Sanctions and Regime Change – Iran and Venezuela
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
When President Barack Obama first imposed sanctions on Venezuela in 2015, the stated purpose and subsequent actions by the Obama Administration were to effect behavior change in Venezuelan leadership, not to replace the Nicolás Maduro government. There was mounting evidence Maduro was pursuing a non-democratic path; human rights violations were becoming the norm; and rule-of-law and justice in Venezuela faced significant challenges.
The Obama sanctions were intended to pressure Maduro into reversing those trends and restoring the democratic process and rule-of-law in the country; to protect human rights and press freedom. Maduro was warned that the sanctions regime would intensify should he not respond positively. Instead, Maduro doubled down – the Venezuelan democratic process has been decimated; rule-of-law norms no longer exist; human rights violations have reached despicable levels; press freedom no longer exists; and the Venezuelan economy is now on life support.
President Obama increased pressure on Maduro, including with expanded sanctions enforcement, but the message remained the same. The pressure imposed on Maduro was for him to change course and return citizen safety and security and basic freedoms in Venezuela. On the contrary, the stated intent of President Donald Trump on Venezuela is regime change. Unequivocally, Trump’s objective is clear; Maduro must be isolated and removed from power – by whatever means necessary.
So far, the Trump administration is succeeding in isolating Venezuela, and, in so doing, causing geopolitical divisions and realignments in the hemisphere. Latin America and the Caribbean, member countries of the Organization of American States, are divided on support for Maduro. With each passing day, the gap widens. Unity among the governments of the CARICOM sub-region is severely strained and the future of the Community now faces significant political challenges.
Under normal circumstances, it would be in keeping with the Charter of the Americas, and in upholding the democratic traditions of CARICOM states, to use intensive diplomatic processes to help Venezuela reverse course. The U.S. sanctions, and the predictable outcomes, could have been used as means of persuasion, not as means of punishment. Venezuela’s leadership interpreted U.S. sanctions differently. The Maduro regime saw U.S. sanctions as a violation of its sovereignty and the imposition of the will of the United States on Venezuela. Friends of Venezuela failed to warn Maduro that his options were limited. The result of sanctions imposed by the Obama administration against Iran provided lessons from which Maduro should have been guided. The Iranian economy deteriorated significantly from the effects of sanctions and Iran was forced to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA). The result for Iran was not regime change; quite the opposite. Since agreeing to the JCPOA, the Iranian economy rebounded and the Iranian political government became stronger, vis-à-vis Iran’s religious hard liners..
With Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA, the Iran dynamics have changed significantly. There are two messages from the Trump administration: one is to change behavior and the other is regime change. These are two distinct outcomes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided a list of 12 actions required of Iran in order to achieve a new proposed agreement. In a speech on May 21st to the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank in Washington DC) Pompeo said, among other things, Iran must, “stop enrichment and plutonium processing,” including for domestic energy purposes; “end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems;” “end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad;” end its engagement in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere; and cease threatening Israel, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
As Pompeo noted, the list is very long but reflects the “scope of the malign behavior of Iran.” Pompeo also called on Iran to end its support for the Iran Revolutionary Guard Qods Force’s “support for terrorists and militant partners around the world.” That will be a challenge for any elected Iranian government which has very little control over the IRG which supports Iran’s hard line clerics.
While setting an extraordinary high bar for a new Iran-U.S. agreement, Pompeo by implication is calling for regime change in Iran. He pointedly criticized Iran’s religious leader Ali Khamenei, who has been Iran’s supreme leader since 1989. According to Pompeo, Khamenei “will not live forever, nor will the Iranian people abide the rigid rules of tyrants forever.” These are neither diplomatic words expected to assuage the fears of Iran’s hardline clerics as to the ultimate objective of the Trump administration nor will it build confidence for cooperation on future negotiations of any future agreement with the United States. Pompeo also stated that the U.S. is clear as to the nature of the Iran regime; and the U.S. is looking “for outcomes that benefit the Iranian people, not just the regime.” The outcome contemplated by the Trump administration is further implicit in what Pompeo termed his “final message” to the Iranian people.
Accordingly, Pompeo’s “final message,” or warning, to the Iranian people, reiterated President Trump’s words from October 2017. Trump’s intentions were clear as he took aim at the Iranian regime. He said the U.S. “stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s long-suffering victims: its own people.” Trump pointed to what he characterized as the citizens of Iran having “paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their leaders.” He also, noted that the Iranian people were longing “to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization, and its cooperation with its neighbors.” The implication of Trump’s statement and Pompeo’s repeat of it, is that the people of Iran wants regime change and that the Trump administration is supportive of their desire.
The path to regime change in Venezuela and in Iran should not be construed as following similar paths or having similar outcomes. In Venezuela’s case, there is the likelihood that the deteriorating economy and the increasing suffering of the people will ultimately lead to internal isolation of the Maduro regime, and the Venezuelan military may eventually decide to remove Maduro from power. Such a scenario, while possible for Venezuela with very little bloodshed, is highly unlikely in Iran.
The hard line clerics wield real power in Iran and the most likely casualty of regime change would be the “moderate” political government. Any attempt at external military attempt against the Iranian government will result in perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives lost and a total destabilization of the entire region. The uptick in terrorism against the U.S. and its Middle East allies would be significant, as Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region, as well as by Iran’s supporters in the United States, hit back hard against the U.S.
For now, while regime change in Venezuela is a distinct possibility, regime change in Iran is a fleeting illusion. Iranian “moderates” will lose the little power they have, and Iranian hardliners would impose a significantly egregious and oppressive regime on the country. The Trump administration would be well-advised to employ diplomacy over belligerency in its Iran strategy before relations deteriorate further.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post