The Iran mess could get even worse

The White House and Europe are on a collision course in the nuclear deal with Iran. That’s bad enough, but there are signs things might get even worse.

The Iran nuclear deal (otherwise known as the JPCOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was meticulously negotiated by the major international players and endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council. The deal is clearly working — tearing it up would be sheer folly.

But things are getting worse for the Iran agreement. With the White House’s new key appointments, as well as some encouragement from Israeli and Saudi leaders, the United States might well be heading for a regime-change policy toward Iran.

Incoming national security adviser John Bolton is certainly on the record as advocating this and evidently thinks it’s a realistic policy option. It is not clear what a policy of regime change would look like. If it includes explicit support to different opposition forces inside Iran, it would do little more than discredit them in the eyes of many in the county. And if Bolton’s friends in the so-called Mujahideen-e Khalq (otherwise known as the MEK) are among these, it would make this discrediting even more pronounced — the group was a military ally of Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war against Iran.

Encouraging different ethnic groups in the country to rise up in rebellion against Tehran is not new. But pouring money into different Baluchi, Kurdish or other groups is unlikely to achieve anything other than increased repression in these areas. A regime-change policy would certainly strengthen the forces of repression and confrontation in Iran itself. If every advocate of reform and opening could be labeled as an agent of the CIA or Mossad, their prospect of success would disappear. Some might think that it would increase the likelihood of an explosion in the country further down the road. But well before that, we are certain to see the buildup of confrontation throughout the region, and the possibility of outright war.

Iran certainly has a capacity for destabilization in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf well beyond what we have seen so far — perhaps greater than combined U.S., Saudi and Israeli capacity for doing the same in Iran. In any case, a race of destabilization throughout the region would be extremely destructive.

The regime in Iran certainly faces major challenges. Its record of providing jobs and opportunities for its educated and ambitious young population is miserable. It’s financial situation at the moment is precarious. The country faces major ecological issues that will require attention. Its human rights record is appalling. But in contrast to other countries in the wider region, it does have some form of political system that could open up and reform itself, given the right conditions.

Iran has fundamental security interests in Iraq and Afghanistan that can’t be overlooked. Iran should be encouraged to constructively strengthen the sovereignty and integrity of both countries. On fighting Daesh (the Arabic name for the Islamic State), the Western and the Iranian agenda obviously converge, and there is little doubt that Iran has made substantial contributions.

Europe is keen to promote regime evolution in parallel with regional integration and prefers a robust dialogue on obvious disagreements. The JCPOA is the opening of doors to a wider engagement that certainly doesn’t guarantee any immediate success, but has better prospects than any other available option.

Regime evolution is nothing less than a regional necessity — in Tehran and Riyadh, as well as Cairo. Without major reforms and changes in the years ahead, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all on trajectories that are unsustainable. And the aim of sensible Western policies ought to be to encourage these reforms and to try to facilitate a regional environment that is conducive to them. A contest of destabilization in the region would in all probability undermine the prospects for the necessary regime evolution in these areas with even further instability.

This in no way diminishes the necessity to confront Tehran over some of its activities today. The supply of medium-range missiles to the Houthis in Yemen should certainly be high on any European diplomatic agenda with Tehran. And Europe has a fundamental interest in preventing a new war in and around Lebanon caused by an Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria.

Europe isn’t separated by oceans from the Middle East. We don’t have the option of just building walls. The Middle East is already part of our societies, and further conflicts and turbulence in the region will become a direct threat to Europe’s security. A regime change policy in Iran would do nothing more than add fuel to a region on already on fire.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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