When Iran not long ago accused the United States of an attack on elite Iranian forces in Iran’s southeastern province of Baluchistan, the lie revealed just how severe some of the regime’s problems have become. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected as “outrageous” Iranian claims that the United States and its regional allies were responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 27 members of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
A Sunni Muslim separatist group called Jaish al-Adl, or the “Army of Justice,” claimed responsibility for the Feb. 13 attack. It was regarded as one more indication of growing instability throughout Iran. In one sense the Americans were in fact responsible. American sanctions are cutting into Iranian oil exports and crippling what is left of Iran’s economy.
Despite this trouble at home, Iran and its proxies continue to plot violence abroad and not just in the Middle East. German intelligence officials accused Iran of trying to acquire nuclear materials in 2016 after a ban on this was to have gone into effect. Last summer, an Iranian attempt to bomb the meeting of an opposition group near Paris was foiled by the French. In October, Denmark recalled its ambassador to Tehran after another Iranian assassination attempt was prevented in Copenhagen. In January, Germany banned the Iranian airline Mahan Air because it was transporting arms and ferrying fighters to Syria. These are all countries that want better relations with Iran, and have made efforts to steer a course independent of the course of the Trump administration.
It’s becoming clear in the welter of foreign policy issues for the Trump administration that only regime change can tame the Tehran regime, which while tottering, has shown remarkable resilience in the face of an increasingly restive population. The United States has failed to effectively cope with the Iranian subversion around the world, in part the result of unwillingness in 2009 to support popular attempts to depose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There are credible reports that the United States has taken covert actions against Iran’s missile and rocket program, through allies and companies that supply Tehran’s aerospace operations. French and British officials have joined the United States in seeking ways to counter Iran’s missile program, though their co-operation on the sanctions has been reluctant and irregular.
Last month, President Trump took particular note of an Iranian failed space launch on Jan. 15. Had it succeeded, he said, it would have given Tehran “critical information” it could use “to pursue intercontinental ballistic missile capability, and a capability, actually, of reaching the United States.”
So far, Iran has failed to successfully test the newest generation of its satellite launcher. The vehicle, nine stories tall, debuted in April 2016. Iran wrapped the test flight in secrecy but foreign monitors are convinced that no satellite went into orbit. In July 2017, another missile soared off a launch pad which Tehran called a success. But once again, with no satellite visible, American officials concluded there was a “catastrophic failure.”
Without a clear and plainly visible strategy plan, the Trump administration has instead focused on tactical questions by imposing extra sanctions on Iran. But how do these fit into a larger strategy? On the one hand, a weak economy translates into more domestic dissatisfaction with the regime. But the administration has said that regime change is not its policy. The administration’s policy grew even more puzzling when Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, says he favors the “overthrow” of Iran’s theocratic regime. The Tehran government called Mr. Giuliani’s remarks part of an “anti-Iran circus.”
“I believe there has to be an overthrow of this regime,” Mr. Giuliani said, stipulating that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the Trump administration. “I don’t think this theocratic dictatorship can possibly become some kind of democratic, liberal democratic force.” He said Iranian officials had ordered the killing of opponents. The Trump administration has consistently said it is not seeking “regime change” in Tehran, only a “change in behavior.” But it’s becoming more and more apparent that this is that famous distinction without a difference.
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