Trump Administration Plans for Regime Change in Iran: Mad, Bad, and an Opportunity for Russia-European Reconciliation

It is increasingly clear that for powerful elements of the Trump administration backed by the Israel lobby, the demand for a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal is only a thin cover for a strategy of regime change in Iran. This has been explicitly stated by some of them. Mike Pompeo’s twelve demands to Iran also cannot be seen in any other light, since several of which require in effect an abandonment of real Iranian sovereignty and which are certainly completely unacceptable even as a basis for talks. [1] They appear to have the full backing of John Bolton and his allies, as well as the neo-conservative camp in general.

Regime change in turn is clearly a path to the crippling or destruction of the Iranian state itself. After the dreadful experiences of Iraq, Libya, and Syria (with beyond them Afghanistan in the 1990s), no minimally intelligent and honest observer can see this US strategy in any other light. As for the proponents of regime change, given the intoxicating power of their American ideological nationalism, it is difficult to say where self-delusion ends and outright lies and hypocrisy begin.

The US establishment and its institutions were fundamentally shaped by the Cold War and – equally disastrously – how that struggle ended. That American victory (as it is seen in the USA) was a defining moment in modern American history. The revolt of the East Europeans, their successful integration into the US-led strategic and economic order, and the destruction of the USSR, remain for the neo-conservatives and their allies templates for strategy against Iran, Russia and China. And if it is difficult to see how they can believe that such a strategy will lead to a democratic Iran, it is much easier to see how they might convince themselves that a combination of “liberal” protest and ethnic separatism might destroy Iran as a country.

Thank heavens, this strategy is very unlikely to work – and for that reason among others is opposed by other elements in the Trump administration, by many in the wider foreign and security establishment, and by most of the Pentagon. These also fear the boost that such a campaign would give to Saudi hopes of regional hegemony and the spread of Sunni fundamentalism – as well of course the risk that it would lead the USA into a new war that would divide still further the West, and strengthen still further the influence of China and Russia. Despite the antics of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli lobby in the USA, a strategy of seeking to cripple Iran is even opposed by large sections of the Israeli security establishment.

Wiser heads see that this strategy ignores the strength of the Iranian state and the tremendous power of Iranian nationalism. As Michael Axworthy, the British expert on Iran, has written, “Given the long history of foreign meddling in the country (the CIA-inspired coup that removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 is just one example), any suspicion of foreign backing is political poison in Iran”. [2]

This is also true for Iranian secularists. According to Mahsa Rouhi in Foreign Policy, “Despite decades of foreign support, the so-called opposition forces lauded by U.S. hawks have been ineffective in gathering any backing inside the country to be even considered as a viable option to replace the regime”. If anything, she suggests, US destabilization of Iran, if it seems to be succeeding, is likely to lead to the seizure of power by military hardliners from the Revolutionary Guard. [3]

This US government plan also vastly exaggerates the potential for ethnic secession in Iran. The Kurds, Baloch and Arabs may be discontented but they can also be contained. Support for the Baloch separatist movement Jundallah would also mean US support for an Islamist force closely linked to Al Qaeda – an insane policy on Washington’s part.

The real threat to the Iranian state would be if Azeri and other Turkic peoples (making up altogether up to 40 percent of the population) could be turned against Tehran. This is however made highly unlikely by a particular feature of Iranian history, whereby for a very large part of its history Iran was ruled by Turkic dynasties – including the Safavids the greatest of them all. As a result, Azeris are completely integrated into the Iranian state and clerical elites – including the Supreme Jurist, Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

Iran can of course be badly damaged by US sanctions. But even if the European Union (yet again) crumples under US pressure, US hopes are likely to be frustrated by the economic power of China – a factor completely absent when the USSR collapsed. China has so far played a very cautious role in the Middle East; but Iran is of great importance to Beijing both as a source of energy and as a key element in the Belt and Road plan. In the end, while China is not likely to commit itself fully to helping Iran, it will probably give enough to keep the Iranian economy afloat. America’s new “ally” India too will go on buying Iranian energy irrespective of US sanctions.

