In a recent speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis went on the (rhetorical) offensive against Iran. Said Mattis:
Like-minded nations here today do not seek war or conflict, yet, we cannot ignore the malign influence and destabilizing behavior pursued by violent extremist organizations and by Iran’s “outlaw regime”….The Iranian regime does not speak for the Iranian people, who have a right to live and prosper in a safe, secure and peaceful region…. An Iranian regime that ignores the needs of citizens feels free to escalate and initiate costly conflicts that serve no one’s interests.
Mattis also claimed that “Nothing is more emblematic of Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East than its support for Assad’s murderous regime,” a line of thinking that was seconded by US Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk.
In Manama, McGurk seemed to be signaling the Trump administration’s willingness to confront Iranian fighters in Syria. According to McGurk, “No one wants them there. We even hear from the Russians that they shouldn’t be there. We’ve taken that and said for a stable Syria these forces must leave.” Still more, according to McGurk, “We will not help reconstruct any of the areas that were retaken by the Assad regime with the help of the Iranians and the Russians.”
Worryingly, these comments by Mattis and McGurk echo all too clearly the regime-change rhetoric employed by successive US administrations dating at least as far back as the late George H.W. Bush, whereby American politicians attempt to conceal their true intentions (regime change) in the soft language of human rights. In the lead-up to any of the seven regime change wars initiated by the United States over the past 25 years, one can find instances of high US government officials repeating, as though a mantra, the claim that America’s quarrel is not with the people of (insert name of about-to-be-invaded-country), it is with the government of (insert name of about-to-be-invaded-country).
To help make sense of the current round of saber rattling by the Trump administration, I spoke with Dr. Trita Parsi, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
James Carden: I was struck by how closely Mattis’s bill of indictment against Iran in Manama echoed the rationale used by previous administrations to sell regime-change wars. Is the Trump administration setting the stage for an actual military conflict with Tehran, or is this more bluff and bluster from a strategically and intellectually shallow administration?
Dr. Trita Parsi: I think the way to understand this is that Trump, his administration and the entities pushing him on this—from Sheldon Adelson, to Saudi Arabia to Netanyahu—ultimately agree that the goal is to weaken Iran and shift the balance of power away from Iran and towards Israel and Saudi Arabia. The paths to that goal can vary; from crippling sanctions, to regime change, to regime collapse, to war or a combination of these policies.
But they have different preferences. Donald Trump, I believe, neither wants war nor regime change. Not out of humanitarian concerns, but because he knows that both war and regime change are very costly. So I suspect they will gravitate towards the one option that is the least costly but yet achieves their goal of shifting the balance of power in the region: regime collapse.
Unlike regime change, a policy of regime collapse is less costly, because you don’t take responsibility for setting up the next government in Iran. In fact, you don’t want a new government. You want chaos and even civil war. In that scenario, Iran’s power would be consumed internally and it would no longer have the ability to project power in the region. Consequently, the balance of power would shift away from Iran and towards Israel and Saudi Arabia—but without the cost of war or regime change.
Of course, this would destabilize much of the region and send massive refugee flows towards Europe. But that appears not to be much of a concern for either Trump or the rulers in Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
JC: I want to ask about Syria. When US Envoy Brett McGurk said the US will not help with Syrian reconstruction in areas freed from the terrorists by Russia and Iran and, further, that the Iranian-backed forces “must leave,” what is he signaling here? Is he giving an advance preview of the administration’s justification for a wider war in Syria if Iran doesn’t “get out”?
TP: I think Syria scholar Joshua Landis has explained this best: Trump’s Syria policy is not to win, but to deny Russia, Iran, and Assad their victory. To achieve that objective, the United States will do everything it can to prevent the reconstruction of Syria. Rather than signaling justification for war with Iran in Syria, I think this is reflective of the policy of keeping the civil war going as long as possible and ensuring that neither Assad, Russia nor Iran can have a true victory, even if this comes at the expense of the destruction of the entire country.
