(Persia Digest) - The Trump administration has heavily sanctioned and condemned Iran and Venezuela, but both anti-American administrations appear dug in.
Nahal Toosi writes in Politico that last month, Vice President Mike Pence declared Venezuelans would “soon” be rid of Nicolás Maduro’s oppressive regime after deadly clashes broke out in the country. But this week, Pence acknowledged the U.S. has no timeline for Maduro’s ouster.
Last year, Trump officials hoped that street protests in Iran might portend a popular revolt against Islamist rule there. National security adviser John Bolton more recently taunted Iran’s clerical leaders on the 40th anniversary of the country’s revolution, saying, “I don’t think you‘ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.” But by most accounts, Iran’s government remains firmly in control.
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on both Iran and Venezuela, aiming to speed up the ouster of their anti-American governments. But in both instances, President Donald Trump and his advisers are learning that regime change — especially through economic means — is easy to talk about but hard to achieve.
“The U.S. has a long history of seeking regime change and a much shorter list of successful endeavors,” said Rob Malley, a senior aide to former President Barack Obama who now leads the International Crisis Group.
While Trump has eschewed past American methods of government overthrow — focusing on economic penalties and marshaling international pressure instead of George W. Bush-style military intervention, for instance — his administration must also tread carefully, because too much American involvement can make potential allies nervous.
“Any suggestion that the [regime change] effort is made-in-America, let alone made-by-the-Trump-administration, could be considered the kiss of death,” Malley said.
Iran and Venezuela are the two countries where the Trump administration is most clearly and publicly trying to engineer an ouster of the existing government. And the administration’s approaches in the two cases overlap to a large degree, but by no means fully.
In the case of Venezuela, the Trump team isn’t masking its goal. The U.S. president has said he no longer recognizes Maduro as the country’s legitimate leader, instead supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s claim to be Venezuela’s interim president. Bolton even continues to float the possibility of the U.S. taking military action to get Maduro out of office.
“President Trump has made clear to Nicolás Maduro and those around him, ‘all options are on the table,’” Bolton tweeted Wednesday.
The administration has focused intensely on Venezuela in recent months, naming a special envoy, dispatching Pence and others to give speeches and rally the world to unite against Maduro’s government, which has styled itself as socialist but bankrupted the country’s economy through mismanagement and graft.
But momentum has lagged since pro-Maduro military forces stopped a high-profile, U.S.-led effort to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuelans in late February, causing fatalities. And regional leaders have since dismissed calls from Venezuela’s opposition to consider using force against Maduro.
Some administration officials still privately speak of a timetable of weeks or months for Maduro to fall, according to outside experts in touch with them. Publicly, though, U.S. officials have begun tempering their optimism.
“We have understood that this is a struggle in Venezuela whose length we can’t predict,” Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s recently named special envoy for Venezuela, told reporters on Friday. “No one can predict it.”
Some analysts say Maduro, who has support from Russia and Cuba, could hang on for years. After all, the U.S. has “been promising [regime change] to the Cubans in Miami for 60 years,” noted Ted Piccone, a Latin America specialist at the Brookings Institution.
“Authoritarian governments don’t give up easily,” added a Senate aide. “They don’t wake up one day and say, ‘Wow, John Bolton’s tweet was so intimidating I’m going to pack up my things and leave the country.’”
On Iran, the administration insists it is not seeking regime change, but rather a change in the regime’s behavior. But the administration’s demands on Tehran, summed up in 12 conditions, are so far-reaching that analysts argue it’s effectively a call for regime change.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has compared the U.S. effort to erode Iran’s Islamist system to American efforts to undermine the Soviet Union. But for now, the Iranian leadership believes it may be able to outlast Trump, especially if he isn’t reelected.
The reality is that it’s never easy to predict when a government will fall.
The world was blindsided by the 2011 ouster of Tunisia’s dictator, which launched the Arab Spring movements. But while some Arab governments seen as stable, like Egypt’s, fell others under siege, like Syria’s, managed to hang on through sheer brutality.
“Regimes always look or often look quite solid and quite strong the day before they collapse, so none of us know how to predict the timing,” Abrams said.
There is, however, at least one key difference in the U.S. campaigns against Iran and Venezuela: The U.S. has significant international backing in the effort to push out Maduro, but it has largely isolated itself — even from its own allies — when it comes to its anti-Iran moves.
Maduro is unpopular internationally and domestically. Under his rule, Venezuela’s economy has cratered and more than 3 million people have fled the country. International observers condemned Maduro’s reelection last year as rigged. Dozens of countries have followed Trump in recognizing Guaidó as interim president. Maduro’s one big advantage is his ongoing support among his country’s military leaders, though hundreds of Venezuelan soldiers have defected in recent weeks.
