Updated May 9, 2018

Trump's Iran deal exit a possible nudge toward regime change

Students in Tehran protest the rising cost of living in Iran. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

That the 2015 nuclear deal has so far delivered on its core promise is not in dispute by most observers. If Iran today chooses to dash for a nuclear weapon it will be found out, thanks to the restraints imposed on it by the deal.

Yes, but: The performance of the deal was not the key factor in President Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the agreement. His decision points to the greater aim of bringing about regime change in Tehran, as suggested by his appeal to the Iranian people to rise up and reclaim their country from the Islamist dictatorship.

Why is Trump gambling that Iran is ripe for regime change? That's what Iran hawks in his circle, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, are telling him. Just this past weekend, Rudy Giuliani, another Trump loyalist and anti-Iran voice, told an Iranian opposition group rally in Washington that Trump is committed to regime change in Tehran.

To a lesser extent, this notion that the Iranian regime is on the brink is also backed by mounting evidence of popular anger about Iran's inept domestic and foreign policies. The regime often prioritizes its Islamist agenda over the everyday needs of its citizens. It's not likely any members of his administration expect Iran to come back for new talks with Washington and give away more for less, so Trump is essentially banking that anger is about to tip the balance in Tehran and attempting to expedite it.

Th bottom line: It's uncertain whether renewed American efforts to sanction Iran’s economy would be able to spark a regime-toppling popular uprising. Another possibility is that the regime in Tehran will successfully blame the U.S. for the suffering of the Iranian people. Trump's gamble could go either way, though the latter fate seems more likely in the short term.

Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

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