At first glance, the new American "roadmap" on Iran, unveiled by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week, looks like a recipe for regime change in Tehran. That view is echoed in initial European Union comments on the 12-point desiderata that Pompeo presented at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Both British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the EU's foreign policy spokeswoman Federica Mogherini claim that by going beyond the controversial "nuclear deal" with Iran (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- JCPOA), Pompeo may be following a hidden agenda against the Iranian regime.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Image source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
That claim isn't so fanciful. Both Pompeo and President Donald Trump's new National Security adviser, John Bolton, have been advocates of regime change in Iran for more than two decades.
A closer look at the Pompeo's "roadmap", however, may reveal a more sophisticated approach.
Pompeo has tried to link the nuclear issue to the broader issue of Iran's behavior insofar as it affects the interests of the United States and its allies.
The reason for that approach is not hard to guess. If the Islamic Republic were not threatening those interests it wouldn't matter whether or not it had a nuclear program or even if it had acquired a nuclear arsenal.
The first four demands put by Pompeo concern Iran's nuclear project and are already partly covered in the "nuclear deal" worked out by President Barack Obama.
The first demand, that Iran should report all previous military aspects of its project to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is covered by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of which Iran was one of the fist signatories. By not demanding that Iran comply with that during the negotiations over "nuclear deal", Obama, in fact, weakened the NPT.
Pompeo wants to correct that error and restore to NPT the edge it lost thanks to Obama's unorthodox diplomacy.
Pompeo's second demand, "to stop uranium enrichment, never to pursue plutonium reprocessing and to close its heavy water reactor," should also be easy for Iran to accept, provided it does not harbor a secret agenda aimed at building nuclear weapons.
"Right now Iran has absolutely no use for the uranium it enriches to degrees below 5 per cent," says Homayun Naqibi, an Iranian researcher. "Ceasing such enrichment altogether would do absolutely no damage to any aspect of Iran's economy."
As for plutonium production, Iran has already scrapped plans for a heavy-water plant and is in talks with China to redesign the Arak facility away from any possibly military function. To be sure, Pompeo demands that Iran mothball the Arak plant while Iran seeks to use it for non-military purposes. But even then, a compromise cannot be totally ruled out.
Pompeo's third demand, that Iran let IAEA inspectors go wherever they deem necessary, is also enshrined in IAEA rules and the NPT. Obama violated the IAEA rules and the NPT to please Iran and invented a "modality" under which Iran and the IAEA must agree on sites to be inspected. Pompeo wants to restore legality to dealing with Iran.
Pompeo's fourth demand is that Iran stop developing ballistic missiles and producing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. That item isn't included in the JCPOA, but is raised in the seventh resolution that the UN Security Council has passed on Iran's nuclear project. Here, too, compliance need not be difficult. Iran has already publicly announced a freeze of its missile project beyond the already-achieved range of 2,400 kilometers.
However, a whole range of medium-range missiles already in stock cause concern because of their relatively light payload, 75 kg on average. Such missiles would make sense if the payload is nuclear or chemical. Carrying 75 kg of conventional explosives beyond a battlefield would make no sense in military terms. Here, too, Obama decided to look the other way, leaving the door open for all sorts of speculations regarding Iran's real intention in developing missiles that would make sense only as part of a nuclear weapons strategy.
Pompeo's demand would remove that ambiguity, to the benefit of all sides.
Pompeo's fifth demand, the release of American and allied hostages, is neither outlandish nor hard to meet. Right now, 32 hostages are being held. None has been properly charged, let alone tried and found guilty. At least 10 of them, US and British citizens, were enthusiastic campaigners for the Islamic Republic in America and Britain. Among them are founders of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a lobbying group set up and funded by Tehran to help the Islamic Republic circumvent sanctions imposed by the UN, the US and the EU.
"Pompeo is asking Tehran to release its own lobbyists," says Manuchehr Razavi, a businessman who helped Iranian lobbies in US and UK.
Pompeo's sixth demand concerns a cessation of Iranian support for "terrorist groups" such as the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Here, too, accusing the US of "imperialistic behavior" is out of place.
Pompeo is demanding exactly what the UN Security Council and the European Union have repeatedly demanded after designating Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas as terrorist organizations. Even if Pompeo hadn't said anything on this, Iran, as a member of the United Nations, should have ceased supporting those groups long ago.
Pompeo's seventh demand may be in the process of being fulfilled thanks to developments inside Iraq itself and beyond Iran's control. In their latest general elections, Iraqis, in fact, voted for independence by inflicting a crushing defeat on parties, groups and persons subservient to Tehran. According to star-reporter Ali Javanmardi, last week General Qassem Soleimani, Iran's man in charge of "exporting revolution", had to flee from Baghdad under the cover of darkness after his mission to concoct a pro-Tehran government coalition failed. Fearing for his safety, he had to escape to Soleymanieh, where a Kurdish faction still loyal to Tehran gave him shelter en route back to Iran.
Tehran has abandoned its initial hostile approach to Iraqi election results which put the faction led by Muqtada Sadr top of the list of winners. Within 48 hours official media attacks on Sadr ceased, and on Tuesday Iran's Ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Masjedi paid tribute to Sadr as a "great and respected leader". On Wednesday, the official news agency IRNA ran a flattering portrayal of Sadr, claiming that the Iraqi cleric had " close links" with the Iranian "Supreme Guide". That was a sign that the Islamic Republic was getting ready to court a new Iraqi government led by the Sadrists.