But just because these US administration plans are stupid and unrealistic does not make them any less wicked. They are a crude violation of international law and tradition; they are meant to wreck a reasonable compromise which enjoys overwhelming support from the international community; they threaten yet more war and instability in the Middle East, including a still further deepening of the tensions between Sunni and Shia; they threaten a new wave of Muslim refugees to Europe, which would very likely lead to the end of liberal democracy in several countries; they promise the further empowerment of Saudi Arabia, which is an ideological enemy of modern civilization; and above all, they would plunge the ordinary people of Iran into the same anarchy and misery suffered by the Iraqis and Libyans – consequences for which the USA of course would refuse to assume any responsibility.

The fact that the men responsible for the Iraq catastrophe can once again be leading US policy (backed once again by neo-conservatives and “liberal hawks” in the Democratic Party) is an indication of dangerous and perhaps in the long run mortal sicknesses in the US political system: establishment solidarities which have undermined and even largely destroyed the belief that members of the elite should suffer for their mistakes and crimes; party and ideological allegiances so rigid and fanatical that they have abolished rational thought about many areas of policy; the domination of much of the public debate by nationalist myths and mythologized history rather than evidence and rational argument; the immense power of small lobbies.

The plan against Iran is also however in a way a logical result of the overall approach to the world of the Trump administration. It was possible initially to have some sympathy with what was derided as his “isolationist” agenda because it appeared to recognize that many US external commitments and adventures were not in fact in the interest of the USA and ordinary Americans. Since some of these commitments included the acceptance of economic terms unfavourable to the USA, this approach formed – or would have formed – a logical accompaniment to Trump’s protectionist and mercantilist trade policies. The result would have been a USA more restrained on the world stage and more committed to developing itself at home.

But the power of American imperialism and the Israel lobby in the Trump administration has proved too strong for such a combination. Instead we have at present the worst of all worlds: a US government still blindly committed to maintain its superpower status all over the world and to weaken or destroy any real or perceived rivals, but with absolutely no sense of duty towards international order or the wellbeing of people beyond America’s shores. Or as Rudyard Kipling put it: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” Moreover, while Trump may well be defeated in 2020, the Republican Party attitudes that he has brought to the fore are likely to be here to stay. They did not originate with Trump, but were apparent in many of the policies of the Bush administration, and are deeply rooted in old traditions of what I have called the American nationalist antithesis, and what Walter Russell Mead and others have called “Jacksonian nationalism”. As the economic, social and demographic decline of the white conservative middle classes in America intensifies, so too will such attitudes to the outside world.

 This combination of US aggression and US abdication points logically towards the urgent need for rapprochement between Russia and Western Europe in defence of international peace and order. This should begin with co-operation to defend the Iran nuclear deal and oppose new US pressure on Iran, but in future should extend to a settlement in Ukraine and action against climate change, on which the Trump administration and the Republican Party have also abdicated responsibilty. My sense is that it is precisely the fact that the objective grounds for such a rapprochement are so obvious that is motivating much of the crazed anti-Russian language of Western security establishments.

Tragically, a combination of West European anti-Russian prejudices, the terror of European establishments at the thought of life without US protection, and some of Russia’s own past actions has made such a rapprochement extremely difficult. It may have to wait for a new generation of politicians both in Western Europe and in Russia. The gains for both Russia and Europe would however be immense. For Europe, an end to the confrontation with Russia would secure Europe in conventional terms and leave it free to concentrate on the real threats to European stability and democracy. For Russia, joint responses to Trumpian strategies promise a new relationship with the European Union on equal terms, and the achievement of an international status for Russia in accordance with the self-image of the best parts of her own establishment: a great conservative pillar of international order. This goal cannot be quickly achieved, but the search for it should shape the entire foreign policy of Russia in the years to come. 

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and the author among other works of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.

[1] See Mike Pompeo, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy”, speech at the Heritage Foundation May 21 2018, at

[2] Michael Axworthy, “Regime Change in Iran Would be a Disaster for Everybody”, Foreign Policy, July 18 2017.

[3] Mahsa Rouhi, “Iran Hawks Should be Careful What They Wish For”, Foreign Policy, July 19th 2018.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.