On Monday, Americans woke up to an all-caps diatribe from President Trump aimed at the Iranian government. The message, in essence, was a warning to Tehran: Stop threatening the United States with violence or risk exposing yourself to an American response “the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
Some may dismiss Trump’s tweet as an isolated event or empty bluster, but when it is combined with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’s speech to the Iranian diaspora community in Los Angeles last weekend, the president’s threat is one more piece of evidence that the administration’s policy on Iran is all about regime change.
A strategy focused exclusively on economic and political pressure to the detriment of hard-nosed, pragmatic diplomacy will not weaken the mullahs to the point of collapse — nor is it in the U.S. national security interest to foment such collapse.
No one would defend the Iranian government as currently constructed. No one argues with Pompeo’s description of the regime: The mullahs have monopolized a large chunk of Iran’s economy, thrown political dissidents in prison on flimsy and politicized charges and used state-sponsored terrorism against their neighbors. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and a half.
Iran is unquestionably a national security problem for its neighbors, but it is a largely immaterial nuisance to the United States.
No one can look at Iran’s leadership with impartial eyes and conclude that the Iranian people have been anything other than shortchanged and ill-served.
But these facts cannot be the main issue for U.S. policymakers. The issue instead is whether inciting domestic rebellion, cutting off Tehran from the international financial system and conditioning dialogue on wholly unrealistic demands is a wise course of action to achieve those or any ends. Given America’s dismal record in the Middle East, the answer is no.
Iran is unquestionably a national security problem for its neighbors, but it is a largely immaterial nuisance to the United States. Core U.S. national security interests in the region are relatively limited: preventing transnational terrorist groups from attacking the homeland and Americans abroad, ensuring the oil market is stable, and maintaining as many constructive Middle East diplomatic partnerships as possible.
Tehran’s threat to shutter the Strait of Hormuz justifies an aggressive U.S. posture to some observers. But such a closure would hurt Iran’s bottom line more than it would hurt the United States. In a country that depends on its ability to export crude oil to the global market for much of its government revenue — and whose people are already taking to the streets to protest a plummeting domestic currency — the mullahs would be making a potentially catastrophic mistake to take such a gamble.
For the United States to try to inspire a democratic movement in Iran amounts to a case of dangerous amnesia. In close to two decades of military engagement in the Middle East, the foreign policy establishment in Washington should have learned some valuable lessons about how futile it is for the United States to force through a change of government in a foreign land.
In every instance the United States has attempted to pressure a regime into submission or topple it outright, the results have been catastrophic for regional stability, enormously expensive for the American taxpayer, and a major distraction to American grand strategy that aspiring competitors such as Russia and China swiftly and cleverly exploit.
The American people are often told that regime change will be quick, easy, relatively cost-free, and a prelude to Western-style democratic governance. The reality, however, has consistently been the opposite: intercommunal violence leading to civil war, the overpowering of moderates by extremist forces with more absolutist agendas, the proliferation of terrorism and unaccountable armed groups and new calls (often by the same people who lobbied for regime change in the first place) for the United States to invest more resources in order to prevent the situation from spiraling into anarchy.
The American people have learned these lessons even if the Washington establishment hasn’t. They see an Iraq now consumed by Iranian influence, a Libya composed of a collection of armed militias fighting one another for territory and oil, and an Afghanistan that remains deep into its 17th consecutive year of war with no end in sight. You would be hard-pressed to find an American outside of the Beltway who genuinely believes America’s policy in all three countries has made the United States safer or more prosperous. Americans, to be blunt, have no desire to attempt in Iran what the United States couldn’t do in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Libya: overthrow a regime, however despotic and corrupt.
U.S. foreign policy cannot be about do-goodism or charity. It should about one thing only: Advancing prosperity at home and safety abroad. Picking an unnecessary and counterproductive fight with Iran’s regime in pursuit of an unattainable ideal does not qualify as sound judgment.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the American Conservative.