Why won’t President Donald Trump’s foreign affairs advisers call their approach to Iran by its true name? They owe that to the American people.
If the administration’s goal is regime change, they should come out and say it. They should present a plan outlining how they intend to bring it about and what they intend to do once they’ve achieved it. They should explain what the benefits of doing so would be to the American public and our strategic interests.
They should make that case and see if it resonates.
It’s not as though enmity toward Iran has been a historically difficult or politically costly position to take in Washington. Yet the extent to which the White House is keeping Americans in the dark about its intentions toward Tehran is revealing. Perhaps the president and his entourage understand that forcing the collapse of the Iranian regime wouldn’t be a universally popular policy.
As a matter of fact, it’s hard to figure out who would actually be in favor. The American public is deeply wary of another generational war in the Middle East. Most of our allies—remember them?—would prefer to see a stable Iran, which they believe holds vast economic partnership potential as well as a strategic foil to the unchecked regime in Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian people, though deeply disillusioned by their leaders, are also skeptical of Washington, which has sanctioned the massive Iranian middle class almost into extinction while simultaneously banning nearly all contact between ordinary Iranians and the United States.
Even Trump himself isn’t convinced, and he has said so. Many times.
His advisers have come up with a shabby fix to the problem: The United States, they say, isn’t seeking regime change—it’s just trying to compel Iran into acting like a “normal country.”
Well, there are ways to make that happen that if that were truly the goal. But it clearly isn’t.
For the time being, at least, Trump’s foreign policy team is sticking to the script. Officials keep saying they want to talk to the Iranian leadership—even as they continue to do everything they can think of to alienate that leadership even further.
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Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly said he is willing to go to Tehran to negotiate with Iran’s leaders. He also said he’d like the opportunity to speak to the Iranian public over Iranian airwaves.
He reiterated that offer on Sunday, tweeting, “We aren’t afraid of [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif] coming to America where he enjoys the right to speak freely. Are the facts of the @khamenei_ir regime so bad he cannot let me do the same thing in Tehran? What if his people heard the truth, unfiltered, unabridged?”
On the surface, the offer sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, though, all of this administration’s Iran outreach falls flat, because it’s rooted in ignoring the lived experience of Iranians—not least the devastation wrought on them by U.S. policy.
The truth of the Iranian regime’s record of cruelty, corruption and lawlessness is damning enough. There is no need to exaggerate it. The people of Iran know it on a level far more intimate than anyone in the State Department ever could.
Even so, the U.S. administration has proved itself unable to gain real traction with the Iranian public—apparently because its approach has been incoherent and disingenuous. Yet officials in Washington continue to claim that the effects of devastating sanctions on Iranians are not actually our fault at all.
“The truth about sanctions is this: The United States sanctions bad actors in the Iranian regime,” Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, said last week in a video supposedly designed to dispel supposed myths of the sanctions policy. “President Trump is committed to supporting the people of Iran, and hopes one day for a better future between our two peoples,” he continued, “where our two countries could have diplomatic ties restored, and the brightest minds in our countries could work to solve problems for the Iranian people and the benefit of the world.”
Sounds good. Yet if you were living with the everyday consequences of sanctions—drug shortages, sky-high prices, the inability to travel internationally and so on—you’d probably find it a lot harder to believe these earnest declarations of the United States’ benign intentions.
The goal of regime change—the end of the current system, however it comes about—is one that millions of Iranians have shared for years. Many began longing for the end of the Islamic republic on Feb. 11, 1979—the day it came into existence. No one can seriously claim that Iranians don’t have real grievances with their government. That has never been in dispute.
Yet that doesn’t answer any of the bigger questions that Iranian opponents of the regime have been asking themselves for all these years: How should the regime be removed? Who should take its place? How can all this be done in a way that causes minimal harm to the Iranian people?
With every new punishing measure against the interests of the people of Iran—the most educated and arguably most pro-Western population in the region—the United States further abdicates any right to have a say in that process.