Trump’s Regime Change Strategy toward Tehran is Doomed to Fail
As argued in my previous analysis, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia signaled a new chapter in Washington’s Iran containment policy. One practical step closer to reaching this goal and to destabilize Iran and possibly changing its regime is the appointment of covert operations officer Michael D’Andrea, the former head of the Counterterrorism Center and Middle East operative as head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Iran operations.
D'Andrea, or as his peers in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) call him the “Dark Prince,” “Ayatollah Mike” and the “Undertaker,” is known for his effective campaign against Al-Qaeda that eradicated Osama bin Laden and many other top members of the notorious organization. Reportedly, he was the major figure in organizing the drone campaign that targeted many terror suspects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen that killed thousands of Islamist militants and hundreds of civilians.
Clearly, this appointment signals a remarkable shift in Washington’s policy towards Iran. Intelligence analysts expect D’Andrea to intensify pressure on the Iranian regime especially the Revolutionary Guards and its foreign operations branch, the Quds Force, including possible targeting of Qassim Suleimani, a mission that seems impossible or at least extremely dangerous.
For instance, Harold Rhode, an intelligence analyst who worked at the office of the Secretary of Defense for 28 years, believes that the years of Trump’s presidency will be the most arduous period that Tehran will experience since it came to its existence in 1979. Washington and its tactical Sunni Allies in the Gulf and beyond, Rhode’s thinking proceeded, want to inflict the most damage on Tehran by using the opportunity that the new administration has created. As Rhode put it, “the people running America now know Iran very well. If the Iranians want to play a game, America is ready to put them in their place.” Regarding the possibility and difficulty of targeting Suleimani, Rhode believes that “the person who carried out a tough mission like that against Emad Moghnyeah or Bin Laden, could do something like that again. And the truth is that they can afford it. If I were the Iranians, I would be worried.”
However, as reported by the Wall Street Journal the CIA’s newly created mission center for Iran is to focus exclusively on gathering intelligence on interests, intentions, and actions of Iran- a country which has been an intricate target for the CIA- rather than hunting Suleimani. The report reads “The Iran Mission Center is to bring analysts, operations personnel and specialists from different parts of the Agency to work together on Iran, much like the new Korea Mission Center announced last month to deal with North Korea.”
The work is focused on recruiting and maintaining the CIA's network of Iranian agents inside and outside of the country and to penetrate the country for espionage. But this strategy is doomed to fail. The history of the Islamic Republic shows that the Iranians have been effective in ferreting out nascent challenges. This is known in intelligence parlance as “denied territory,” meaning that due to denied access to the target country, it would be difficult to gather intelligence and even more difficult to foment civil resistance. The agency has extremely limited access to the country due to the fact that there is no open American Embassy to provide diplomatic cover. Not to mention that Iran has a long history of being vigilant toward anyone it suspects of working for the United States. The intelligence services in Iran have spent almost forty years to counter covert American-Israeli operations.
In the past, the United States attempted but repeatedly failed to penetrate “denied territories” like the Soviet Union and North Korea to determine the progress both countries have made in developing their nuclear weapon programs. The perception that the Soviet Union was an aggressive nation resolute on expanding its borders increased US determination to attain information about Moscow’s intentions and capabilities. However, “no spies, no leak and no information,” from the Soviets prevented the CIA from providing estimates of the expected termination of atomic monopoly.
Similar to Iran’s case, there were zero American ground agents in Moscow and even when the CIA began recruiting and training Soviet citizens to serve as agents and spies, the majority of them were arrested by the Soviet intelligence service, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), and immediately executed. Alternatively, Washington focused on a less dangerous approach using new technology to perform high-altitude reconnaissance missions by flying aircraft over the Soviet Union to obtain vital information.
Washington has similarly failed to obtain human intelligence from North Korea through spies and leaks. Thus, the American governments started closely monitoring the situation in North Korea by aerial penetration to provide important information. The Pentagon’s Space-Based Infrared System utilizes several kinds of sensors and satellites to provide greater coverage.
Cognizant of such difficulties, D’Andrea would perhaps consider a different approach in cooperation with Iran’s regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudis are supporting militant groups in Pakistani Baluchistan that operate across the Iranian borders in the eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Both Israel and the Kingdom are determined to turn Baluchistan into the focal point of a proxy war with Iran. D’Andrea’s appointment stroked with an emerging Israeli-Saudi strategy to escalate the proxy war with Iran by fomenting unrest among Iran’s minorities.
However, it is likely that Iran will respond in its own way if Washington-Riyadh-Tel Aviv were to initiate covert operations against it. Iran’s most strategic asset is operating through proxy groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Palestine’s Islamic Jihad, and militia proxies in Iraq. Not to mention that Iran may strategically use ISIS against American interests. It would not be the first time that the Revolutionary Guards had forged a tactical alliance with a sworn enemy of the United States. American intelligence believes that some Iranian-based Al-Qaeda terrorists acted as regime proxies in attacks against Americans. It would be hardly inconceivable for the Quds Force to employ ISIS in a similar capacity. Having such leverage, the Iranian leadership is well aware that Washington has zero capabilities for ousting the regime in Tehran. Seen within this context, Washington’s embracing of regime change is counterproductive for US interests.
Such moves by Washington will also intensify repression in Iran and will erode US access to the Iranian people and government which is usually a favorite theme for Iran’s hardliners, who often accuse dissidents as spies of America. Iran watchers already pointed out that the current US policy of regime change will deeply isolate nationalist forces inside Iran, discredit real opposition and dissidents, and put dual-nationals at even higher risk. Pushing the policy now will also help Iran hawks to advance a siege mentality to justify repressive policies inside the country.
It may also isolate the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani, who is trying to normalize relations with the West and turn Iran into a normal state. So far, Rouhani has shown a remarkable ability to take on the hardline parastatals and stir Iran toward normalization. However, if Rouhani fails to handle these extreme challenges, his vision of normalization will deteriorate. Worse, such an approach may crash the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or even spark a direct conflict with Iran. The Trump administration’s hardline policy on Iran supported by the Republican-dominated Congress would complicate Rouhani’s position. In picking their policy option, the White House and Congress should be certain to ensure its future success.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of IRAM.