Regime-change advocates were emboldened by the anti-government demonstrations that swept across Iran this past winter. For the first time, economic hardship clearly fueled wide-scale unrest, bringing into the streets thousands of urban and rural poor—the very people that the Islamic Republic regards as its base. Iran is already hard-pressed to address domestic economic needs through the nuclear deal. Without the deal, the situation could grow even more dire. That worry has discouraged investment, and last month led to a run on Iran’s currency.
Since the demonstrations, the Trump administration has viewed Iran’s rulers as vulnerable. Additional economic pressure, it believes, could threaten their hold on power. Undoing the nuclear deal would pave the way for a return to punishing international economic sanctions on Tehran—this time, not only for its nuclear program, but for its pursuit of medium- and long-range missiles, and support for the Assad regime in Syria. Such a scenario would restrict trade, discourage foreign investment, and potentially force Iran out of the oil market. This would please Saudi Arabia, whose economy depends on high oil prices. During his visit to Washington, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman predicted that the price of oil could rise to $80 a barrel—a price he would need in order to realize his ambitious economic agenda and fulfill the kingdom’s military and political aims. Excluding Iran from oil markets would certainly help realize that prediction.
With the Iranian economy on its knees, the Trump administration thinks Tehran would surrender to a better deal—one that the president, eager to flex his deal-making prowess and outshine Obama, would fancy. But this is a risky strategy. Washington led the negotiations for the nuclear deal, and swore off regime change in the process. If Trump scuttled it not only to improve its terms, but also to inch closer to regime change, it will be difficult to persuade other adversaries with dangerous weapons to seriously consider diplomatic engagement. Without credible diplomatic options, war would become the only path available to the United States to address thorny international issues—the very trajectory that the candidate Trump railed against.
Even if Trump gets regime change in Tehran, it may not be the sort he wants. Canceling the nuclear deal and increasing economic pressure on Iran would further marginalize the moderates and pragmatists who favor engagement with the West, while empowering the Revolutionary Guards and their hardline allies. But before that happened (if it happened at all) the instability Washington would hope to sow in Iran could instead surface in countries where it craves stability, most immediately in Iraq. This is because the nuclear deal has provided the United States and Iran with the tacit context to cooperate in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State. Without the deal, Iraq could once again become a battleground for U.S.- and Iran-backed forces.