Ever since Donald Trump became president, regime change in Iran has been a prominent US aim. Trump began by backing out of the nuclear deal and imposing harsh sanctions, setting the stage for a confrontational policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton followed Trump’s lead, repeatedly denouncing Iran’s leadership, calling for Iranians to rise up against it, and issuing vague warnings of US punishment.
This US policy is absolutely inexcusable: It is aggressive and baseless, oblivious to diplomacy, and guaranteed to cause untold hardship and chaos for the people of the region.
I have argued a number of times that Iran, not North Korea, is Trump’s principal national security target. Trump’s extraordinary patience with Kim Jong-un, and willingness to go to two summits with him that have gotten nowhere, can be understood as having given him time to focus on “maximum pressure” on Iran. In his mind, the North Korea “threat” has been deterred; let South Korea deal with it. US interests in the Middle East are far more important anyway, and with Iran Trump has the firm backing of two “great friends”: Saudi Arabia’s criminal crown prince and Israel’s newly reelected prime minister, who is as much a militaristic far-right hawk as Bolton and Pompeo. If war broke out, the Saudis and Israelis would be expected to provide on-the-ground personnel, permitting the US to rely on air and naval power.
What Trump is now doing is baiting Iran with war talk and deployments of overwhelming military power. Bolton, well known for having wanted to attack Iran years ago, and defeated in his attempts to lure Trump into using force against Venezuela, is looking for a way to sucker Tehran into creating a “provocation” that would provide a pretext for a US “counterattack.” The public US position is not credible: “The president has been clear, the United States does not seek military conflict with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said Monday in an email. “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we are ready to defend U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”
Talks, really? Trump “open to talks” after tearing up a negotiated deal with Iran that took many years to conclude—a deal that is working? Defend US personnel from what? Defend what interests, other than those of the Saudis and the Israelis who have been itching to eliminate the rule of Iran’s Shia clergy for decades? If there is a “default option,” it is the US preference under Trump for resolving international disputes by threats rather than engagement. The US Congress, the European Union, Russia, and China must act fast to isolate Trump and insist that their interests lie in continued trade with Iran and respect for its sovereignty.