By Edward Carney
It was widely reported on Monday that new information had come to light indicating that the White House National Security Council had previously asked the Pentagon to formulate options for a military strike on Iran. The request apparently came in response to an incident last year in which Iran-backed militants fired mortars into the vicinity of the American embassy in Baghdad. Although no one was injured in the attack, it raised new alarms over the growing extent of Iranian influence in the surrounding region, and the prospective consequences for Western interests.
According to the USA Today, it is unclear whether the Pentagon’s response to the request was ever actually shared with the White House or with President Trump. In any event, the administration has subsequently maintained that it has no designs for regime change or military confrontation with Iran. However, some commentators have speculated that Trump and his foreign policy advisors are in fact pursuing a thinly-veiled strategy for regime change, albeit by non-military means. This conclusion is perhaps supported by the fact that Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has previously advocated for bombing Iran but is also a noted supporter of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which promotes the idea of regime change at the hands of the Iranian people only.
The primary constituent of the NCRI coalition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, has been a major driver of anti-government protests all across Iran over the past year. These protests were notably endorsed and praised by President Trump in early 2018, fueling speculation about the administration’s hopes for a change of government. Despite steadfastly avoiding the term “regime change”, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the White House strategy of maximum economic pressure and diplomatic isolation for the Iranian regime is aimed at securing a wide-ranging change in the government’s behavior. For many persons close to Iranian affairs, such a change is seen as being inseparable from the collapse of the theocratic regime.
The past year’s protests in Iran may have contributed to the dialogue about regime change while also discouraging the Trump administration from further explorations of direct military intervention. Whatever the case may be, most public actions undertaken by the administration in this area have involved the enforcement of economic sanctions and the promotion of what Pompeo recently described as an “enormous coalition” of national governments that are opposed to Iran’s ongoing and expanding influence in the Middle East and particularly in conflict zones like Syria and Yemen.
Promoting this coalition proved to be a major priority of Pompeo’s tour of the Middle East, which was cut short on Monday following a death in his family. In the midst of that tour, Pompeo criticized the comparatively weak policies of Trump’s predecessor, while defending Trump’s recently announced intention to withdraw US troops from Syria. The Associated Press described Pompeo as arguing that the administration is “in it for the long haul in destroying the Islamic State and combatting Iran’s increasing assertiveness in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.”
Toward that end, Pompeo also used his Mid-East tour to tease a summit that the US will host in Warsaw, Poland next month. It was in that context that the Secretary of State made reference to “the enormous coalition that is prepared to assist in creating stability and peace here in the Middle East.” This, he suggested, would be comprised of traditional US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as various other members of the international community to which the US will be reaching out with the February 13-14 summit.
It remains to be seen which countries will send delegations to the event, but Tehran has already begun to lash out at prospective participants, beginning with the country that agreed to provide the setting for the summit. The AP reported on Sunday that Iranian authorities summoned the top Polish diplomat in the Islamic Republic to hear the regime’s complaints. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter to decry the planned event as a “desperate circus”.
However, Zarif’s Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz voiced serious concerns over Iran’s “destabilizing” effect on the broader Middle East, and he appeared to urge European leaders to find common ground with the United States. Poland, like the rest of Europe, has been firmly supportive of the Iran nuclear deal even after the US withdrew from it in May. But Czaputowicz stated that preservation of that deal would not be enough, on its own, to address threats posed by the Iranian regime.
Those threats have seemingly proliferated in recent months, with Tehran being credibly accused of ordering bomb attacks and assassinations in Albania, France, and Denmark, although all of these plots were thwarted. Furthermore, two Iranian spies were indicted in the US last summer, and the criminal complaint against them made it clear that their activities were setting the stage for attacks on Iranian opposition activists there, as well. Nevertheless, there has been no indication of the White House approaching the Pentagon for military plans in the wake of these developments. This may suggest that the Trump administration is earnestly committed to an alternative strategy, and one that relies on regional partnerships to confront the Iranian regime near its own borders, or within them.
On Monday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran issued a statement embracing Pompeo’s recent actions to reverse the “appeasement policy” of previous presidential administrations, and presenting the NCRI as a “democratic alternative” that should be embraced by Tehran’s foreign critics and adversaries. The suggestion of an alliance between Western powers and Iran’s domestic opposition could point to a broader conception of the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance that has been proposed by the US State Department and colloquially described as an “Arab NATO”.
Resistance to Iranian influence remains strong among Arab nations, but Iran has made significant inroads and is actively challenging the US in its bid for a coalition that is both broader and tighter than what already exists. As an example of this effort, Reuters pointed out on Monday that Iran had sent Foreign Minister Zarif to visit Baghdad almost immediately after Pompeo left. There, he was greeted by a friendly government that is gradually demonstrating a pivot toward the Islamic Republic through such activities as expanded military involvement in Syria, alongside Iranian forces and their local proxies.
By contrast, there is little indication of Iran making similar inroads among its own population, much of which remained in revolt throughout 2018, following a nationwide uprising that began in the final days of 2017. In fact, the regime’s failure to control that uprising and subsequent, localized protests apparently prompted authorities to order its attempted attacks on opposition figures on European soil. On June 30, Belgian authorities thwarted a plot to bomb the Iran Freedom rally near Paris, leading to the arrest of four individuals, including a high-ranking Iranian diplomat working in Austria. The event is held each summer and showcases the substantial international support for the PMOI and NCRI, but there had been little evidence of Iranian attempts to attack the event directly until Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei connected the ongoing protests to those groups.
The Paris plot and other threats of Iranian terrorism will almost certainly drive Western powers to reconsider their positions regarding the Iran nuclear deal, the prospective defiance of US sanctions, and overall relations with the Islamic Republic. This in turn may prompt them to look more closely at various options for collaboration with an increasingly assertive but non-combative White House. And if the US remains true to its apparent commitment to non-military solutions, Pompeo and other foreign policy officials may begin to more openly advocate support for those entities that represent the genuine pursuit of regime change by the Iranian people themselves.