The Barack Obama administration is increasingly giving the impression that it supports a policy of regime change against Iran – a policy that could backfire and convince Iran to build nuclear weapons.
Senior U.S. officials have suggested recently that mounting economic sanctions are meant to “tighten the noose” around the Iranian government.
The Washington Post on Tuesday quoted an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence official as saying that the goal of sanctions was regime collapse.
The Post later amended the story to say that the official had been misquoted and that the Obama administration hopes sanctions will increase “public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program.”
On Wednesday, meanwhile, unknown assailants assassinated the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist in two years – Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, deputy director of Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.
The Iranian government blamed Israel and the United States for the killing, which, following the pattern of previous cases, took place when motorcyclists put sticky plastic explosives on a car carrying Roshan through Tehran traffic.
The harsh new rhetoric and the assassination come in the context of an escalating crisis that includes a massive attack on an Iranian missile facility that killed a top missile scientist and new sanctions directed against Iran’s central bank and oil exports.
Iran, in turn, has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz and attack U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf; this week, a Tehran court sentenced an Iranian American former U.S. Marine to death on charges he spied for the CIA, and Iran began enriching uranium in a facility tunneled into a mountain near Qom.
Iran experts say the latest assassination is likely to scuttle the already slim chances for a negotiated solution and convince the Islamic Republic that the United States and its partners are determined to overthrow the Iranian government.
“The Iranians are convinced that that is our goal,” Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and former Middle East chief on the National Intelligence Council, which advises the U.S. president, told IPS.
Pillar referred to inflammatory rhetoric by U.S. Republican presidential candidates – one of whom, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has explicitly called for regime change – while others apart from Texas Congressman Ron Paul have called for attacking Iran to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons.
Pillar suggested that U.S. government talking points were being influenced by domestic politics and that the Obama administration wanted to be seen as being “tough on Iran” during a year in which the president is running for re-election.
Officially, U.S. policy remains a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, reacting Tuesday to news that Iran had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow facility near Qom, called on Iran “to return to negotiations with the P5+1”, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
“We reaffirm that our overall goal remains a comprehensive, negotiated solution that restores confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT),” Clinton said.
However, other State Department language has muddied the policy waters.
At least twice last week, senior State Department officials said that the goal of U.S. and other sanctions was to “tighten the noose” around the Iranian government.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland used the phrase during a regular press briefing on Jan. 5. Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero used the language in answering a question Jan. 6 at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Greg Thielmann, a nuclear expert at the Arms Control Association and former State Department intelligence analyst, told IPS the phrase was “cleared language” that was not “carefully considered”.
“I’m not convinced that the U.S. attitude has changed but this is an example of how sloppy and thoughtless we are,” he said.
John Limbert, former deputy secretary of state for Iran, said that such rhetoric suggested “a confusion of aims. It’s very clear that the way these sanctions have been put into effect, the aim is to undermine the regime. We’re going to cut off their financial system and their technology but we still want to negotiate. After a while, it strains credulity.”
While regime change may not be an explicit goal, clearly many would like to see an Iranian government willing to curb its nuclear programme, to treat its own people better and to stop supporting militant groups in the region.
“We hope sanctions will increase the cost for Iran, make the regime more vulnerable and give time for something better to emerge,” Ali Reza Nader, an Iran expert at the Rand Corporation, told IPS. “In the long term, there is a potential for that but I’m not sure the United States can do much to bring that about…We can weaken the regime but we don’t have the power to change it.”
In the meantime, the escalation could convince Iran that it needs nuclear weapons for regime survival and increases the chances for a military confrontation and tit-for-tat terrorism.
Pillar warned that Iran would feel pressured to respond to the latest assassination.
“I would be surprised if we didn’t have an in-kind retaliatory act in the near future – perhaps some poor bloke at Los Alamos,” the U.S. nuclear lab in New Mexico, Pillar said.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a Middle East analyst, writing on the Atlantic.com on Wednesday, observed that if he were a member of the Iranian government, “I would take this assassination program to mean that the West is entirely uninterested in any form of negotiation [not that I, the regime official, has ever been much interested in dialogue with the West] and that I should double-down and cross the nuclear threshold as fast as humanly possible. Once I do that, I’m North Korea, or Pakistan: An untouchable country.”
William Luers, a former U.S. ambassador and senior State Department official who has participated in discussions with Iranians, added: “As long as the regime is convinced U.S. policy is at its core ‘regime change’ it will not be receptive to dealing and will be driven in the opposite direction. Whether or not the U.S. is behind the assassinations and explosions, the Supreme Leader is convinced it is the U.S.
“You can’t kill and talk at the same time,” he noted.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and member of its Iran Task Force, former senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and former Mideast correspondent for The Economist. This article originally appeared on IPSNews.net.