JC: Picking up on the theme of regime collapse. Such a policy—as opposed to regime change—would seem to imply that Trump would prefer not to effectuate a change in Tehran through direct military action but rather to try and destabilize the country from within. If so, it would seem that anti-regime elements such as the terror-cult MeK would have a role to play. You’ve written about MeK, notably in an essay in The New York Review of Books. For readers unfamiliar with them, could you explain, broadly, who they are and how they came to acquire such a powerful US domestic lobby?
TP: Yes, my assessment is that Trump prefers to achieve his objectives without taking military action because of the cost. Note, not because of any particular humanitarian concerns. And that will drive him towards regime collapse instead of war or regime change, because regime change too is costly.
Whereas the MeK is of little use if the objective is regime change, due to their immense unpopularity in Iran, the Trump administration seems to believe that they can be helpful for regime collapse and a potential Civil War, mindful of this terrorist organization’s extensive experience in sabotage, terrorism, assassinations, and even regular warfare.
The MeK is a violent terrorist cult that first started killing Americans and officials of the Shah’s regime back in the 1960s and ’70s. They were in support of the Islamic revolution but had a fallout with Ayatollah Khomeini and ended up seeking refuge with Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War. They ended up siding with Iraq during the war, which cost them almost all of their support inside of Iran.
Once the war ended, Saddam started using them as his personal ethnic-cleansing army against Shia in the south of Iraq and Kurds in the north.
While fighting for Saddam, the MeK began establishing a very strong lobbying presence on Capitol Hill by giving extensive campaign funds to Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike. Flush with financing from Saudi Arabia, they of course pushed an open door because their meagre was that the regime in Iran is bad and needs to be overthrown. Despite betting on the US terrorist list, they were still free to engage in this extensive lobbying effort which culminated in them lobbying to get off the terror lost in 2012.
JC: Another pillar of the regime-collapse strategy is clearly sanctions. The neocon operative who now serves are the US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, recently said, “Our goal remains getting countries to zero imports of Iranian oil.” Meanwhile, the administration’s decision to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions in October has prompted an outcry from the Europeans, who are taking specific action (via the “special-purpose vehicle”) to circumvent US efforts to completely isolate Tehran from the global financial system. Seems the effort to re-isolate Iran is going to be trickier this time around, what do you think accounts for that?
TP: The effort has essentially failed. Trump was forced to issue eight waivers because oil prices would shoot up if he didn’t. The effort to get the Saudis to replace Iranian oil failed. Oil demand may come down next year, which may enable trump to get a bit more oil of of the Iranian market, but he’s neither going to reach zero or a small enough amount of Iranian exhorts to cause the collapse of the Iranian economy.
This failure has also caused Trump to lose the psychological war. Had he succeeded, the calculation was that it would instill panic in the Iranian population and cause them to lose faith in the government’s capacity to weather the same storm. That in turn would have led to a critical mass of people taking to the streets and pushing for the regime’s collapse, the calculation was.
By failing to live up to his promise of eliminating Iranian oil exports, Trump also failed to instill panic and cause the population to lose faith in the government’s capacity to handle the sanctions for the thanks to years.
That said, this does not mean that he’s not hurting the Iranian economy. On the contrary, it is extremely painful and the population is hurting immensely due to the sanctions. But pain alone is not going to cause the collapse of the economy or the regime.
JC: Expectations are that probably 20 or so Democrats will enter the 2020 presidential primaries. As the author of a book, Losing an Enemy, that gave the inside story of the Obama administration’s efforts to secure the JCPOA, what advice would you give the next Democratic president in order to get back on the right diplomatic track with Iran and, importantly, the other signatories of the JCPOA, whom Trump gone out of his way to offend?
TP: If the JCPOA survives for the next two years and Trump loses in 2020, then the next administration must seek to reenter the agreement. There needs to be strong support for this in Congress, in fact, this should be part of the Democratic Party platform.
Any renewed engagement with Iran will be tricky. The Iranians will have reasons not to trust the commitments of the US. But it can still be fruitful, but only if the US approaches it with realistic goals and a diplomatic strategy that is centered on both incentives and disincentives rather than being solely focused on coercion.