Reversing His 2016 Campaign Position, Trump Pursues Regime Change in the Middle East

Some of the Trump administration's most recent moves in the Middle East look good at first glance—but things are not always what they seem in U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes words speak louder than actions.

As a New York Times editorial puts it, "A drumbeat of provocative words, outright threats and actions—from President Trump and some of his top aides as well as Sunni Arab leaders and American activists—is raising tensions that could lead to armed conflict with Iran."

The Trump administration is certainly changing course.

Trump has cut off CIA support for pro-U.S. rebel groups in Syria, which could serve as a useful first step toward pacifying the country and negotiating a peace settlement to end the horrific civil war. The so-called moderate rebels were often indistinguishable from their allies in al Qaeda-backed groups.

But if Trump shares Russian president Vladimir Putin's goal of a comprehensive peace agreement, he hasn’t said so recently.

At their Hamburg summit, Trump and Putin agreed to a ceasefire plan for southern Syria, where Iranian and U.S.-backed forces are independently fighting ISIS. The ceasefire, which went into effect July 9, could also be a useful step toward pacification, if it leads to the post-war unification of the country.

But is unification the goal? And the United States has stepped up attacks on Iranian-backed forces in the area, and Israel complained that the agreement ratifies Iranian influence in the area. The ceasefire could also be a prelude to renewed hostilities with Iran after ISIS is defeated.

Trump certified on July 19 that Iran has complied with the international agreement to limit its nuclear program to peaceful uses, possibly a useful continuation of President Obama’s policy of minimizing conflicts between the two countries.

But the Trump administration added new sanctions for Iran, along with harsh criticism of the government. Iranian hard-liners responded by sentencing a U.S. scholar to 10 years in jail while moderate foreign minister Javad Zarif threatened to pull out of the agreement if the U.S. did not comply with its terms.

The nuclear agreement may be slipping away, writes Robin Wright in the New Yorker. “The cycle of tit-for-tat, which defined volatile relations between Washington and Tehran for more than three decades after the 1979 revolution, is back in play,” according to Wright, a veteran correspondent on the region.

What is coming into view is Trump’s policy of confronting Iran militarily. Trump is now coordinating U.S. policy more closely with Russia, the president’s favorite ally and an ally of Iran, and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sectarian and political rival. 

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel want Washington to confront Iran on their behalf. That would certainly be in the interests of the Zionist state and the Wahhabist dictatorship.

But is it in America’s interest? The United States has launched two wars in the Middle East in the last 16 years. Both were enthusiastically supported by Saudi Arabia and Israeli. Both were catastrophic failures that (aside from the elimination of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden) did not achieve their state goals. These wars drained the American economy, killed or wounded tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and left Americans even more vulnerable to terrorism.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq also brought devastation to the region, killed more than a million people, created a migrant crisis in Europe, and opened a vast new recruiting ground for Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda and ISIS, who were barely known in the region before 2001. 

Confronting Iran promises more of the same. Any effort to weaken or destabilize Iran would be another favor to ISIS, which regards the Shiites of Iran as infidels who deserve the same treatment as “crusaders and Jews.” ISIS launched two terror attacks in Iran in June, killing 16 people. If the U.S. goes to war with Iran, no one will be happier than ISIS. 

Regime Change

The question now is whether Trump will publicly adopt a policy of “regime change” in Iran, as President George W. Bush did in Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration is conducting a comprehensive review of U.S. policy, scheduled to be completed by October.

The early indicators point toward confrontation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in June that the United States will “support... those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Defense Secretary James Mattis described Iran as “a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not [in] the best interests of their own people.”

In short, the caution of President Obama has been replaced by an adventurism more reminiscent of President Bush. 

On the campaign trail, Trump savaged the Bush family for lying to justify the invasion of Iraq.

“It started ISIS, it started Libya, it started Syria,” Trump declared in February 2016. “Everything that’s happening started with us stupidly going into the war in Iraq….and people talk about me with the button. I’m the one that doesn’t want to do this, okay?” he said.

Eighteen months later, he does want to do it. 

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