Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Iran Hawks Should Be Careful What They Wish For

| July 19, 2018

Pushing for regime change in Tehran could put Qassem Suleimani in power.

Regime change in Iran has been a desire, masked to various degrees, of nearly every U.S. administration since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Today, Trump administration officials such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, who argued for regime change before joining the White House, are now exerting maximum pressure on Iran in order to shake its stability. Since withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the United States has moved to reimpose sanctions on the country and has demanded that purchasers of Iranian oil cut their imports to zero over the next four months. With the Iranian rial sinking to record lows, the economic pressure on the regime seems to be at an all-time high, with some, including in Foreign Policy, calling on the United States to take advantage of this crisis to bring about change in Iran’s political system.

In a May 21 speech outlining a strategy of pressuring the regime, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Iranian people to “decide the timeline” of a leadership change. One month later, with his #IranProtests tweet, Pompeo expressed support for a population “tired of the corruption, injustice & incompetence of their leaders.” However, the Iranian regime is not as fragile as perceived. And even if pressuring the regime were to prompt a change, the Trump team should be careful what it wishes for.

Although times are turbulent, the Iranian regime is not on the verge of collapse. Two factors in particular suggest the durability of the current leadership. First, for the past four decades, the regime has demonstrated its staying power in the face of ever growing sanctions. Notwithstanding the power of U.S. secondary sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports, international trade, and financial transactions, these measures are unlikely to be as effective as those in place prior to the nuclear deal because the international community is no longer united against Iran.

Europe is promising to find ways to undermine secondary sanctions and impose blocking regulations in order to continue to buy oil from Iran and protect its trade; China is considering increasing its oil purchases from Iran; and even if businesses withdraw from the country, the sanctions will not have the same impact when other parties are actively seeking ways to undermine them.

It’s worth recalling that Iran did not forgo its domestic uranium enrichment efforts even at the height of sanctions before the 2015 nuclear deal. The so-called crippling sanctions of 2012 hurt Iran’s oil exports and auto industry and, most importantly, sidelined the country from the global financial system, causing serious domestic economic damage but which failed to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rouhi, Mahsa.“Iran Hawks Should Be Careful What They Wish For.” Foreign Policy, July 19, 2018.