Two of the Obama Administration’s most senior figures on national security and foreign policy issues recently have voiced support for “regime change” in Iran as a near-term outcome. To be sure, the Administration continues to stop short of full-throated embrace of regime change as the formal goal of America’s Iran policy, as Richard Haass and a host of neoconservatives have urged. Nevertheless, shifting rhetorical trends from the Administration indicate that various aspects of U.S. policy toward Iran—in particular, the push for additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic—are now being shaped with the goal of encouraging regime change in mind.
On February 2, when asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell whether the Obama Administration wanted to see regime change in Iran, Vice President Joseph Biden said that “the people of Iran are thinking about, the very people marching, they’re thinking about regime change”. Biden went on to charge that Iran’s leaders had “lost their moral credibility in their own country and around the region and I think they’re sowing the seeds for their own destruction…in terms of being able to hold onto power”. Then, most strikingly, Biden linked the Administration’s ongoing push for additional multilateral sanctions against Iran to the encouragement of regime change there:
“We are moving with the world including Russia and others to put sanctions on them. I think that we’ve moved in the right direction in a measured way…We’re going to end up much better off than we would have had we tried to go in there and physically tried to change the regime.”
Of course, many Washington hands would hold that Biden has an extensive record of undisciplined public remarks. Given that record, perhaps there was not too much significance in his statement linking sanctions and the encouragement of regime change in Iran. But, today, in an interview on Fox News Sunday, President Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Corps General James Jones, made the link between new sanctions and the encouragement of regime change explicit. Specifically, Jones said that
“we know that internally there is a very serious problem [in Iran]…we’re about to add to that regime’s difficulties by engineering, participating in very tough sanctions, which we support. Not mild sanctions. These are very tough sanctions. A combination of [internal and external problems] could well trigger a regime change.”
Jones’ remarks are troubling on two levels. First, there is the sheer detachment from reality that is reflected in them. As we have written frequently on www.TheRaceForIran.com and elsewhere, there is no way that the United Nations Security Council will approve anything approaching “very tough” or “crippling” sanctions on Iran. In the interview, Jones acknowledged that “we need to work on China a little bit more.” He went on to declare, though, that “China wants to be seen as a responsible global influence, and on this issue they cannot be non-supportive.”
As we’ve also argued before, it is possible that, in the end, Moscow and Beijing will acquiesce to a new sanctions resolution—among other reasons, to keep the Iranian nuclear issue in the Security Council, where, as permanent members, they have significant influence. But, if Russia and China acquiesce, they will only do so after they have ensured that the new sanctions actually authorized by the Council do not impede them in the pursuit of what they see as their most important interests vis-à-vis Iran. And that precludes anything close to “very tough” sanctions. Furthermore, we think the notion that non-“very tough sanctions” will combine with “internal problems” to produce regime change in Iran is a misreading of both what sanctions can accomplish and the true state of the Islamic Republic’s internal politics.
Second, Jones’ remarks are troubling because they strongly suggest that the linkage drawn by Biden between new sanctions and the encouragement of regime change in Iran was not a fluke. Until recently, the dominant argument in the Obama Administration’s rhetoric about additional sanctions against Iran held that movement on the “pressure track” was needed to get Tehran to be more forthcoming on the “diplomatic track”. In other words, additional sanctions are a tactical tool to be employed instrumentally to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table in a more “cooperative” posture. Of course, we think that this argument, too, is nonsense. In our view, sanctions will do nothing to generate strategic leverage over Iranian decision-making and will further undermine prospects for what the Obama Administration should be doing—pursuing comprehensive, strategically-grounded engagement with the Islamic Republic to achieve a fundamental realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations. But, at least until recently, the Administration’s rhetoric about sanctions tried to link them to the goal of productive diplomatic engagement.
Now, the remarks by Biden and Jones indicate that the Obama Administration is looking at sanctions as a tool for encouraging regime change. As Flynt argued last week on The Newshour, “the Obama Administration goes down a very dangerous path if it lets support for this Green Movement take over its Iran policy…The United States needs to be doing serious strategic business with the Islamic Republic as it is, and not as some might wish it to be. That’s what the Obama Administration needs to be focused on, and not give in to what is, frankly, an illusion that Iranian domestic politics are going to produce some government that we’re going to find much, much easier to deal with”.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett