Among the most strident critics of the nuclear deal with Iran are those who believe it furthers the survival of its leadership. By throwing Iran’s rulers an economic lifeline, they believe, the deal is an abject failure. America’s goal, they say, should never have been “denuclearization,” but regime change.
These days, those regime-change evangelists, having shrugged off the lessons of the Iraq War, are back at the helm of U.S. foreign policy. John Bolton, Donald Trump’s new national-security adviser, has long advocated regime change in Iran, and more recently has argued that the administration should openly embrace it as a foreign-policy goal. At the same time, Bolton and his ilk are pushing for a denuclearization deal with North Korea ahead of Trump’s planned summit with Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader. Preparations for the meeting will likely be in full swing by May 12, the next deadline for extending the Iran deal. The Trump administration, in other words, could find itself in the odd situation of tearing down the nuclear deal with Iran while pursuing a similar deal with North Korea.
With proponents of regime change ascendant, the temptation in the Trump administration to cast the deal aside in an effort to weaken Iran is great. Yet the immediate ripple effects of such a decision will breed dangerous consequences, both in Iran and across the Middle East—ones that the Kim regime will be watching carefully.
Regime-change advocates were emboldened by the anti-government demonstrations that swept across Iran this past winter. For the first time, economic hardship clearly fueled wide-scale unrest, bringing into the streets thousands of urban and rural poor—the very people that the Islamic Republic regards as its base. Iran is already hard-pressed to address domestic economic needs through the nuclear deal. Without the deal, the situation could grow even more dire. That worry has discouraged investment, and last month led to a run on Iran’s currency.
Since the demonstrations, the Trump administration has viewed Iran’s rulers as vulnerable. Additional economic pressure, it believes, could threaten their hold on power. Undoing the nuclear deal would pave the way for a return to punishing international economic sanctions on Tehran—this time, not only for its nuclear program, but for its pursuit of medium- and long-range missiles, and support for the Assad regime in Syria. Such a scenario would restrict trade, discourage foreign investment, and potentially force Iran out of the oil market. This would please Saudi Arabia, whose economy depends on high oil prices. During his visit to Washington, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman predicted that the price of oil could rise to $80 a barrel—a price he would need in order to realize his ambitious economic agenda and fulfill the kingdom’s military and political aims. Excluding Iran from oil markets would certainly help realize that prediction.
With the Iranian economy on its knees, the Trump administration thinks Tehran would surrender to a better deal—one that the president, eager to flex his deal-making prowess and outshine Obama, would fancy. But this is a risky strategy. Washington led the negotiations for the nuclear deal, and swore off regime change in the process. If Trump scuttled it not only to improve its terms, but also to inch closer to regime change, it will be difficult to persuade other adversaries with dangerous weapons to seriously consider diplomatic engagement. Without credible diplomatic options, war would become the only path available to the United States to address thorny international issues—the very trajectory that the candidate Trump railed against.
Even if Trump gets regime change in Tehran, it may not be the sort he wants. Canceling the nuclear deal and increasing economic pressure on Iran would further marginalize the moderates and pragmatists who favor engagement with the West, while empowering the Revolutionary Guards and their hardline allies. But before that happened (if it happened at all) the instability Washington would hope to sow in Iran could instead surface in countries where it craves stability, most immediately in Iraq. This is because the nuclear deal has provided the United States and Iran with the tacit context to cooperate in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State. Without the deal, Iraq could once again become a battleground for U.S.- and Iran-backed forces.
Another unwelcome development that would precede a hypothetical regime change: Iran would likely quickly return to enriching uranium, this time at levels higher than the 20 percent that once so worried the international community. Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, has raised the stakes further, threatening that if the United States quits the nuclear deal, Iran could even leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which could mean openly pursuing nuclear weapons.
President Trump, in turn, warned on Tuesday that if Iran resumed nuclear activity it “will have bigger problems than [it] ever had before.” That is unlikely to deter Tehran. In fact, the more the United States threatens Iran’s leadership, the more likely it is to seek protection under its own nuclear shield. Washington would then have to switch gears, put regime change on the back burner, and instead woo Iran back to the negotiating table. The United States would have the same economic leverage it had first time around, but Iran’s nuclear program would be more advanced; Iran would have more leverage to get a better deal than the one the Obama administration negotiated.
On Tuesday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron proposed side agreements that could address the Trump administration’s concerns with the Iran nuclear deal. But Washington has rebuffed Macron’s entreaties. It is not interested in finding ways to stay in the deal; it is looking for ways to wriggle free of the deal. Trump has called the deal “insane” and said that he wants a new one built on solid foundations. That may betray his personal ambition to cut the deal of the century with Iran, but in reality, it is a flight of fancy. Iran is unlikely to quickly acquiesce to renegotiating, not before it gains significant additional leverage, and not unless it sees significant upside in a new agreement. Regime changers will get what they have all along been after.
If President Trump listens to regime changers around him, it would doom the deal. The lesson of the failure of the Iran nuclear deal for North Korea could be that a deal signed by one president could be reneged by another. The lesson Iran may take from Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea could be that it should first get what North Korea has—full nuclear-weapons capability along with long-range missiles that could deliver them far and wide—before it agrees to talk again with the United States. Washington may well look back at this moment as one of folly, when it set Iran on the course to become a nuclear-weapons state.