Whatever happens to the new crisis-opportunity created by Pompeo, one thing is certain: the countdown for diminishing Iran's influence in Iraq has already started. As for disarming Iraqi militias, that would be one of the key tasks of the next government in Baghdad, as all possible components of the next coalition are committed to it.
Pompeo's eighth demand, an end to support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, is already gaining support inside Iran itself. In fact, according to Iranian and EU sources, a toning down of support for Houthis was one of the "sweeteners" that Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered to his EU counterparts in a meeting earlier this month in Brussels.
The proposed Iranian "plan" is partly based on a plan worked out by British Minister of State for Europe Sir Alan Duncan and Kuwait over a year ago.
Pompeo's ninth demand, that Iran withdraw its forces from Syria, is already supported by Russia (at least implicitly), while the EU would find it difficult to oppose it. At some point, Iran might admit that its grand designs for Syria are never going to be realized and that there is no point in keeping forces in a place where, devoid of air cover, they would be sitting ducks for attacks.
Demand for withdrawal from Syria has been one of the most popular slogans chanted by millions of anti-regime protesters in more than 150 Iranian cities since last December. By leaving Syria, the Khomeinist establishment could disarm some of its critics inside Iran.
A shortage of funds is also an increasingly important element, as Iran finds it harder and harder to maintain some 80,000 militiamen, including Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries, in a game controlled by Russia and the United States.
The last two demands spelled out by Pompeo are vague and general enough not to be hard to fudge. Iran's backing for the Taliban in Afghanistan has always been tentative and sporadic. Its latest operation in Farah, an Afghan province on Iran's border, was more aimed at fomenting trouble in response to Kabul's decision to reduce Iran's share of the waters of the Hirmand River.
The demand that Iran stop threatening Israel with annihilation and cease missile attacks on Saudi Arabia may appear more challenging. However, toning down propaganda against Israel need not be difficult, and has already happened on several occasions in the past. As for missile attacks on the Saudi kingdom, a decision to end involvement with Houthis in Yemen would achieve that goal.
The good news for the Khomeinist establishment and the bad news for their opponents inside Iran is that Pompeo's wish-list made no mention of respect for human rights or, at least, and end of repression inside Iran.
This shows that, contrary to claims, Pompeo is seeking a change of behavior by Tehran on a set of specific foreign policy issues, not regime change. In doing so, he ends Obama's policy of actively supporting the regime in Tehran, without promising direct US involvement in the power struggle inside Iran. With slight variations, this is exactly what President Trump has offered Kim Jung-un. The North Korean despot has been wise -- or at least prudent -- enough to accept, in principle.
We shall see what, if offered the same deal, "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an avowed admirer of North Korea, would do.
The best guess at this moment is that Khamenei will try to temporize rather than provoke the Americans into tougher action against his regime. This is apparent in a number of official statements and comments on Pompeo's 12-point challenge. An editorial published by the official news agency IRNA on Wednesday seeks to reassure both the US and Israel that Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon, including Hezbollah, will "take no action against anybody unless they are attacked." In other words, the Lebanese ceasefire accord concluded with Israel through French mediation in 2006 is still in force as far as Iran and its Lebanese militias are concerned.
To justify the ceasefire, the editorial claims that "the Zionist regime is on the slippery slope to destruction" and is bound to "disappear in the future" thus, implicitly, there would be no reason for Iran to take military action.
The same theme is played by General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and current top military adviser to Khamenei.
"We are present in Iraq and Syria only as advisers, not engaged in any fighting," he said in a speech in Khorramshahr on Tuesday. "Our strategy doesn't include taking aggressive action."
The daily Kayhan, reflecting Khamenei's views, takes a similar line on Yemen and Afghanistan.
"We have always said that the solution in Yemen could only be political," the paper said in an editorial on Wednesday. "The claim that Iran helps Taliban is simply ridiculous."
Some voices are more directly raised to urge the leadership to seek an understanding with the US rather than "walk into the trap of confrontation."
On Monday IRNA front-paged an interview with political analyst Ali-Reza Alavi-Panah, urging Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to "review aspects of our policies." Without naming Khamenei, he even suggested that the "Supreme Guide" be circumvented. "The president," he said, "need not seek anyone's permission to amend policy."
At the same time, leading "reformist" theoretician Saeed Hajjarian warns that unless Rouhani seizes the opportunity to show an alternative path, he would lose whatever support the "reformist movement" still has in society.
The argument is that if people are fully informed about the real cost of the present policies, including involvement in the affairs of other nations, they would not support the strategy of "exporting revolution" as symbolized by General Soleimani.
A consensus may be taking shape around the need to preserve the regime even if that means eating humble pie and losing face.
"The priority is to protect the Islamic system" says Ayatollah Jaafar Sobhani. "We shouldn't trust the Infidel Europeans to protect our order and avoid entering an unequal fight that we can't win at present."
Receiving 220 top civilian and military officials last week to discuss Pompeo's "12 commandments", Khamenei said Iran's quarrel with the US reminded him of Tom and Jerry cartoons, with Iran playing the mouse. "All that the mouse has to do is to dodge the cat," the ayatollah said.
The fact that Pompeo has not mentioned regime change helps the so-called "accommodationists" -- those who want a tactical retreat until the Trump presidency is shaken by mid-term US elections or finished. However, there are still elements thirsting for a fight with the US. The outcome of the debate in Tehran hangs in the balance.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by the kind permission of the author.