Michael Crowley — Politico June 25, 2017
As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key allies of President Donald Trump are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.
Supporters of dislodging Iran’s iron-fisted clerical leadership say it’s the only way to halt Tehran’s dangerous behavior, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its sponsorship of terrorism. Critics say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hard-liners.
That’s why President Barack Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the United Nations, that “we are not seeking regime change.”
But influential Iran hawks want to change that under Trump.
“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who speaks regularly with White House officials about foreign policy. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he added.
Cotton advocated a combination of economic, diplomatic and covert actions to pressure Tehran’s government and “support internal domestic dissent” in the country. He noted that Iran has numerous minority ethnic groups, including Arabs, Turkmen and Balochs who “aren’t enthusiastic about living in a Persian Shiite despotism.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to endorse subverting the Iranian regime during recent testimony about the State Department’s budget when Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) asked the diplomat whether the Trump administration supports “a philosophy of regime change” in Iran.
Noting that Trump’s Iran policy is still under review, Tillerson said the U.S. would work with Iranian opposition groups toward the “peaceful transition of that government.”
In response, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif lashed out on Twitter, saying that the U.S. was “reverting to unlawful and delusional regime-change policy” toward his country.
“US officials should worry more about saving their own regime than changing Iran’s,” he added.
On Wednesday, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations filed a formal protest over Tillerson’s statement, saying it revealed “a brazen interventionist plan that runs counter to every norm and principle of international law,” and a group of prominent Iranian reformists wrote a public letter condemning Tillerson’s “interventionist” stance.
A State Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said that manipulating Iran’s internal politics is not currently a U.S. goal — nor among the “objectives” set in the initial stage of the White House’s routine Iran policy review. “An explicit affirmation of regime change in Iran as a policy is not really on the table,” Anton said.
As a candidate, Trump was sharply critical of U.S. efforts to topple dictators in Iraq, Libya and Syria, though each of those instances involved the use of military power, which virtually no Iran hawks currently advocate as an instrument within Iran.
But, along with Tillerson, key Trump officials are on the record as saying that Iran will remain a U.S. enemy until the clerical leaders and military officials who control the country’s political system are deposed — even under the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a reformer with whom Obama cultivated ties and who was reelected in May.
As a member of Congress, Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, last year publicly called for congressional action to “change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” And Derek Harvey, the Trump National Security Council’s director for Middle East affairs, told an audience at the conservative Hudson Institute in August 2015 that the Obama administration’s hope of working with moderates to steer Iran in a friendlier direction was a “misread” of “the nature and character of the regime,” whose structure he said he has carefully studied.
The case for political subversion in Iran has also been pressed to the White House by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank that strenuously opposed Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran and which has close ties to many key Trump officials.
Soon after Trump’s inauguration, FDD’s CEO, Mark Dubowitz, submitted a seven-page Iran policy memo to Trump’s National Security Council. The memo — which was circulated inside the Trump White House and recently obtained by POLITICO — included a discussion of ways to foment popular unrest with the goal of establishing a “free and democratic” Iran.
“Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power,” the memo argued. “The very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse.”
It maintained that Trump has an instrumental role to play in discrediting the regime. “No one has greater power to mobilize dissent abroad than the American president,” the memo states, setting a goal of “a tolerant government that adheres to global norms.”
In 1979, Iran underwent an Islamic revolution that overthrew a pro-U.S. shah who counted Richard Nixon and Andy Warhol among his friends, replacing him with a Shiite fundamentalist government fiercely hostile to the U.S. and Israel.
While the country does have a democratically elected parliament and president, they answer to a repressive clerical leadership led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and backed by the military’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In June 2009, allegations of election rigging sparked mass street protests, known as the “Green Movement,” that briefly seemed to threaten Khamenei’s regime. The protests were brutally suppressed, and many analysts say virtually no organized anti-regime opposition movement survives today.
There are signs of moderation within Iran’s system, including Rouhani’s reelection by a comfortable margin and the success of reformist candidates in May municipal elections.
That might lend support to Obama’s theory that striking a nuclear deal with Rouhani — who ran his first presidential campaign in 2013 on a platform of better relations with the West — would empower his moderate political faction and demonstrate the economic fruits of cooperating with the U.S.
But many Trump officials consider Rouhani’s moderation a deceptive mask for Khamenei’s militant fundamentalism and believe Obama was naive to consider him a true political reformer. Most also consider Obama’s nuclear deal a giveaway that only pauses Tehran’s path to a nuclear bomb — while entrenching Khamenei’s regime by relieving sanctions that were generating popular discontent.
The FDD memo argues that Rouhani’s presidency “has managed to mislead world leaders that it is a force for moderation and pragmatism” and suggested that the Trump administration work to prevent Rouhani’s reelection, although there is no evidence that it did.
The memo also proposed borrowing from Cold War anti-communist tactics, citing the Reagan administration’s support of the Polish “Solidarity” labor movement, which helped to fracture Eastern European communism.
Emulating the way Reagan worked with Poland’s Catholic Church and labor unions, the memo argues, Trump “can use trade unions, student organizations and dissident clerics to highlight the economic, political [and] moral shortcomings of the Iranian regime.”
It also called for spotlighting Iran’s atrocious human rights record as a means of pressuring Rouhani at home by reminding Iranians about the true nature of their regime. Despite the generally low priority his State Department has placed on human rights in U.S. foreign policy, Tillerson has repeatedly denounced Iran as a rights abuser — most recently during his May visit to Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.
Anton said the FDD memo was just one of many sources of input the White House has solicited, including from experts with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, and that “our policy is based far more on what is generated inside the government than by what comes from the outside.” He did not specify how widely the memo had been circulated. Dubowitz called the memo one of several he has submitted to the Trump administration.
Iran experts said that a U.S. regime change strategy would be a practical challenge given the lack of a strong organized opposition within Iran. And critics warned that the mere talk of regime change could drive Iranian politics in the wrong direction.
“Even the discussion of regime change is damaging, let alone a policy of regime change,” said Mike Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA who focused heavily on Iran.
“A policy of regime change would be a huge strategic mistake,” Morell said. He added that such an approach would drive away pro-modernization Iranians and allow Khamenei to accuse outsiders of again meddling in a country with a long history of unwanted foreign influence. “A huge potential downside is that you feed the hard-liners and lose the moderates,” Morell said.
“Not only are you unlikely to be successful, but you are likely to have huge blowback,” Morell added.
Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, said a U.S. strategy of trying to undermine Iran’s government would undo progress Obama had made.
“If you put regime change back on the table, it is a complete reversal of what has been achieved thus far. Through the nuclear deal, there were channels of communication and even cooperation,” Parsi said.
Parsi argued that Rouhani’s reelection was a victory for reformers who have placed their hopes for changing Iran on gradual political reform, not mass street protests.
“The people have essentially chosen that they want to reform the system from within,” he said. “The hard-liners could hardly hide their pleasure in seeing the U.S. take on that position.”