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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Does deal exit mean Trump is eyeing regime change in Iran?

Experts who spoke to The National said the decision lacked clear US strategy beyond economic pressure

Foreign policy experts believe the Trump administration is hoping that protests such as this one at the University of Tehran last year will blossom as economic sanctions bite. AP
Foreign policy experts believe the Trump administration is hoping that protests such as this one at the University of Tehran last year will blossom as economic sanctions bite. AP

In his announcement to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, US President Donald Trump did not emphasise the technical aspects of the agreement, as much as the activities of the Iranian regime that he called a “leading sponsor of terror” and one that “has funded its long reign of chaos ... by plundering the wealth of its own people.”

Mr Trump mentioned the regime 15 times during the speech, as he directed the US Treasury department to reimpose harsh sanctions on Iran. His rhetoric, the economic pressure he is putting on the regime, and the composition of his cabinet could suggest that Mr Trump’s focus is regime change in Iran and not just upending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA).

On Saturday, Mr Trump’s lawyer and long-time friend Rudy Giuliani told an Iranian opposition conference in Washington that "we have a president who is as committed to regime change as we are". That goal is “more important than an Israeli-Palestinian deal,” he said.

Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The National that the Trump administration “appears to be pursuing regime change in Iran.”

“They are going for the jugular.”

“From the beginning, he was engaging the nuclear deal as a political issue” Mr Vatanka said. The US administration’s gamble, is “that the Iranian regime is on the brink of collapse and that [the US] leaving [the] deal would pressure it to collapse, but [Mr Trump] is underestimating how the Islamic republic keeps itself together”.

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Read more:

Europe ponders next move as Trump rejects ‘defective’ Iran deal

UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain welcome Trump’s exit from Iran nuclear deal

Comment: The only country which stands to lose from a nuclear pull-out is the US

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This gamble gained steam with the appointment of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, the expert argued. “These are not appointees who just stumbled on the Iran issue, they are hawks [who] are currently sitting closest to Donald Trump’s ears.”

For Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, however, it is unclear what the Trump administration’s strategy post-JCPoA exit is.

Ms Pletka was not surprised by Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal. “Once [he] made clear he was announcing the decision before the May 12 deadline, a withdrawal from the JCPoA was indicated.”

She told The National that while “the speech was good, complete, and the emphasis on Iranian regime behaviour was well put” the question becomes “what is the US seeking to achieve with the reimposed sanctions”.

“I would feel much better if I understood that there was a strategy behind the withdrawal from the JPCOA,” she said.

Asked about regime change as a goal, Ms Pletka argued that “no one in the United States has ever made a secret of the problem we have with the regime of the Islamic Republic, and I don’t know if their policy is regime change.” Still, she emphasised that “the question is not what the name of the policy is” but “what is the strategy to get there?”

Economic pressure on Iran could be an immediate goal for the US administration. Matt Reed, a fellow at New America, said “the first casualty will be the [Iranian] rial’s value, and the second will be foreign investment, while the third looks to be Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports.”

The US Treasury has allocated up to six months before imposing the new sanctions. Mr Reed told The National that this period is an “ultimatum to the Europeans to cut exports, secure exceptions or adopt counter-measures to avoid sanctions.”

As for Iran, the top priority “is to avoid US sanctions again by capitalising on European and Asian reluctance,” he said.

Whether economic pressure happening in parallel with the sporadic protests in Iran since last December can yield a change in its government remains dubious, and hinges on clear strategy for the US beyond the JCPoA withdrawal.