Story of a changing headline: Iran ‘regime collapse’

Statements by certain officials that run counter to official policy could further harm prospects of US-Iran relations.

Government Calls For Tough Sanctions On Iran Following The Attack On The British Embassy
News of a second US rescue of Iranian sailors, the first of which was publicly welcomed by Iran, is a positive development amidst usually icy relations [GALLO/GETTY]

Vancouver, Canada – Here’s how it goes. On Tuesday morning, the Washington Post published an article, now revised, titled “Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, US official says”. Regime collapse would inevitably lead to “regime change”, something that the Obama administration has publicly rejected for its Iran policy.

Thus the article quickly became a talking point amongst analysts and media professionals from all over the political spectrum on mailing lists and in the Twittersphere. Many on Twitter noted that the ramifications of working to implement regime change are potentially disastrous.

The Atlantic’s pro-Israel journalist and pundit Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that: “If I were an Iranian leader and read that the goal of sanctions is regime change, I’d race to build and test a nuke”. Yahoo’s foreign policy reporter Laura Rozen wondered whether this would “validate Iran regime paranoia about US?” and from Tehran the Washington Post’s Thomas Erdbrink noted that the “US remarks will confirm hardliners obsession with regime change – now confirmed – and strike out against dissidents & dig in deeper”.

Then, right before many people’s eyes, the headline of the article changed two times in the evening, along with the removal of the first two paragraphs and other revisions in the final version. This was the sequence of the headlines:

Headline #1: Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, US official says

 Inside Story – Is Iran still defiant?

Headline #2: Goal of Iran sanctions is to get nation to abandon alleged nuclear programme, US official says

Headline #3: Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, US official says

The final version includes the following notice at the top:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that a US intelligence official had described regime collapse as a goal of US and other sanctions against Iran. An updated version clarifies the official’s remarks.

The fuss over the article revolves around this passage from the original version (now completely removed):

The goal of US and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior US intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran’s government as it is on engaging with it.

The official, speaking this week on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the administration hopes that sanctions “create enough hate and discontent at the street level” that Iranians will turn against their government.

That passage was essentially replaced with the following in the final version:

The Obama administration sees economic sanctions against Iran as building public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons programme, according to a senior US intelligence official.

In addition to influencing Iranian leaders directly, the official said, “another option here is that [sanctions] will create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realise that they need to change their ways”.

As Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell pointed out, there was no direct quote about “regime collapse” in the original version. Rather, an anonymous senior US intelligence official told reporters Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson that the administration hoped sanctions would “create enough hate and discontent at the street level”. The second part of that statement, “to get Iranians to turn against their government”, was not a direct quote.

Importantly, further on in the original version, an anonymous administration official contradicted that assertion with this passage:

A senior administration official, speaking separately, acknowledged that public discontent was a likely result of more punitive sanctions against Iran’s already faltering economy. But this official said it was not the administration’s intent to press the Iranian people toward an attempt to oust their government.

“The notion that we’ve crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect,” the administration official said. “We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behaviour as it’s related to their nuclear programme.”

We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behaviour as it’s related to their nuclear programme.

– Anonymous US official

But the Washington Post included “regime collapse” in their headline anyway. Hounshell wrote that he suspected that the unnamed intelligence official “may have misspoken, or been somehow misinterpreted”. That may have been the case, but there are other possibilities and the effects will likely be far-reaching regardless.

Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, tweeted after the final headline change that with anonymous sourcing “one person can shift the entire policy (or at least perception of that policy)”. Furthermore, even if intelligence officials do not determine policy, they can certainly influence it.

During a phone conversation he told me that the “cat is now out of the bag” about the aim of some administration members who want to steer Obama’s Iran policy. Abdi said that this event, coupled with spokeperson Victoria Nuland’s declaration last week that the US’ latest sanctions against Iran “will be an important next step in the global effort to tighten the noose on their regime”, suggests two schools of thought exist in the Obama administration:

The policy laid out by the president when he took office, which officially remains the administration’s policy, is aimed at achieving a diplomatic resolution with Iran based on shared interests. But a second school of thought persists, largely a continuation of the Bush Administration policy, that the US can only deal with a different regime in Iran. 

He also noted that public revelations which make it appear like some in the administration view regime change as the objective of the sanctions “puts the president in a box”, making it “far more difficult now to convince Tehran to come to the table” and effectively “kneecapping the diplomatic option just weeks before expected talks”.

Losing sight

Former intelligence official Paul Pillar reflected on the counter-productive path of Obama’s Iran policy in December when he noted that the US “has made it almost impossible for Iran to say yes to whatever it is the United States is supposedly demanding of Iran”.

If the intent is to bring Iran to the negotiating table to change its nuclear ambitions, there should be an understanding that the pressure will be lifted if Iran concedes to US demands. But “[w]e seem to have lost sight of what all those sanctions and pressure were supposed to achieve in the first place”, wrote Pillar. “They have come to be treated as if they were ends in themselves.”

Iran sentences US citizen
to death ‘for spying’

News of a second US rescue of Iranian sailors this week (the first of which was publicly welcomed by Iran) is a positive development amidst usually icy relations. Now we must wait and see how the Iranians will react when talk of “regime collapse” is in the air, intended or not, while more of their citizens are being assassinated.

Like every other government, Iran’s ruling elite are interested in self-preservation and those that are bellicose are always looking for reasons to justify their hostility toward the US and its allies. The only thing that’s almost certain now is that Iran’s hardliners will feel emboldened by more punitive US measures and rhetoric as they work to consolidate power ahead of March’s parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, Iran’s pro-democracy movement, not to mention the alleged Iranian-American “spy” Amir Hekmati, will likely bear the brunt of the Obama administration’s slip-ups as they are scapegoated or used as playing cards to deflect attention from the worsening state of Iran’s economy and its isolated position abroad.

Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist and co-editor of Lobe Log.

Follow her on Twitter: @JasminRamsey

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.