Walter Russell Mead doesn’t understand Trump’s Iran policy:
For now at least, behavior modification, rather than regime change, appears to be the focus of Trump policy toward Iran. That could change. Mr. Pompeo did not rule out a military response to any Iranian effort to relaunch its nuclear program, and other military action by Iran—say, in the waters of the Persian Gulf—could provoke a kinetic American response that could rapidly take both countries into uncharted territory.
But the administration’s priorities are clear: President Trump, whose goal is to reduce American exposure and commitments in the Middle East, appears to be more interested for now in making a deal with Tehran than in toppling the Islamic Republic.
When a major power delivers a list of maximalist demands to another state, this does not reflect a desire to “make a deal” but rather a wish to provoke the latter’s rejection to provide a pretext for conflict. The 12 demands from Pompeo’s preposterous speech last month amounted to an ultimatum that Iran abandon its nuclear program and repudiate its interests in the region, and this ultimatum was predictably rejected as it was sure to be. The reason that so many observers regard these demands “as tantamount to a call for regime change” is simple: the current Iranian regime would never accept these terms, and by making such demands the condition for an improved relationship the U.S. is essentially calling for Iranian surrender. Far from showing that they are “open to compromise,” as Mead claims, the Trump administration has demonstrated that nothing less than complete Iranian submission to U.S. preferences on every issue is acceptable. If Iran does not submit, they are to be punished with economic warfare. These demands don’t represent a policy of reducing American exposure and commitments in the region, but promise to increase both for the benefit of reckless regional clients.
When you have declared in advance that the other side has to give up everything before you will even consider making an offer and threaten them with punishment if they refuse, you are not looking for an agreement. It is obviously intended to ratchet up tensions and make conflict more likely while feigning interest in a diplomatic solution. Mead gives Trump’s approach the most positive spin possible by accepting its lip service about a new deal while ignoring the substance of administration policy.
Mead’s foreign policy categories are sometimes useful, but they aren’t very illuminating in this case. “Jacksonians” and “Wilsonians” may disagree about many things, but when it comes to Iran there is practically no difference between most of them. John Bolton is not a Wilsonian, but he fervently desires to overthrow the Iranian government and has expressed his support for the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) as an alternative on many occasions. Trump may not share Bolton’s enthusiasm for a deranged totalitarian cult (maybe he does), but everything he has done in the region has demonstrated his unremitting hostility to Iran, very much including the Iranian people. It would not take much for Bolton to persuade him that regime change is worth trying again.
It seems true that Trump has no interest in democracy promotion in general, but one does not have to want to replace the current regime in Iran with a genuine, functioning democracy to want to destabilize and overthrow the government. Considering how broadly unpopular regime change is inside Iran and how little most Iranians trust the U.S., a more democratic Iranian government would very likely continue many if not all of the policies that the Trump administration wants to “modify.” I suspect that a genuinely democratic Iran is exactly what most Iran hawks don’t want, because their concern is to weaken Iran and force it to give up on its interests in the region.
A key mistake that Mead makes is treating Trump’s rhetoric about the Iraq war as a meaningful predictor about how he will approach Iran or any other adversary. Trump’s problem with the Iraq war was that it cost the U.S. a great deal and the U.S. “failed” to “take” Iraq’s oil. He had no objection to illegally invading another country and overthrowing a foreign government, and I assume he still doesn’t. He just wants to get enough plunder to make it worth the effort. There is no reason to think that he is opposed to regime change in any other cases. Indeed, it is because he is “opportunist” that we should assume that he would endorse such a policy if he thought it would “work.”
Trump’s Iran obsession has already led him to renege on a successful nonproliferation agreement and to increase support for Iran’s regional rivals. This obsession involves subordinating U.S. interests to the preferences of the Saudis, Israelis, and others, and it will become increasingly costly for the U.S. as time goes by. It is needlessly destructive for the region and harmful to U.S. interests, and there should be no illusions about any of that.