The Maduro regime in Venezuela may yet go way of the dodo. But for regime changers in the Trump administration, particularly national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Nicolás Maduro’s tenacity in clinging to power should be a cautionary tale. That’s especially true as they seem to be pursuing the same objective in Iran. Like Venezuela, they are subjecting Iran to a campaign of maximum pressure. Yet regime change there is much more difficult and complicated than in Venezuela, where they’ve had no success so far.
Wednesday is the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. He and his administration are marking it by deploying significant air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf and engaging in bellicose rhetoric, reacting to intelligence reports about preparations for possible Iranian attacks on U.S. forces.
Both responses appear designed to goad Iran into taking actions that would provide a pretext for U.S. military attacks against Iranian territory or its forces and proxies throughout the region. For its part, Iran said Wednesday it will stop complying with parts of the nuclear deal and threatened to resume higher uranium enrichment if a new deal that excludes the U.S. isn't reached soon. At this point, it’s well worth asking: what exactly is the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran, and will it get them what they want?
Regime changers understandably believe dispatching Maduro’s regime is just a matter of time. The president has long been hostile to Maduro, and regime change is his administration's clear goal. Venezuela is close by in the Western hemisphere; nearly 50 countries including the EU and much of Latin America stand with the U.S.; rival leader Juan Guaido has popular support and constitutional authority to boot; and the country faces the worst humanitarian disaster in the hemisphere, almost all a result of Maduro’s corruption and mismanagement.
If any place was ripe for regime change, you’d think it would be Venezuela. And yet in at least three false starts this year, Maduro has hung on — largely as result of the loyalty of the upper echelons of the Venezuelan military; the opposition’s missteps and the support of the Russians and Cubans.
Trying to topple Iranian regime is madness
The administration is not heeding these warnings. Sitting in Tehran, it would be easy for Iranian leaders to conclude that the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran has nothing to do with changing its regional behavior or renegotiating the Iran nuclear accord — and everything to do with strangling Iran economically to fracture the regime or provoke a massive public uprising that would ultimately lead to the its collapse. And they’d be right. But this is fabulist thinking, and trying to topple the regime would only lead to catastrophic failure or catastrophic success. Here are eight reasons why:
- The Iranian regime still enjoys enormous support among its population. There is no legitimate and organized political opposition to the ruling class as there is in Venezuela.
- Russia and China are far more vested in propping up the mullahs than Maduro, and they will therefore provide greater assistance to Tehran for bucking U.S. sanctions.
- The Iranian military, especially the Revolutionary Guard, is a far more formidable force than Maduro’s military.
- Iran is far less vulnerable to economic pressures than Venezuela — where the U.S. essentially has an economic stranglehold on the country — and does not have to contend with the humanitarian crisis and economic privations that afflict Venezuela.
- Iran’s leaders can rely on internal security forces to crack down on violent unrest with much more confidence than Maduro can depend on his forces in Venezuela.
- Maduro is diplomatically isolated and an impressive coalition of countries in the Western Hemisphere and Europe want him out. By contrast, other than Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. would have no international support for toppling the Iranian regime. Trump alienated many countries by withdrawing unilaterally from the Iran nuclear deal and denying waivers to those that depend on Iranian oil; it's hard to imagine them rallying behind U.S.-led regime change in Iran.
- Iran has far more options than Venezuela to retaliate against American-led efforts to overthrow the regime.
- And finally, even in the highly unlikely event the Trump administration were able to instigate a popular revolution in Iran, the only winners would be the Revolutionary Guard and the most militant, anti-American forces in the country. Simply put, trying to remove the regime in Iran is madness.
Saber rattling could lead to confrontation
Developing a successful policy to check Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions is a very heavy lift. It’s particularly tough given the reality that the Iranian regime is determined to use the U.S. as an adversary to prevent uncontrolled westernization and to spread its ideological message at home and in region. And the toxic politics of the Iran issue on the U.S. side makes compromise unlikely.
Reimposing sanctions won’t produce regime collapse, a new regime any less hostile to Washington, or a less militant regional policy. Maybe reeling under pressure of sanctions, the regime would open a channel to Washington. But even this wouldn't guarantee a serious negotiation.
The Trump administration made the choice last May to withdraw from a flawed but still highly functional arms control agreement. A year on, it has not developed an alternative to replace it or turn back Iran’s influence in the region. The inconvenient reality is that in the absence of clear goals and policies, all it has come up with is saber rattling — which could easily lead to an unnecessary and potentially dangerous U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.