Feb 15, 2019 - World
Expert Voices

U.S. pushes Iranian regime change in Warsaw, with mixed support

U.S. policy toward Iran hardened further in Poland this week, as U.S. officials demanded that Europe abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and suggested that Iranians rise up and overthrow their government.

Bibi Netanyahu and Mike Pence
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President Mike Pence at the Warsaw conference on the Middle East on Feb. 14. Photo: Xinhua/Jaap Arriens via Getty Images

The big picture: To Washington's frustration, both Iran and the rest of the world have stuck with the deal nearly a year after the Trump administration withdrew unilaterally. Even as its oil exports have more than halved since the U.S. restored sanctions in November, Iran has remained compliant with the deal's restrictions on its nuclear program.

Background: When it withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, the Trump administration said the intention was to bring the Islamic Republic back to the negotiation table. U.S. officials said they sought a more comprehensive agreement that would cover Iran's regional interventions, ballistic missile program and imprisonment of dual nationals.

  • But the underlying motivation appeared to be a hope that Iran would also quit the JCPOA, making it easier to convince the rest of the world to abandon it.

What's new: European countries, far from quitting, have come up with a payment mechanism intended to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran at a time when Western banks are too terrified of U.S. sanctions to attempt even authorized business with Tehran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Warsaw conference was intended to create a coalition for "war" against Iran — a comment that was later softened to "confrontation."

  • Yes, but: This pressure does not have broad international support. Although Israel and Iran's Arab rivals attended the gathering, Russia, China, Turkey and most European foreign ministers declined.

Where it stands: Iran is facing a bleak immediate future, with its economy expected to shrink 6% in 2019, on the back of falling oil exports, high inflation and unemployment. Even still, Iranians are not raring for another revolution, as Secretary Mike Pompeo has continued to suggest. They keenly recall how the last one turned out, and how chaotic a process regime change has been for their neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq.

The bottom line: Current U.S. policy will neither bring Iran back to the negotiating table nor kill the JCPOA.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

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