Who wants a regime change in Iran, and how far will they go for it?

Between the Iranian population and the US administration, opposition has only gotten louder.

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna (photo credit: REUTERS/ LEONHARD FOEGER)
An Iranian flag flutters in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna
Who wants regime change in Iran? First and foremost, large sections of the Iranian population, if the reports of mass anti-government demonstrations over the past few months are anything to go by.
A hiatus, it is true, followed the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani on January 3. The country was plunged into emotional turmoil, and for a time it seemed as though the public mood had changed into support for the regime in mourning the loss of the charismatic leader of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
By January 11 the mood had reverted to downright condemnation of the regime and its leadership. The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet on January 8 and the deaths of 176 innocent travelers had been followed by days of obfuscation and denial of responsibility by government spokesmen. When the evidence became too clear to deny, the regime finally admitted that its own missile had destroyed the plane. Recent online videos have shown Iranians ripping down posters of Soleimani and – according to the Al Jazeera media website – calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Who wants regime change in Iran? Well, not US President Donald Trump, to go by his public pronouncements. At a press conference in Tokyo on May 27 he said, “We’re not looking for regime change, we’re looking for no nuclear weapons,” adding that he believed “we’ll make a deal” with Iran. On August 26 he declared that it was “too early” to meet Iran’s top diplomat, who had made a surprise visit to the G7 summit, but insisted that Washington was not looking for regime change. On January 3, less than a day after the assassination of Soleimani, Trump reiterated that America does not seek regime change in Iran.
And yet, despite these repeated assertions, compelling evidence has come to light indicating that the US administration has been deliberately weakening the Iranian regime to the point where it might implode. It may be a fine line, but it appears that Washington has been seeking regime disruption, with regime change as the ultimate goal.
Leaked US government documents revealed on January 14 by journalist Eli Lake on the Bloomberg media website show how long, and the extent to which, senior officials had been actively considering measures aimed at disrupting the Iranian regime. Following the shooting down of an American drone in June, Anthony Lake, a top security consultant wrote to then-national security advisor John Bolton, copying his memos to senior State Department officials,
“The US response should be overt,” he wrote, “and designed to send a message that the US holds the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people, responsible. This could even involve something as a targeted strike on someone like Soleimani or his top deputies.”
BACK IN JUNE Lake had been careful to say that the US response “does not need to be boots on the ground (in fact, it should not be).” His advice was for the US response to aim at exploiting the loss of public confidence in the government. Judged by Iranian popular reaction to the regime’s attempt to cover up the tragic shooting down of the Ukrainian jet, Lake concluded that this analysis had proved correct. What had begun in November as a protest at a sudden, 50% rise in fuel prices had mushroomed into much wider fury with the government. Not least among the issues of concern to the demonstrators was the heavy-handed way Soleimani had dealt with the protests. It is believed that security forces killed at least several hundred demonstrators in a brutal crackdown, with hundreds more injured and up to 7,000 arrested.
This wave of protests is nothing new. On June 12, 2009, following a heated campaign between a popular reformist candidate for president and the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians turned out in record numbers to cast their votes. Shortly after the polls closed, the government announced that Ahmadinejad had been reelected with 64% of the vote.
Incredulity was followed by widespread allegations of vote rigging and election fraud. A so-called “Green Movement” began mounting public demonstrations of an intensity unprecedented since the 1979 revolution. Khamenei ordered the IRGC to crack down on the protesters. In the ruthless repression that followed, more than 100 people were killed and thousands were arrested to face trial. Many were hanged.
By the end of 2017 it had become clear that the promises made by Hassan Rouhani when standing for president – namely, to create new jobs, to implement economic reforms and to improve human rights – stood no chance of being implemented. As a result, unrest broke out across the country, and by January 2018 Iran was again in turmoil. Rallies and street protests were erupting throughout the nation. At first they centered on the worsening economic situation and ever-rising food and commodity prices. This soon morphed into opposition to the regime in general, and the supreme leader in particular.
Dissent was voiced especially against the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen, and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures were seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
As for this latest round of mass anti-government demonstrations, they must appear to Trump and his supporters to vindicate the “maximum pressure” campaign he launched when he renounced the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. It suggests broad-based discontent with the regime, and a deep-seated desire for economic and political change. How far will Trump go to facilitate just such a change?
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.