The Undertaker” Gets a New Assignment

I’ve been busy traveling and catching up on other work since the conclusion of the Iranian election two weeks ago, so I haven’t had as much time to devote to the blog. I’m planning to do a more thorough analysis of Trump’s emerging Iran “strategy” when I get a chance.

For now, though, I want to take a moment to focus a bit of attention on a smaller piece of news from the New York Times that risks going unnoticed thanks to the chaos of the past week. Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman are reporting that Michael D’Andrea has been named the new head of the C.I.A.’s Iran operations desk. You may remember D’Andrea from a high-profile 2015 NYT piece by Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, which named D’Andrea publicly for the first time as one of the architects of the C.I.A.’s targeted killing program. For years prior to that, D’Andrea was known only by his aliases or nicknames, including “The Undertaker,” “Ayatollah Mike,” “The Dark Prince,” or simply “Roger.” His reputation, if not his name, has long been a feature of both DC-Beltway and pop culture intrigue. Described as a “gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam,” D’Andrea has been mentioned in various pieces throughout the years, including Mazzetti’s 2013 book, The Way of the Knife. He was also the basis for the character named only as “The Wolf” in the 2012 film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty - The Wolf
“The Wolf” in Zero Dark Thirty

Given D’Andrea’s penchant for action, this move suggests that the C.I.A. is transitioning toward a more aggressive approach to Iran that better conforms with the Trump Administration’s hardline rhetoric. The Times gives D’Andrea some praise in its write-up of the move, noting that he “comes with an outsize reputation and the track record to back it up: Perhaps no single C.I.A. official is more responsible for weakening Al Qaeda.” That second part may or may not be true (I don’t know if they rank these types of things), but my own cursory review of D’Andrea’s past actions reveals a record that is mixed, at best. He was involved in the development of the Agency’s “detention and interrogation program,” best known for torturing detainees. As head of the C.I.A.’s Counter Terrorism Center, D’Andrea presided over a targeted killing campaign that despite its enormous body count, hasn’t been able to win the so-called “War on Terror.” In one infamous incident — which eventually led to his 2015 naming in the press — he authorized a drone strike in Pakistan that killed two Western hostages, including one American. He also may have prevented a memo alerting the FBI to the presence of one of the 9/11 hijackers in the United States from ever reaching the Bureau.

If D’Andrea implements a similar “active” approach to operations in his new role, I don’t expect good things to come of it. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been highly attuned to attempts at clandestine American meddling in their system. The storming of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 was, after all, prompted by the admission of the exiled Shah to the United States, a move many Iranians interpreted as a prelude to another 1953-style coup d’etat. Even if one accepts the narrative success of D’Andrea’s previous missions, applying the same logic of fighting Al Qaeda (or any terrorist group) to Iran holds the potential for disaster. There are numerous cultural, political, and religious differences to account for, to say nothing of the fact that Iran is an established nation-state with large, well-equipped armed forces. Any ham-fisted attempts at regime change or foreign meddling risks undermining the gradual progress Iran has been making toward a freer, more open society under Rouhani. It would bolster the arguments of hardliners like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who constantly preach about the risks of American infiltration. Success in toppling the regime, however, might be even worse: it could destabilize one of the few remaining stable states in the region and increase turmoil in an already tumultuous part of the world. The ripple effects from such a disruption would be felt far and wide.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.