When President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran two weeks ago, he offered no alternative strategy for preventing the Islamic republic from obtaining atomic weapons or long-range missiles, other than a renewal of U.S. sanctions. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to fill that gap with an all-but-explicit call for regime change in Tehran. It’s a policy that seems sure to heighten tensions in the Middle East and between the United States and its European allies - and it may make its unstated aim less rather than more likely.
The Trump administration spent months negotiating with European Union governments over possible fixes to the nuclear accord, which curbed Iran’s production of nuclear materials. Yet in his speech Monday, Pompeo announced that the United States “will not renegotiate the [nuclear deal] itself” - in essence dismissing all that diplomatic work. Instead, he set out a sweeping list of a dozen demands for Iranian policy reversals, ranging from a complete halt to uranium enrichment and missile development to the end of its support for groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. If the regime did all that, Pompeo said, the United States would lift sanctions, establish diplomatic relations and help the Iranian economy.
There’s no reason to believe that the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would unconditionally surrender regional ambitions it has pursued for decades, and Pompeo doesn’t seem to think it will. Much of his speech was addressed to the Iranian people, whom he described as “increasingly eager for economic, political and social change.” He declared, “Ali Khamenei . . . will not live forever. Nor will the Iranian people abide the rigid rules of tyrants forever.”
A collapse of the regime would certainly be welcome, if it were replaced with one that was less belligerent and more respectful of human rights. But Washington has been hoping for a counterrevolution in Iran for 39 years, and though unrest in the country has recently been growing, the demise of clerical rule remains a long-odds bet the United States can do little to advance. Pompeo promised “the strongest sanctions in history,” but experts on Iran say the renewed U.S. assault may end up bolstering the regime by allowing it to appeal to Iranian nationalism.
In any case, new sanctions are unlikely to match the pressure applied to Iran before 2015 unless Pompeo can reassemble the international coalition of that era, which included the EU, Russia and China. For now, the Europeans are in no mood to cooperate: They are trying to craft a package of economic incentives that will induce Iran to stay with the nuclear deal. U.S. secondary sanctions may deter some companies from doing business with Iran, but probably not the already-blacklisted oligarchs of Russia or Chinese state firms.
Rather than meekly comply with Pompeo’s demands, the regime can be expected to look for ways to retaliate, such as by sponsoring attacks on U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. That could draw the United States deeper into the regional conflicts Trump has said he wants to avoid. In laying out maximal goals, the administration has set the stage for perpetual conflict with Iran, barring a revolution it is powerless to bring about.