Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated he has no plans for negotiations with Iran and expressed favor for moving to support elements within Iran intent on regime change during testimony on the State Department budget in the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. Tillerson’s remarks are certain to ratchet up tensions with Iran, where elements remain deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions and have levied charges on ordinary citizens for alleged collaboration with hostile powers.
Tillerson’s remarks were in response to questioning from Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), a vocal supporter of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), whose members were in attendance at the briefing. Rep. Poe (R-TX) asked Tillerson whether the U.S. supports “a peaceful regime change” and whether it is U.S. policy “to lead things as they are or set up a peaceful long-term regime change.” Tillerson implied that, it was U.S. policy to move toward supporting regime change, stating the U.S. would “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of those governments.”
The Obama administration was careful to avoid associating itself definitively and publicly with efforts to topple the regime, recognizing that it could undermine the cause of the Iranian people seeking to move their government in a more moderate direction as well as opportunities for negotiations. Further, given Tillerson’s dismissal of Iran’s elections when the moderate Hassan Rouhani trounced the hardline Ebrahim Raisi, it is unlikely Tillerson is endorsing the method that Iranian voters have chosen – gradual change through participation. Such an endorsement is more likely to be a boon to groups seeking to violently overthrow the Iranian government, such as the MEK. As a result, the Trump administration could be headed toward repeating the mistakes of the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953.
On top of Tillerson’s effective endorsement of regime change, the top diplomat gave no indication that he had considered engaging Iran diplomatically. In response to a question from Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) on whether he would press his Iranian counterparts on the whereabouts of his constituent, Bob Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007, Tillerson stated “I have no current schedule to meet with the Iranians.”
Similarly, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Tillerson dismissed suggestions from Sen. Murphy to engage in direct negotiations with Iran over Yemen. According to Tillerson, “The Iranians are part of the problem…They are not directly at the table because we do not believe they have earned a seat at that table. We would like for the Iranians to end their flow of weapons to the Houthis, in particular their flow of sophisticated missiles to the Houthis. We need for them to stop supplying that, and we are working with others as to how to get their agreement to do that.”
In a further departure from the Obama administration, Tillerson ascribed hegemonic aspirations to Iran, despite the fact that it is being outspent militarily 5 to 1 by Saudi Arabia. Tillerson stated that the U.S., “must counter Iran’s aspirations of hegemony in the region.” President Obama described Iran as a regional power and urged Saudi Arabia to learn how to coexist.
However, Tillerson did decline to endorse the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization when questioned by Rep. Poe, stating, “we continually review the merits both from the standpoint of diplomatic but also from international consequences of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in its entirety as a terrorist organization.” An Iran sanctions bill that just passed the Senate (S. 722) would push the Trump administration to issue such a designation, and Poe has been pushing a similar measure in the House.
While the Iran policy review is currently still underway, Sec. Tillerson’s effective endorsement of regime change, disinterest in Iran negotiations and continued harsh rhetoric bodes ill for the administration’s yet-to-emerge strategy.