'One Little Kick and It's Done'

Senior Trump Advisers Believe It’s Possible to Hasten Collapse of Iranian Regime

Senior U.S. and Israeli sources tell Haaretz that White House is divided over Iran strategy, with John Bolton pushing for regime change and James Mattis striving for new agreement with Islamic Republic

Demonstrators protesting against Iran's weak economy, in Tehran, December 2017.
AP

Some of President Donald Trump’s senior advisers and cabinet members believe there is now a rare opportunity to bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime, according to Israeli and American sources who spoke with Haaretz in recent weeks.

However, there is division over what the administration’s strategic goal should be regarding Tehran, with other advisers believing the United States should be aiming for a new comprehensive agreement with Iran.

The White House has recently increased its economic pressure on Iran with a set of crushing sanctions, accompanied by diplomatic efforts to diminish Iran’s oil exports to Asian and European countries. The administration’s official line is that this pressure has only one objective: Bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, where a new agreement should be constructed.

The desired agreement, according to senior administration officials, should address not only Iran’s nuclear program but also its aggressive behavior across the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during an event in Washington, June 28, 2018.
\ YURI GRIPAS/ REUTERS

Yet not everyone around Trump believes this is the right objective, according to the Israeli and American sources. These sources specifically pointed to Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, as someone who is behind the scenes advancing the option of collapsing the Iranian regime.

Bolton had publicly advocated such a line for many years and even did so as late as January, shortly before he replaced H.R. McMaster in the White House.

According to Haaretz’s sources, Bolton views the demonstrations that have broken out in Iran in recent months over the state of the country’s economy as an indication of the regime’s weakness. He has told Trump that increased U.S. pressure could lead to the regime’s collapse.

One person who recently spoke with senior White House officials on the subject summarized Bolton view in the words: “One little kick and they’re done.”

However, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is pushing a different line and is skeptical about the wisdom of pushing for regime change, say the sources. He is concerned that such action could lead to all-out war with Iran, causing harm to the world economy and putting America’s allies in the Middle East in grave danger.

Mattis, the sources stated, supports increasing pressure on Iran, but with the clear objective of bringing the Iranians back to the table for a better agreement – one that would roll back their regional aggression.

A retired general in the Marines, Mattis was considered a hawk on Iran during his last role in the military, as head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. Back then, the Obama administration viewed him as a “warmonger against Iran,” said one former senior U.S. official who spoke with Haaretz on the issue. “Now, as Trump’s secretary of defense, he is being accused by people close to the president of not being tough enough against Iran. It’s absurd,” the U.S. official said.

In between Mattis and Bolton lies Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who entered the State Department in May and has mostly been dealing with the North Korean file.

President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, delivering a speech at the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) meeting near Paris, June 30, 2018.
\ REGIS DUVIGNAU/ REUTERS

Pompeo is also considered hawkish on Iran. As a congressman, he was one of the fiercest critics of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration. However, the sources who spoke with Haaretz said that since becoming secretary of state, Pompeo has inched closer to Mattis’ position that the United States should seek a new and improved agreement with Iran. However, he did express public support for the demonstrators in Iran last week, stating, “The people of Iran are tired of the corruption, injustice and incompetence from their leaders.”

In May, Pompeo gave a detailed speech on Iran, presenting 12 conditions for a new agreement with the Islamic Republic. He emphasized that the United States will ask Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria; stop its involvement in Yemen; and end all support for terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Pompeo hinted that if Iran would agree to the 12 terms he presented, it could reap major benefits in a future agreement, perhaps even larger than those offered to Tehran in the previous nuclear agreement.

A National Security Council spokesperson told Haaretz over the weekend that “almost everywhere we see a problem Iran is behind it” – whether through the development of missiles that are supplied to terrorists, the support it gives to the Assad regime in Syria, or Iran’s cyberattacks against the United States and its allies.

“All nations must hold Iran accountable and raise the costs of unlawful behavior,” the spokesperson added.

According to the NSC spokesperson, the administration is “working with allies to create a new coalition to counter the full range of Iranian threats. This coalition will bring all necessary pressure on Iran to change its behavior. In return, the United States is prepared to end sanctions, normalize relations and reintegrate Iran into the global economy. These are far-reaching actions that will benefit the Iranian people. This relief will only come when the United States sees tangible, demonstrated and sustained shifts in Tehran’s policies,” the spokesperson added.

Another reason for the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s Iran policy is the influence of “external” advisers with whom the president regularly discusses policy issues, even though they are not officially part of the administration.

This weekend, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, spoke in Paris at the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran – the political wing of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) – and stated that the Iranian regime was about to collapse.

The MEK was actually designated a terrorist organization by the United States from 2003 until 2012, and has paid both Bolton and Giuliani to advocate on its behalf in the past and speak at its events.

Saturday was the second time in recent months that Giuliani had spoken at an MEK event. In March, he told an audience in Albania that Trump was committed to regime change in Tehran. Administration officials later denied that Giuliani was speaking on behalf of the U.S. government and said regime change is not the Trump administration’s policy.

But some in Washington remain unconvinced.

“Those who listen to Mattis and Pompeo on the Iranian issue, but ignore the influence of people like Giuliani and Sheldon Adelson, don’t truly understand how the Trump administration works,” a senior European diplomat told Haaretz at the weekend.

While the Trump administration is having this internal debate, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also weighed in on the matter. In recent weeks, Netanyahu has published a number of videos addressing the Iranian people, praising the demonstrators in Iran’s streets and highlighting the economic benefits that Iran could see from cooperation with Israel.

The videos could suggest an Israeli attempt to further promote the notion that the Iranian regime is on the verge of collapse because of the economic situation.