|"Lord of the Strait"|
By Reva Goujon
- The White House's bellicose threats against Iran are not simply a foreign policy diversion to distract from growing scrutiny over the Russia and North Korea portfolios; they are part and parcel of the Trump administration's blunt drive for regime change in Tehran.
- As economic and social pressure in Iran intensifies under the White House's hard-line sanctions policy, the Iranian government will lock public anger onto external threats to curtail popular unrest.
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will steadily lose political ground to hard-line conservatives as his government is forced to increasingly rely on the security apparatus to contain dissent and circumvent sanctions.
- The probability of Iran attempting to shut the Strait of Hormuz remains low for now, but potential Iranian moves to harass naval vessels in the area, target Gulf energy infrastructure and ramp up parts of its nuclear program could risk inviting a U.S. military response.
- A serious U.S. military escalation against Iran will hinge on the White House's willingness and ability to keep North Korea on a negotiating track. Russia will likely reemerge as an additional complicating factor to U.S. policy on Iran.
As the White House forges ahead with a "maximum pressure" sanctions policy against Iran, threats of war and regime change were bound to follow. In a not-so-subtle all-caps tweet late on July 22, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Iran it "will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before" if it continues to threaten the United States. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton echoed Trump's doomsday threat the next morning, saying Iran "will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before." U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meanwhile took lead on the regime change angle. In a July 22 speech to a largely Iranian-American audience in Los Angeles, Pompeo railed against the "hypocritical holy men who amassed vast sums of wealth while allowing their people to suffer." He accompanied those remarks with tweets in Farsi addressed to the Iranian people expressing American solidarity with them against "40 years of tyranny."
Reviewing the Trump Playbook on Iran
The combative rhetoric fits neatly with the White House's Iran strategy to date. Similar to its handling of North Korea, the Trump administration, now stacked with Iran hawks, believes that in a best-case scenario a maximum pressure campaign — one that involves ditching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, snapping back all sanctions against Iran and denying waivers to Iran's trading partners while threatening military action — could eventually drive the Iranian government back to the negotiating table to rewrite the nuclear deal. Short of that highly dubious outcome, at least during the Trump presidency, the White House has been remarkably open about its intent to use a combination of economic turmoil, propaganda efforts and potentially covert activity in collaboration with Israel and Saudi Arabia to create the conditions for regime change from the ground up.
The latter outcome, too, appears far-fetched. The Iranian economy is already under enormous strain, and that pain will be compounded when sanctions snap back in August and November. From the point of view of the White House, widespread protests early in the year in poorer parts of rural Iran, along with more recent demonstrations in Tehran among the merchant class, were signs of revolutionary potential. But it remains to be seen whether the forces behind those protests can converge into a mass movement, especially as U.S. bellicosity provides the regime with ample fuel to rally its people against enemy forces and justify a rising tide of crackdowns.
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