Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Art of the Regime Change

| May 08, 2018

Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has one goal in mind — and no plan to achieve it.

As long expected, Donald Trump has bowed to his ego, his petulant envy of Barack Obama, his hard-line donors, his new set of hawkish advisors, and above all his own ignorance and walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Together with his foolish decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this is likely to be his most consequential foreign-policy blunder yet.

It is important to understand what’s really going on here. Trump’s decision is not based on a desire to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; if that were the case, it would make much more sense to stay firmly committed to the deal and eventually negotiate to make it permanent. After all, both the International Atomic Energy Agency (which monitors and inspects Iran’s facilities) and U.S. intelligence agree that Iran has been in full compliance with the JCPOA since it was signed. Indeed, as Peter Beinart points out, it is the United States that has arguably been failing to live up to its own commitments.

Nor was Trump’s decision motivated by a desire to counter Iran’s various regional activities, such as its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If that were his goal, the sensible course of action would have been to stay in the deal (which keeps Iran from going nuclear) and to line up other countries to join the United States and pressure Iran on these matters of concern. Not only will Trump find it impossible to assemble the same multinational coalition that produced the JCPOA, but Iran is going to be doubly reluctant to negotiate with the United States now that Trump has shown that America’s word simply cannot be trusted.

So what is going on? Simple: Abandoning the JCPOA is based on the desire to “keep Iran in the penalty box” and prevent it from establishing normal relations with the outside world. This goal unites Israel, the hard-line wing of the Israel lobby (e.g., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, United Against Nuclear Iran), and hawks including National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and many others. Their great fear was that the United States and its Middle East allies might eventually have to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power and grant it some degree of regional influence. Not regional dominance, mind you, which Iran probably does not seek and is light-years from achieving, but rather the recognition that Iran has regional interests and that its preferences need to be considered when important regional questions are being resolved. This is anathema for U.S. hawks, whose primary goal is to ensure that Iran remains an isolated pariah forever.

At the core of this perspective is the siren song of regime change, which U.S. hawks and other anti-regime forces have been pursuing for decades. This is the ultimate goal of groups such as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that used to be on the U.S. terrorism watch list. The MEK is despised inside Iran but defended by both Republican and Democratic politicians (including Bolton), on whom it has lavished sizable payments in the past. Who says you can’t buy — or at least rent — a U.S. politician? (Actually, nobody says that anymore.)

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Art of the Regime Change.” Foreign Policy, May 8, 2018.

The Author

Stephen Walt