The mirage of regime change

Why the United States is Khamenei’s bogeyman

According to the leadership in Tehran, the USA is driven by an insurmountable hostility towards Iran. But even if Trump's policy of "maximum pressure" seems to confirm this notion, the U.S. government is not pursuing a policy of regime change. By Payam Ghalehdar & Ali Fathollah-Nejad

Protests in Iran sparked by a drastic fuel price are still in their infancy. Yet, the Iranian regime already knows whom to blame. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei held Iran’s "enemies" responsible, alleging acts of sabotage; a stance which was echoed on Monday by Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani. Such allegations are anything but new. Particularly the United States has routinely been accused by the Islamic Republic of harbouring an innate hostility toward Iran.

Earlier this month, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Khamenei spoke of decades of U.S. enmity against Iran, arguing that ever since 1953, the year of the CIA-assisted overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the U.S. had harboured hostile intentions toward the Iranian people. Even today, the U.S. would be as unabatedly hostile towards Iran as before. Therefore, negotiations with the enemy, as Khamenei continued in his speech, were futile.

An enduring myth

Although many Western experts agree with Khamenei’s claim about decades-long U.S. enmity towards Iran, a brief glance at recent weeks shows how misleading this assertion is. Under Donald Trump, regime change in Iran, i.e. the forcible overthrow of the Islamic Republic, has no priority in U.S. foreign policy.

The fact that Khamenei and his followers take every opportunity to invoke U.S. hostility towards their regime in their public pronouncements does not mean their claim is accurate. It rather reveals how much Khamenei needs U.S. enmity to maintain his grip on power.

On the surface, Khamenei’s claim about U.S. hostility towards Iran seems plausible. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency failed to find any indication that Iran had violated a single term of the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Trump administration nevertheless proceeded to withdraw from the JCPOA in May 2018. Since then, Tehran has faced a policy of “maximum pressure”, the stated goal of which is to bring Iran’s oil revenues down to zero.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveils a statue of former American president, Ronald Reagan, in front of the American Embassy in Berlin on 08.11.2019 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The Trump administration, and especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would welcome the unlikely scenario of seeing the Islamic Republic implode in the wake of economic sanctions. Accelerating the downfall of the Iranian regime by military means, however, is hardly an element of Trump’s Iran policy

True, the Trump administration, and especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would welcome the unlikely scenario of seeing the Islamic Republic implode in the wake of economic sanctions. Accelerating the downfall of the Iranian regime by military means, however, is hardly an element of Trump’s Iran policy.

Iran's strategy of maximum resistance

Even as the Islamic Republic escalated tensions in recent months – think of the mining of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, the shooting down of a U.S. drone, and the attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry – Trump showed remarkable restraint, ordering a cyber-attack on an Iranian database with military targets, but refraining from military action.

If Tehran was truly convinced of the public portrayal of Washington’s alleged policy of regime change, the Iranian regime would have been more cautious in its foreign policy. In other words, Iran’s "maximum resistance" strategy hinges upon Trump’s lack of appetite for regime change and military confrontations in the Middle East.

Trump himself has emphasised repeatedly that his Iran policy is designed to bring the Iranian leadership to the negotiating table. As unlikely as this scenario may be, Trump is looking for a new deal, a summit and photo-op with the Iranians, not least because the Iranian regime’s domestic repression and human-rights violations do not concern the U.S. president much.

Although Trump’s military reluctance has barely changed the belief of many European policymakers and analysts that Washington continues to pursue regime change in Iran, neo-conservative ideologues are no longer in positions of power, unlike during the presidency of George W. Bush. The U.S. has lost its appetite for costly interventions in order to purportedly democratise the Middle East, a region in which Iran has been able to extend its power and influence considerably, not least because of the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq War and more recently by the power vacuum left by Washington’s relative retreat from the region.

Maintaining the enmity narrative

Khamenei and his circle strive to maintain the narrative of enmity between America and Iran, precisely because of the offer of talks from Washington.

Iran’s Supreme Leader had reportedly already warned then-President Mohammad Khatami that the Islamic Republic needed the enmity against the U.S. to stay in power. The rationale behind this is both ideological and political. Ideologically, the worldview of the octogenarian is marked by intense anti-Americanism. Politically, Khamenei is reluctant to let Iranian president Hassan Rouhani reap the benefits of a potential arrangement with Washington, which would give the president more clout in the midst of an ongoing power struggle for Khamenei’s succession.

Iran's Revolutionary Leader Ali Khamenei (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Clinging to the image of "The Great Satan": Khamenei had reportedly already warned the then-President Mohammad Khatami that the Islamic Republic needed the enmity against the U.S. to stay in power. The rationale behind this is both ideological and political. Ideologically, since the octogenarian's world view is marked by anti-Americanism

In this vein, Rouhani said on November 12 that during the UN General Assembly in mid-September there were "some good proposals" tabled to end U.S. sanctions, yet "Iran decided not to accept" them – implicit criticism of Khamenei’s red light attitude to engaging with Washington.

All this does not mean that, as on the eve of the negotiation process leading to the JCPOA, Khamenei and his circle would be categorically opposed to secret talks with the U.S. if those served the survival of the regime. But as long as opening up to the West threatens the economic dominance of the hardliners around Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, at the same time strengthening their domestic opponents in a complex domestic power struggle, Khamenei continues to nourish the image of the U.S. as the "Great Satan".

Meanwhile, anti-American rhetoric does not stick easily in Iranian society. Many Iranians wonder why the regime rejects negotiations with the U.S., even though they are essential for improving their living conditions.

"The enemy is right here at home"

A spectacular example is a slogan that has been heard over and over again in recent protests: "They (the rulers) always say it’s America, but the enemy is right here at home." The most recent protests after the fuel price rise support the impression that the Iranian people blame their own leadership for their hardship rather than ‘foreign enemies’.

To be sure, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. support for Iran’s regional foes, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, have created a great deal of scepticism in Tehran about Washington’s intentions. However, a sober analysis shows that Trump has no regime change ambitions and little interest in democratising Iran.

Talks with the Iranian regime in the current climate remain unlikely, not least because of Khamenei’s fixation on clinging to power by keeping alive the narrative of American hostility. Recognising this would be a first step for the transatlantic community to craft a much-needed common Iran strategy beyond the increasingly obsolete JCPOA.

Payam Ghalehdar & Ali Fathollah-Nejad
© Qantara.de 2019

Dr. Payam Ghalehdar was a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s International Security Program until June 2019. He specialises in U.S. foreign policy and investigates military intervention.

Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad has been a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha since fall 2017. Prior to that, he was the Iran expert for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and a postdoctoral associate with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Iran Project.

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