Conversely, many of America’s allies are not embracing Trump’s anti-Iran campaign. While these foreign governments dislike Iran’s regime and share concerns about the country’s military tactics, they’ve argued that Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal was a diplomatic error and a strategic miscalculation that has put them in more danger.
Still, Trump administration has primarily leaned on sanctions to spur change in both Iran and Venezuela.
Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran in part to reimpose major economic penalties, which have badly damaged Iran’s economy. For Venezuela, Trump has imposed several rounds of sanctions since taking office, including on a major state oil company.
But the Iranian sanctions have upset American allies because they carry “secondary” effects, meaning they can be levied on foreign companies that do business with Iran. France, Britain and Germany have even helped Iran set up a financial mechanism that could in theory be used to evade the sanctions.
With Venezuela, however, other countries have been broadly supportive of penalizing Maduro — some have even imposed their own sanctions on the regime’s leaders. Still, many Latin American countries have lagged in punishing Caracas financially, in part because they lack the necessary bureaucratic structure to hammer Maduro, observers say. Another concern is that more penalties could deepen the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans.
But if Maduro lingers, more countries may follow suit and ratchet up the economic pressure.
The U.S. is already looking at other ways to persuade other countries to step up.
Bolton on Wednesday warned financial institutions to cut off any interactions “that benefit Nicolás Maduro and his corrupt network” or face sanctions.
The U.S. has long history of intervening in Latin American countries, often with disastrous results, leading to a deep wariness of its intentions this time.
Accordingly, the Trump administration is careful to note that it is not calling for a “coup” in Venezuela. Rather, it points to provisions in Venezuela’s constitution that allow for Guaidó, who leads the country’s National Assembly, to declare himself “interim president” to justify the transition.
But Bolton tapped into this loaded history when he recently invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify Trump’s decision to stand against Maduro while maintaining warm relationships with other dictators elsewhere in the world.
The Monroe Doctrine — an 1823 decree from President James Monroe — warned European colonial powers that the U.S. would not tolerate their interference in the Western Hemisphere. Over the years, however, the doctrine has come to be seen as America’s justification for its own interventions in Latin America.
In mentioning the Monroe Doctrine, Bolton “arguably is doing more to undermine the administration’s stated goal than anything Maduro might come up with,” Malley said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican with deep antipathy toward Maduro, also might have undercut the U.S. when he recently tweeted out photos of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, including one taken soon before he was killed in 2011 by Western-backed rebels.
Such moves might even dissuade Maduro from giving up power, some argue. “The picture you should be sending is one of him on the beach in Cuba with a mojito,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “You don’t want him to think the only way out is jail or death.”
Meanwhile, Guaidó has been busy building his own government — laying out an economic plan, appointing ambassadors and even meeting Latin American leaders outside Venezuela. The fact that Maduro’s forces didn’t arrest Guaidó when he returned to Venezuela this past week was taken as a sign of the opposition leader’s strength, although it could have been a decision made to avoid turning Guaidó into even more compelling figure.
“For me, the Maduro regime is not strong,” Maria Teresa Belandria, whom Guaidó has named ambassador to Brazil, told POLITICO in a phone interview. “Guaidó has the legitimacy and the legality. We have little victories — step by step.”
U.S. intervention in the Middle East, too, has a rocky history. The primary example is the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein but has since spurred years of violence.
The U.S. also secretly played a role in a 1953 coup in Iran that strengthened monarchical rule and arguably set the stage for the Islamist revolution in 1979. That indelible memory, as well as the Iraq scenario, makes many Iranians hesitant to back a U.S.-led regime change in their country.
The fact that both Iran and Venezuela are major oil-producing nations is also fueling allegations that the Trump administration’s goals have nothing to do with democracy or human rights.
The administration has at times tried to connect its goals in Iran and Venezuela. Pompeo, for instance, recently suggested to the Fox Business Network that the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah is active in Venezuela.
“People don’t recognize that Hezbollah has active cells,” Pompeo said. “The Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America. We have an obligation to take down that risk for America.”
It’s not clear how much patience Trump himself has for extended campaign against either country. While Trump is said to dislike Maduro intensely — a rare dictator he doesn’t praise — he's said he’s open to dialogue with the Iranians.
Regardless, Trump may use both countries as rallying cries for his domestic political base as the 2020 presidential race heats up.
Iran is a face of Islamism that deeply alarms evangelical Christians and others who support Trump, while the Republican president has implied, questionably, that Maduro represents the type of socialism that many progressive Democrats are embracing.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump warned February in his State of the Union speech, during which he slammed Maduro. “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.”
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