Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

The goal is to reform, not topple, the Iranian regime

The Iranian leadership finds itself in a tricky position that could force it to seriously consider its options

An Iranian Revolutionary Guard jet boat sails around the seized British-flagged tanker Stena Impero. EPA
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard jet boat sails around the seized British-flagged tanker Stena Impero. EPA

The possibilities of confrontation and of accord figure highly in the rhetoric of both the United States and Iran, but Tehran’s continued attempts to push Washington past the red line truly risks triggering costly military action against Iran – leading to either a short military conflict or large-scale hostilities in a devastating regional war.

The Iranian leadership finds itself in an embarrassing position today and it could be forced to seriously consider the options laid out before it, which require tough concessions and bold reforms. US President Donald Trump has communicated a number of messages to the Iranians indicating he is willing to negotiate and has said that he is not seeking regime change in Iran.

But if the Iranian leadership fails to understand the real options it has, this would be a historic mistake, especially if it continues to try to provoke Mr Trump into military action. Iran’s calculation that Mr Trump is too cowardly or too concerned about re-election to go to war is only useful for posturing and grandstanding. And while making a show of force in the Gulf may give it leverage, Iran’s continued intransigence is dangerous.

Regardless of whether Tehran succeeds or not in luring Mr Trump to war he doesn’t want, the fact remains that Iran is crippled by sanctions. Iran has meanwhile lost its bet on the Europeans not only in terms of skirting sanctions but also as Germany and France are poised to join a naval taskforce to be deployed alongside the US effort to secure navigation in the Gulf. Iran has also no doubt noticed China’s policy of disassociating itself in the current crisis. Meanwhile, reading between the lines, Russian seems to not necessarily endorse Iran’s perspectives.

In truth, there is no choice for the Iranian leadership but to reconsider the logic of its regime in a way that would realign it with interests of the Iranian people, including putting an end to its effort to create armed proxies in other sovereign countries. No state in the world has the right to assail the sovereignty of another by imposing its ruling model and funding and arming irregular armies that answer to the Supreme Leader of Iran and further his quest for regional dominance. After 40 years, it is time for the regime in Iran to reform and respect the norms and boundaries set by international law.

The time has also come for European leaders to reconsider their previous decision to endorse the Obama-era nuclear deal that consented to Iranian expansionism and play a constructive role. This can be done by ending appeasement of Iran and pressuring Tehran to reform and disband its extra-territorial proxy armies.

President Trump should crystallise the demand for regime reform in Tehran, and to stop listening to voices from the previous administration that again are calling for focusing exclusively on Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, while turning a blind eye to Iranian-imposed irregular armies in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria.

The issue is not just that by going down that road, the US would be reinforcing its reputation for abandoning its friends. It is whether the Trump administration is serious about its stated foreign policy strategies based on containing extremism, with Iran based on sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah, and down the road, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Encouraging Iran to reform and modify its behavior will be met with pushback, especially by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which that oversees proxies such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various militias and cells in Yemen, Syria, and Arab Gulf countries. For the IRGC, reforming the regime’s logic means abolishing the entire Iranian revolutionary project and the IRGC itself.

President Trump should crystallise the demand for regime reform in Tehran

But if encouragement of Iran comes as part of a comprehensive deal that would save the regime from collapse – either from economic crises produced by the Trump administration strategy or from military action provoked by Iran’s leaders – this may convince the Iranian leadership to drink from the poisoned chalice.

What matters here is that President Trump must not fall into the trap of gradualism and bargaining in a way that would compartmentalise what is required of Tehran and exclude the issue of Iran’s intervention in Arab countries through proxies – many of which Washington designates as terror groups.

Mr Trump rightly indicated that he is not in a rush. The sanctions are painful for the regime in Iran and advantageous for the administration, because they are producing the desired results including exposing Iran’s own attempts to provoke military action while Mr Trump prudently resists any confrontation. Now, the impression for everyone is that it is Mr Trump who wants to avoid war.

When Iran puts an end to its strategic recklessness, it may seek a side deal that Tehran thinks will meet Mr Trump’s re-election needs. Iran will haggle with the US over sanction relief and oil export waivers in return for some gradual concessions on ballistic missiles and the nuclear programme.

For Iran, the nuclear and missile programmes are less important than its proxies in the Arab countries. For this reason, it is not far-fetched for another Obama-style deal to be struck again, where Iran’s regional policies are excluded from negotiations. However, if Mr Trump goes down this road, then this effectively means the US strategic decision is to resume the project for Shia-Sunni strife.

One Obama-era US foreign policy veteran says the US “doesn’t care about the region”. Mr Trump, he adds, does not believe it is necessary for the US to remain in the Middle East because Americans are sick of the Middle East, except when it comes to oil prices. The source also opines that a grand bargain is impossible at present and that the best way is to solve problems one at a time as part of a comprehensive strategy that will allow the Arabs and Iran to sit together at the table.

This idea of being part of any negotiations to discuss security arrangements with Iran is exactly what the Gulf countries want. These countries have protested against their exclusion from negotiations with Iran, as had happened when the nuclear deal was struck. But it is not enough for Arab countries to protest and grumble with Washington and ask its help, according to the US source. Rather, they should present a regional proposal, he adds, because Iran’s expansionism is their main concern, not America’s. The source stresses that the nuclear and ballistic missile issue should be dealt with as the basis and Iran’s expansionism should be dealt with “on the sidelines”.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been working to diversify their security relations in the direction of Russia and China, without prejudicing their relations with the US. But both are aware of the nature of equations that shape deals and confrontations, and the price they could pay if Iran’s expansionism is placed on the shelf while the nuclear and ballistic missile programmes are dealt with gradually. Right now, the biggest concern for them is Iran’s continued military provocation in the Gulf.

A Russian source familiar with the thinking in Iran said Tehran categorically rejects all proposals so far advanced, and is sure that escalation and crises will favour its strategy. “They want a major conflict” that would reshuffle the deck and will therefore continue to escalate, he says. “Iran’s actions are simply irresponsible, but no one has succeeded in persuading Iran to stop escalating and this is dangerous for us and others”.

Tehran’s simple message today is that there can be no security in the Gulf as long as Iran is under sanctions. But Iran’s threats have backfired. Germany and France, which were avid defenders of Iran in the context of the nuclear deal, are joining a Euro-American alliance to secure navigation in the Gulf. China may accept the US president’s invitation to participate in the effort to secure oil tankers, because Beijing is one of the world’s top importers of oil and may have to shoulder some of the cost.

In short, Iran’s leaders need to recalculate. The regime’s logic needs to be reconsidered in a radical, realistic, and wise manner. Iran is in a deep crisis, and admitting this is an important first step. Intransigence is the worst investment in the future of the regime and the nation.

Updated: July 28, 2019 06:17 PM

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