By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
Ever since the ruling clerics of Iran hijacked the revolution in 1979, one of the foreign policy dilemmas for the governments that have been negatively impacted by Iran’s aggression is whether or not to pursue a policy of regime change in Tehran.
Some governments have instead sought to contain the Islamic Republic, some have preferred deterrence, and others have simply taken the path of inaction. For almost four decades, one of the most powerful rivals of the Iranian regime, the US, has decided to pursue a combination of containment and imposing pressure through sanctions, rather than seeking regime change.
Those who seek regime change in Iran have generally been sidelined or heavily criticized. Meanwhile, little attention has been given to Iran’s policies and its blatant attempts to change governments and administrations in countries such as Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.
The latest developments point to the idea that Tehran’s leaders are also taking concrete steps to try to change the current US administration by making it suffer a loss in the 2020 presidential elections. But how can Iran do that?
Iran’s power in influencing US elections, American public opinion and making President Donald Trump a one-term president should not be underestimated. The first tool that Tehran possesses is smearing and scuttling the administration’s foreign policy objectives, particularly toward Iran and the Middle East.
The Iranian regime succeeded with this in the past by making former US President Jimmy Carter a single-term president. When the mullahs came to power, they made it clear that one of their core foreign policy objectives was opposition to the US, which the theocratic establishment labeled the “Great Satan.” Due to fears that the US government might topple the clerical regime — with the Islamic Republic recalling the crucial role the CIA played in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 — the mullahs took measures to ensure Carter’s defeat.
With Iran taking American diplomats hostage and refusing to release them, Carter was perceived as a failure in his re-election bid against Ronald Reagan. As Kai Bird wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Iranians dragged out the negotiations over the release of the hostages. President Carter believed these negotiations were nearly successful in late September 1980, but suddenly new demands were made that stalled the talks. Polls showed Carter within single digits of catching Reagan until about 10 days before the election. Carter lost decisively, and the hostages were inexplicably released minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president.”
When it comes to foreign policy, how can Iran depict Trump as a failure ahead of the presidential elections next year? By increasing its aggression in order to destabilize the region. Tehran has already succeeded in escalating tensions by acts such as harassing and seizing ships in the Strait of Hormuz and shooting down an American drone.
The second tool that Tehran can use to try to ensure Trump’s defeat is to negatively impact the US economy. It can do this by pushing up the price of gasoline, which many Americans are dependent on. One of the reasons for last month’s attacks on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure was most likely to impact the global energy market and cause an increase in oil prices. When gas prices go up, many Americans will likely point a finger at Trump and his failure to contain or deal with Iran and the Middle East. Gasoline prices went up across the US in the aftermath of the attacks.
The third tool that has become available to the Iranian leaders in the modern age is cyberwarfare. According to a statement released by tech giant Microsoft last week, hackers linked to the Iranian government have targeted the 2020 US presidential election, specifically the Trump re-election campaign, through thousands of hacking attempts in the last two months. It said: “Today we’re sharing that we’ve recently seen significant cyber activity by a threat group we call Phosphorus, which we believe originates from Iran and is linked to the Iranian government… The targeted accounts are associated with a US presidential campaign, current and former US government officials, journalists covering global politics and prominent Iranians living outside Iran.”
The Iranian regime is investing significant capital in attempting to get Trump defeated in the 2020 election. Phosphorus, also known as APT 35, is “highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources engaging in research and other means of information gathering,” according to Microsoft.
Iran appears to be taking steps to try to change the US government by ensuring Trump loses the 2020 presidential election. Will the US take action? Or will Iran succeed in making Trump a one-term president, as it seemingly did with Carter?
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh