Trump’s Iran deal announcement has experts fearing the worst for the Middle East

There is no sound case for forced regime change in Iran.

Latest appointee to President Donald Trump's legal team and former Mayor of New York City  Rudy Giuliani takes questions from the media after speaking  at the Conference on Iran on May 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Latest appointee to President Donald Trump's legal team and former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani takes questions from the media after speaking at the Conference on Iran on May 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is expected to make an announcement on the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday — following two weeks of heated anti-Iran rhetoric, including talk of regime change.

A lot has happened in recent days, so here’s a quick summary: Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed he had new information on Iran’s secret nuclear program — and went on to give a dramatic presentation on information that was neither new nor proved anything other than the necessity of keeping the nuclear deal. Just hours later, the White House released a statement claiming that Iran “has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program,” which it then changed to the past tense and blamed on a typo.

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On Saturday, The Observer reported that President Trump’s team had hired an Israeli spy agency to dig up dirt on Obama administration officials connected to the 2015 nuclear deal, which sees Iran limiting its enrichment activities and submitting to rigorous inspections in exchange for sanctions relief and access to the global market.

That same day, at a convention hosted by the Organization of Iranian American Communities — a known front for the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, an opposition group of Iranian expats who some compare to a cult —  former New York mayor and now Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani spoke about both tearing up the nuclear deal and about regime change in Iran.

“With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his right side, and National Security Adviser John Bolton on his left side, what do you think is going to happen to that agreement?” said Guiliani, miming tearing up a piece of paper — presumably the nuclear deal.

Giuliani then vowed that President Trump is “as committed to regime change as we are.”

Guiliani has a long history of being paid to speak by the MEK — he was recently in Washington, D.C. doing the same at the National Press Club, heaping praise on MEK leader Maryam Rajavi. In fact, the two met in Albania in March — and that wasn’t their first meeting.

And he’s not the only one. The MEK’s connections to the Trump administration are powerful. Although Guiliani is not a government official, National Security Advisor John Bolton certainly is, and he too, is on the MVP (paid) roster of the MEK’s speakers.

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It’s not clear what Trump’s announcement on the nuclear deal on Tuesday will be, but one thing is certain: regime change in Iran is a really bad idea.

No good examples

What would a forced regime change, one shaped by the United States (presumably with cooperation from Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief rival in the region) even look like, and how would it be received in Iran?

Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), said that the Trump administration has been pushing for regime change in Iran from the start.

“People like Pompeo, [former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, Bolton, Trump himself, [Vice President Mike] Pence, you name it, all of these guys have alluded to or directly called for regime change since Trump came into office,” said Marashi.

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“There’s no support for any foreign-imposed regime change in Iran,” he said, even though many Iranians are unhappy with government policies, social and economic, within the country. “You can be all of those things, have those same views, while simultaneously opposing foreign powers, particularly the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, trying to do to your country what they’ve done to all the countries that surround you.”

Then Vice President Richard M. Nixon shakes hands with Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the Shah of Iran, as Nixon is received at the Shah's Tehran Palace on December 13, 1953. CREDIT: Getty Images.
Then Vice President Richard M. Nixon shakes hands with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, as Nixon is received at the Shah’s Tehran Palace on December 13, 1953. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

Indeed, Iranians have a history of railing against foreign meddling in their affairs.

“It’s almost impossible to conceive how a change that looked even remotely like it was inspired from outside would be acceptable to most Iranians,” Malcolm Byrne, deputy director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told ThinkProgress over email.

“The history going back to the 1950s is so pockmarked with negative experiences that even Iranians who oppose the current regime would find it hard to overcome their ingrained aversion to the idea,” he said.

“Nationalism and the desire for sovereignty have been extremely powerful unifying forces in Iran for decades,” added Byrne, referring to the U.S.- and U.K.-orchestrated 1953 coup that subverted the course of Iranian democracy and re-installed the king, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, back in power.

This was one of the events that ultimately triggered the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

When asked how Iranians might respond to any move that would install either an MEK government or even the son of the deceased king, the exiled Reza Pahalvi, as Iran’s leadership, Byrne replied, “[Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini reportedly once said: ‘There is no difference between America and Russia. Each is worse than the other.’ That’s probably how most Iranians feel about the MEK and the Pahlavis.”

‘Death, destruction, instability’

The Trump administration has neither a policy nor a strategy on Iran, said Marashi, who in a piece published on Monday described it as “dancing in the dark.”

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“Let’s throw everything we got at Iran, short of an actual invasion, Iraq-style, 2003… with the goal to weaken, destabilize, and, over time, overthrow, without having to do what we did in Iraq,” said Marashi.

If the United States and its allies were to somehow pull this off, Marashi said there’s “no metric” to figure out what kind of instability it would trigger within Iran or in the region other than what has happened since 9/11.

“Every single country that the United States, together with friends, be it the Europeans or anyone else, has pursued regime change polices in, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya to Syria, it has caused death, destruction, instability, and you’d really be hard-pressed to say how it has advanced American interests or American values,” he added.

Looking back even further, Byrne also feels there are no positive examples of forced regime change to call upon.

“It’s hard to think of a case of U.S.-sponsored regime change anywhere in recent decades that has ended up a ‘success,'” he said. “Even in the small handful of examples around the world — not just the Middle East — where the immediate objective of a new regime may have been obtained (Iran, Guatemala, e.g.), the longer-term results have almost always eventually gone against U.S. interests, or contributed to huge damage locally.”