US President Donald Trump said that his administration is not looking for regime change in Iran, and that he was open to Japan talking to Tehran.
Trump’s comments came in the context of Trump’s state visit to Tokyo and amid tensions with Tehran. In early May, the US warned of Iranian threats, but in the last week it appears that Washington has climbed down a bit from claims it would retaliate if Iranian proxies attacked the US or its allies.
Trump said that he knew Japan has a good relationship with Iran, and that he would wait to “see what happens.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Japan earlier this month, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might also visit the Islamic republic this month.
Trump said he was open to a deal with Iran, and that the country has “tremendous economic potential.” He sought to differentiate himself from his predecessors, saying that he didn’t care about regime change or looking for nuclear weapons, which contrasted with the Bush and Obama administrations that had differing views on Iran.
Tehran is happy with Trump’s comments.
“War threats lose momentum,” says Iran’s Press TV, and Iran has shown no interest in negotiations. This is especially clear after Zarif met with US Senator Dianne Feinstein. News of that meeting caused controversy in Iran, with some wondering why it would speak to US politicians or officials given the US track record of signing the Iran Deal and then walking away from it.
However, Trump’s rhetoric and his use of sanctions and threats against Tehran have had some of their desired effects. Since May 5 when US rhetoric began to increase, Iran halted some of its own aggressive rhetoric. It put the word out to allies saying that war was in no one’s interest. Iraq and Oman both sought to play down tensions. Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also said they were against conflict. Not everything went Washington’s way. Ships were sabotaged near the UAE, and the Iranian-backed Houthis continue to attack Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles.
Trump also signed off on arms sales to Saudi and the UAE.
TRUMP’S USE of sanctions and threats against Tehran, however – including labeling the IRGC as terrorists – has always had a tactical Trump Doctrine concept behind it. His office likes to thrive on chaos and threats. It does the same with North Korea, China and Venezuela. It likes to show that it is willing to go a little “crazy” at times to get what it wants. But it is weak on the follow through.
Those who follow Trump’s policies can see that his office is often inconsistent and doesn’t try to go all the way. For instance, the US has apparently attempted to get Maduro in Venezuela to leave office, but the US doesn’t want boots on the ground. Trump said that the US was leaving Syria – and then it didn’t leave. Washington leaks with stories about 120,000 troops or 5,000 troops being deployed to the Middle East and then only 1,500 are sent.
But the US policy is generally to hammer and disrupt adversaries. That is how it has played tough on China with Huawei, and also how it has sought to stop Iran’s oil exports. Evidence shows that countries such as India and Turkey have reduced their import of Iranian oil. There is also evidence that Iran’s proxies are concerned. Harassment of US soldiers by Shi’ite militias earlier this year in Iraq has stopped – for now.
Trump is good at the tactical, but there are questions about his strategic policy. Iran says it doesn’t want negotiations with the US. The Supreme Leader says talks are “poison.” It is clear that Zarif is out on a limb playing “good cop” while the Tehran regime wants to stop playing with the Americans. It also wants to bully the Europeans, and has threatened to enrich more uranium. This is why Iranian media has a mixed reaction. Fars News ignored Trump’s comments while Tasnim highlighted them.
Obviously some in Tehran are relieved that Trump doesn’t want regime change. But others don’t want Iran to step down from its war footing. Its IRGC leaders have said that the US was merely conducting psychological war, but Iran has mobilized resources due to the tensions.
Trump has also dismissed fears over a new North Korean missile test, saying that he will “see what happens” with North Korea. So “see what happens” appears to be the newest lingo in the Trump doctrine. This is vintage Trump: keep others wondering.
Can Japan really mediate with Iran? That seems unlikely. And there is too much to mediate. It would be difficult for the US to reverse course on Iran and even more difficult for Iran’s regime to reverse course. But it was always clear that neither Washington nor Tehran wanted war.
THE US has said consistently that it doesn’t want regime change in Iran. In this sense Trump’s comments are not really new. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May 2018 that the US wanted to change Iranian behavior, not the regime. Pompeo said “we do not seek war” on May 9. It was Western media that played up the war narrative. Also on May 9, The Guardian said that Trump makes war more likely, and the Daily Beast ran a piece on May 17 about how the last war with Iran “tells us about the next one.” Vox said on January 14 that National Security Advisor John Bolton has a desire for regime change. The Christian Science Monitor said on May 18 that regime change has “new life under Trump.”
Iran must now look to see whether Trump’s comments have substance or whether Japan is a mediator with whom Iran wants to deal. Zarif clearly felt that Japan was a key to Iran’s foreign policy. But voices at home, in the IRGC and the Supreme Leader’s office, and in parliament and other sectors, do not see a way to discuss anything with the US at the moment.
They are also involved in opposing US policy in other ways – not only in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, but also in opposing Washington’s desire for a “Deal of the Century” that will begin with meetings in Bahrain. And US allies such as Saudi Arabia already sensed that the US didn’t want real conflict with Iran. That is why it waited to hold a summit about the tanker sabotage until the end of the month. There was no hurry.
The US also isn’t in a hurry to blame anyone for a rocket that fell near the US Embassy in Baghdad on May 19. That could have been a cause for the US to retaliate. But now softer voices are blaming two small pro-Iranian militias, mostly based in Syria.
Trump climbed up the tree of threats. He has found a branch in Japan. But like so many of his policies, it was never entirely clear what the administration thought its tactics would achieve. In Tehran that keeps the regime guessing as well.