BY ISHAAN THAROOR
Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican Party grandee and President Trump’s newly appointed lawyer, made a telling remark over the weekend. At a gathering organized by a group of activists opposed to Iran’s government, the former New York mayor seemed to suggest that the nuclear deal with Iran was doomed and that the Trump administration anticipated yet more havoc in the Middle East.
“We have a president who is tough,” Giuliani said on Saturday. “We have a president who is as committed to regime change as we are.” Confronting Iran, he added, is “more important than an Israeli-Palestinian deal.”
Since coming to power, Trump has blasted the agreement forged in 2015 between Iran and world powers. He repeatedly lambastes the Obama-era pact as a shameful concession to a rogue state and looks poised to violate its terms by reimposing certain sanctions on Iran later this week. He also apes the views of Washington’s neoconservatives and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, casting the Islamic Republic as the greatest menace facing the Middle East.
But if regime change is on the agenda, Trump has been far more circumspect about how it would happen. Dethroning the mullahs would likely involve waging war against Iran, a prospect at odds with his own stated desire to withdraw from Syria and disentangle the United States from a generation of costly conflicts in the Middle East. Trump tweeted his solidarity when Iranians took to the streets in protests earlier this year, but that has been the extent of his tangible support.
But the more traditional hawks in Trump’s inner circle have no such ambivalence. Newly installed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has advocated regime change and a bombing campaign of the country, as has the new national security adviser, John Bolton.
Bolton, Giuliani and a host of Washington politicos from both parties have supported — and likely taken money from — front groups directly related to the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian resistance group that operates in exile. Its agents have been implicated in the deaths of Americans and thousands of Iranians, many stemming from its coordination with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s amid the war between Baghdad and Tehran.
The MEK was once listed as a terrorist group by the State Department — which also views it as a “cult” — before a sustained lobbying campaign saw its designation changed in 2012. It was behind the event at which Giuliani spoke this weekend, marking yet another episode in his long, cozy relationship with the organization.
“The MeK has paid Giuliani handsomely for years—$20,000 or more, and possibly a lot more—for brief appearances before the group and for lobbying to have it removed from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), which occurred in 2012,” noted Politico.
Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s former Tehran correspondent who was detained unjustly by the Iranian regime for a year and a half, points to the widespread contempt for the MEK among ordinary Iranians, who view the organization as a craven, treacherous outfit.
“In the seven years I lived in Iran, many people expressed criticism of the ruling establishment — at great potential risk to themselves,” noted Rezaian. “In all that time, though, I never met a person who thought the MEK should, or could, present a viable alternative.”
Nevertheless, its American allies are now in a commanding position. And in the event of the nuclear deal’s collapse, they may seek to further their ultimate goal of toppling the Islamic Republic.
“To those who claim that the nuclear deal isn’t working, regime change remains the only solution,” wrote Rezaian. “For the MEK, and Bolton, if his words are to be taken at face value, the only path to that could be war. The group has long been prepared to do whatever it takes to see that happen, including presenting fake intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program.”
The Trump camp itself also appears open to the dark arts. Over the weekend, the Guardian alleged that aides linked to Trump recently employed an Israeli intelligence firm to wage a “dirty ops” campaign against Obama administration officials involved in brokering the nuclear deal. “The idea was that people acting for Trump would discredit those who were pivotal in selling the deal, making it easier to pull out of it,” a source told the British newspaper. It remains unclear what became of the research the company conducted.
Trump’s moves against the Iran deal are chiefly motivated by his desire to unwind Obama’s legacy and play to his political base at home. His lieutenants, though, seem ideologically invested in breaking the deal apart, even as a host of domestic critics and European allies urges them to reconsider. Even in Israel, many prominent figures in the country’s security establishment have come out in defense of the agreement, arguing that its demise may play into Tehran’s hands.
“An American announcement that it’s withdrawing from the agreement would let Iran drive a wedge between the world powers and gradually loosen international oversight over its nuclear program,” retired Israeli general Amos Gilad told Haaretz. “If the Americans abandon the agreement, they have to prepare for alternatives, and I don’t see this being done.”
Giuliani’s regime-change comments over the weekend marked the bluntest articulation yet by a Trump aide of a potential “alternative.” That has many others justifiably worried.
“I’m hopeful that one day the Iranian people will find a way to get rid of the Islamic Republic, but I am skeptical about America’s ability to accelerate such a development without unintended consequences, and worried that some of what the hawks propose could make things worse,” wrote Philip Gordon, a former official in the Obama administration. “The Iran nuclear deal is far from ideal, as I and others have always acknowledged, but we live in a messy, complicated world, and sometimes the best actually is the enemy of the good.”