The Trump administration is examining a new plan to help Iranians fighting the hardline regime in Iran following America's exit from the landmark nuclear deal and reimposition of harsh economic sanctions that could topple a regime already beset by protests and a crashing economy, according to a copy of the plan obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
The three-page white paper being circulated among National Security Council officials in the White House offers a strategy by which the Trump administration can actively work to assist an already aggravated Iranian public topple the hardline ruling regime through a democratization strategy that focuses on driving a deeper wedge between the Iranian people and the ruling regime.
The plan, authored by the Security Studies Group, or SSG, a national security think-tank that has close ties to senior White House national security officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, seeks to reshape longstanding American foreign policy toward Iran by emphasizing an explicit policy of regime change, something the Obama administration opposed when popular protests gripped Iran in 2009.
The regime change plan seeks to fundamentally shift U.S. policy towards Iran and has found a receptive audience in the Trump administration, which has been moving in this direction since Bolton—a longtime and vocal supporter of regime change—entered the White House.
It deemphasizes U.S military intervention, instead focusing on a series of moves to embolden an Iranian population that has increasingly grown angry at the ruling regime for its heavy investments in military adventurism across the region.
"The ordinary people of Iran are suffering under economic stagnation, while the regime ships its wealth abroad to fight its expansionist wars and to pad the bank accounts of the Mullahs and the IRGC command," SSG writes in the paper. "This has provoked noteworthy protests across the country in recent months."
Jim Hanson, SSG's president, told the Free Beacon that the Trump administration has no appetite for U.S. military intervention in Iran, but is very focused on efforts to rid Iran of its hardline ruling regime.
"The Trump administration has no desire to roll tanks in an effort to directly topple the Iranian regime," Hanson said. "But they would be much happier dealing with a post-Mullah government. That is the most likely path to a nuclear weapons-free and less dangerous Iran."
An NSC official declined to comment directly on the report, but confirmed the administration is consistently working to "change the Iranian regime's behavior."
"Our stated policy is to change the Iranian regime’s behavior of continuous destabilizing regional acts and support of terrorism," the official said, adding that the White House reviews multiple plans and proposals from organizations. "The National Security Council is in receipt of reams of policy papers and reports, some are read with interest, others are not. Receipt of a policy paper in no way means that we are going to adopt the position of that paper."
One source close to the White House who has previewed the plan told the Free Beacon that the nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, solidified the Iranian regime's grip on power and intentionally prevented the United States from fomenting regime change
"The JCPOA purposefully destroyed the carefully created global consensus against the Islamic Republic," said the source, who would only speak on background about the sensitive issue. "Prior to that, everyone understood the dangers of playing footsie with the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. It's now Trump, Bolton, and [Mike] Pompeo's job to put this consensus back in place."
Bolton is said to be acutely aware of the danger the Iranian regime poses to the region, the source said.
"John is someone who understands the danger of Iran viscerally, and knows that you're never going to fundamentally change its behavior—and the threats against Israel and the Saudis especially—until that revolutionary regime is gone," the source said, adding that "nothing's off the table right now if Israel is attacked."
A second source close to the White House and familiar with the thinking on this issue told the Free Beacon the administration recognizes the chief impediment to the region is Iran's tyrannical regime.
"The problem is not the Iran nuclear deal it's the Iranian regime," said the source, who would only speak on background. "Team Bolton has spent years creating Plans B, C, and D for dealing with that problem. President Trump hired him knowing all of that. The administration will now start aggressively moving to deal with the root cause of chaos and violence in the region in a clear-eyed way."
Regional sources who have spoken to SSG "tell us that Iranian social media is more outraged about internal oppression, such as the recent restrictions on Telegram, than about supporting or opposing the nuclear program. Iranian regime oppression of its ethnic and religious minorities has created the conditions for an effective campaign designed to splinter the Iranian state into component parts," the group states.
"More than one third of Iran's population is minority groups, many of whom already seek independence," the paper explains. "U.S. support for these independence movements, both overt and covert, could force the regime to focus attention on them and limit its ability to conduct other malign activities."
American policy towards Iran has failed to explicitly support Iranian opponents of the regime who are thirsty for a change.
"U.S. policy toward Iran currently does not publicly articulate two components vital to success: That a new birth of liberty based in self-determination for the Iranian people should be official policy; and that military action should be anticipated if other measures fail," the paper states.
In addition to preventing Iran from ever building a nuclear weapon, the Trump administration must articulate a credible military threat should Iran choose to launch full-scale attacks on Israel and U.S. forces.
"A credible hard power option exists," according to the plan. "That option does not consist of large invasion forces or long, costly occupations."
Without a regime change, the United States will continue face threats from Iranian forces stationed throughout the region, including in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.
"The probability the current Iranian theocracy will stop its nuclear program willingly or even under significant pressure is low," the plan states. "Absent a change in government within Iran, America will face a choice between accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or acting to destroy as much of this capability as possible."
U.S. officials must make efforts to publicly differentiate between Iran's ruling regime and its people, a point that was also emphasized by Trump in his statement about exiting the deal earlier this week.
"Any public discussion of these options, and any messaging about the Iranian regime in general, should make a bright line distinction between the theocratic regime along with its organs of oppression and the general populace," according to the plan. "We must constantly reinforce our support for removing the iron sandal from the necks of the people to allow them the freedom they deserve."
Update 4:11 p.m.: This post has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of the plan.
Update 4:30 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from the NSC.