With the return of U.S. sanctions against Iran, the aggravation of the economic crisis in the country could result in fiercer protests. But regime change advocated by many in the White House could continue to be an illusion.
Of all the words which could be used by White House officials, newspapers and journals to explain the real objective of United States leaving the Iran nuclear agreement and the return of economic sanctions against the country, there are two which are prohibited: regime change.* On Monday, hours before the new sanctions went into effect, even National Security Advisor John Bolton, a man known for years for advocating regime change in Iran and a military solution for North Korea, made a statement that seems to leave no margin for doubt: “Our policy [for Iran] is not regime change.”
But for many analysts, there is only one explanation for why the White House would not wish to speak openly about the policy of regime change for Iran at a time when protests against rising prices and the increase of unemployment have returned to the streets of various Iranian cities, and in which the return of U.S. sanctions could serve as a trigger for even bigger protests: “If the USA explicitly called for regime change in Iran — if they said that was the ultimate point of their policy — you might see Iranian citizens who don’t like the government rally around that government, simply to show their support in the face of an external threat,” said Gerald F. Seib, head of The Wall Street Journal delegation in Washington, in a commentary published on Monday.**
If in newspapers and on television, representatives such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo go about using words to bypass the prohibited expression (“regime change”), other Republican Party figures are direct about this subject on social media.
On Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, also a fervent fan of plans which involve bombing attacks against North Korea and Iran, took the best known phrase from the Donald Trump campaign and turned it around until it said what is in his dreams: “Make Iran Great Again. Dump the Ayatollah!” (“Return the greatness of Iran. Set them free of the Ayatollah!”)
An Undesirable Change?
If the real objective of the Trump administration is to accelerate a regime change in Iran — and not just a “change of the behavior of the regime” as Trump, Pompeo and Bolton say — there are those who advise caution; if the pressure is great, the change in Iran could be not the change the White House wants.
"[Iran's] security forces are brutal, efficient and loyal, and U.S. efforts to foment domestic dissent will probably backfire, given Iranians' historic rejection of outside interference," said Henry Rome, an Iran researcher at the political risk firm Eurasia Group, this Tuesday. This was cited on CNBC.
The idea that current Iranian discontent with the economy could become transformed into support for the current regime in the face of a foreign threat, or at least into tolerance facing the possibility of a power vacuum, was developed last month in Foreign Policy magazine by Mahsa Rouhi, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, with headquarters in London.
“Iranians have experienced a revolution once before, followed by eight years of war, and that experience is still too fresh in the minds of many people. The economic hardship they are enduring is difficult, but if the alternative is the sheer chaos of Syria or Iraq, then Iranians will choose safety, security, and order,” the researcher said.
Other analysts also stress that the protests in the streets of Iran are more frequent than one would think, and in the majority of cases are motivated by complaints about the rise of unemployment and accusations of corruption, as happens in other countries, and not because of a strong and organized opposition against the regime in power, in contrast to what happened in the decades before the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
"The protests are likely to wind down and will not result in a revolutionary tipping point. When it comes to regime survival, Supreme Leader Khamenei is in control, and at his disposal are an ample set of loyal individuals and groups … [making] the current set of noise (sic) regarding regime change as premature," said Ehsa Khoman, director of Middle East and North Africa Research and Strategy at MUFG Bank, a major Japanese bank.
And before thinking about hypothetical chaos provoked by violent protests against the regime, one needs to look at figures such as Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the brain behind military operations against the Islamic State group, and considered a hero by 65 percent of the population, according to a recent poll. Before Iran descends into chaos, Suleimani could use his powers as protector of the revolutionary regime to end the protests.
The analysts who doubt the possibility of regime change in Iran, precipitated by the return of U.S. sanctions, are also supported by the fact that the country is less isolated today in international terms than before the treaty concerning Iran’s nuclear program, signed in 2015. If it is true that Iran will be very affected by the cutting off of transactions with American businesses — and that the large European businesses will also want to pull away from Iran under threats of Washington retaliation — it is also true that the European Union, Russia and China could somewhat mitigate the effects of these blows.
“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,” Rouhi pointed out in Foreign Policy. “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.”
*Translator’s note: The author used “three” because translated, “regime change” uses three words: “change of regime.”
**Translator’s note: In fact this [video] comment was published Tuesday, Aug. 7. The sanctions about which he spoke were imposed on Monday, Aug. 6.