Somehow, Trump’s Iran policy reminds me of Obama in at least one regard. During the first couple of years of his administration, Obama let it be known that he was “testing” the Iranians. He’d made some tough demands, and if the Iranians didn’t meet him halfway, he would take harsh action against them. Officials like Dennis Ross and Ben Rhodes told anyone within earshot that the president wasn’t bluffing, and that he was quite prepared to crack down on the Islamic Republic.
The Iranians didn’t budge, continued to kill and capture Americans, and Obama never took stern action against them. Quite the contrary, in fact. He pursued a strategic alliance with the mullahs. Ross and others went back to the private sector.
In recent days we’ve heard tough language about Iran from the president and the secretary of state. But both men insisted that they were quite prepared to sit down and talk to Khamenei and his cohorts. To be sure, the tough words were considerably more threatening than anything the Obama people said, but the desire for talks, and for a working agreement, was explicit. The president said “We’re ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster,” and Secretary of State Pompeo’s Iran speech was reminiscent of Obama’s early warnings:
While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country, the United States, in the spirit of our own freedoms, will support the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people. Our hope is that ultimately the regime will make meaningful changes in its behavior both inside of Iran and globally. As President Trump has said, we’re willing to talk with the regime in Iran, but relief from American pressure will come only when we see tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts in Tehran’s policies.
Assistant Secretary of State Chris Ford made it clear that our Iran policy is aimed at reaching a diplomatic “solution” to our conflict. “We are not naive enough to think that achieving a comprehensive new deal will be easy. It won’t” he said in public remarks.
But we are confident that friends and allies will eventually join us in demanding that Iranian behavior and conduct be normalized and made non-threatening, so that Iran can in turn enjoy truly normalized relations and commerce with the international community – benefitting, in the end, the Iranian people themselves perhaps most of all.
I worry that the Trump Administration, like every other since the mullahs’ seizure of power in 1979, has convinced itself that if enough economic and political pressure is brought to bear on the Tehran regime, it will change. Indeed, the president has said that Iran is a different country than it was a few months ago, and is getting ready to sit down for serious talks with the United States.
I believe this is folly. Totalitarian regimes cannot be reformed. Iranian leaders believe they rule by divine edict, and they are totally unwilling to submit to the people’s will. The only way to get better behavior out of the Islamic Republic is to change the regime, replacing it with a free republic and replacing the ruling clerisy and key allies such as the Revolutionary Guards.
I fear that Trump, Pompeo and Mattis may have fallen into a comfortable trap. They may have concluded that the Iranian regime is doomed, and it’s only a matter of time before it collapses, at which point the United States can support a new revolutionary leadership. This is not necessarily totally misguided. Iran is in a revolutionary crisis, the anti-regime forces are strong and getting more determined, and there is little evidence that Khamenei et. al. have any idea what to do to preserve the system.
In that case, if the regime is indeed doomed, then it makes sense to increase the political and economic pressure, and little else.
I don’t admire the strategy—I don’t think revolutions are responses to misery—but it might pan out. But it might not. Does the president have a Plan B? Has the administration talked to the dissident leaders in Iran to discuss their wishes? Why has the president still not put suitable people in charge of our Farsi-language broadcasting? And what will we do if Khamenei, as well he might, orders terrorist actions inside the United States?
Lots of unanswered questions. Stand by.