Obama edges toward regime
change By Barbara Slavin
WASHINGTON - 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 United States officials have
suggested recently that mounting economic
sanctions were meant to "tighten the noose" around
the Iranian government.
Post on Tuesday quoted an unnamed senior US
intelligence official as saying that the goal of
sanctions was regime collapse.
later amended the story to say that the official
misquoted and that the Obama
administration hoped sanctions would increase
"public discontent that will help compel the
government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons
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 US ships in the
Persian Gulf; this week, a Tehran court sentenced
an Iranian American former US Marine to death on
charges he spied for the Central Intelligence
Agency (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
"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 US
president, told Inter Press Service (IPS).
Pillar referred to inflammatory rhetoric
by US 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
Pillar suggested that US
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.
policy remains a diplomatic resolution of the
Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, reacting on 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 [Iran Six]", the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council - the
US, Britain, France China, Russia - 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 program while respecting Iran's
right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy
consistent with its obligations under the
Non-proliferation 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 US 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 January 5. Under Secretary for
Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights,
Maria Otero, used the language in answering a
question on January 6 at a meeting of the Council
on Foreign Relations in Washington.
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
"I'm not convinced that the
US 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
While regime change may not be
an explicit goal, clearly many would like to see
an Iranian government willing to curb its nuclear
program, 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 US
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 US ambassador and
senior State Department official who has
participated in discussions with Iranians, added:
"As long as the regime is convinced US 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 US is
behind the assassinations and explosions, the
Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is
convinced it is the US.
"You can't kill
and talk at the same time," he noted.