Iran’s exiled crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, is urging the United States and Israel not to fall into a “trap” by escalating their disputes with the Iranian government into a military conflict.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are due to hold their first official meeting at the White House on Wednesday. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the leaders of the two longtime allies will discuss how to respond to what they see as “threats posed by Iran and its proxies.”
In an exclusive studio interview with VOA’s Persian service, Pahlavi said he expects to see “more harmony and coordination” of U.S. strategy on Iran under the Trump administration, with Israel and other American partners in the Middle East and Europe.
Speaking in Washington last Thursday, Pahlavi said he anticipates Iran’s Islamist rulers reacting to that increased coordination with “typical rhetoric and bravado” for domestic consumption. But, he said, Tehran would be “ill advised” not to take the issue of U.S.-Israeli cooperation seriously.
WATCH: Pahlavi Warns US, Israel Not to Fall into ‘Trap’
Appeal for restraint
Pahlavi also had a warning for Trump and Netanyahu as they consider adopting a tougher approach toward Iran, in contrast to the sanctions relief Iran secured from Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Other world powers joined in that 2015 deal to curtail Iranian nuclear activities that could produce a bomb in return for easing the sanctions.
“If there is anyone who would be the most pleased to see an escalation of conflict, it happens to be the [Iranian] regime, because they stand to benefit by creating more distraction from their problems — and one should not fall into that trap,” he said. “I have always been a proponent of [a strategy] that avoids military confrontation because I consider that to be lose-lose, and there are so many other options on the table.”
Trump told reporters on February 2 “nothing is off the table” in terms of a U.S. response to Iran’s January 29 ballistic missile test, which his administration criticized as undermining regional security and putting American lives at risk.
The U.S. and Israeli governments also have long refused to rule out military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and following through on threats to destroy Israel. Tehran has long described its nuclear program as peaceful.
Pahlavi said the only strategy that he thinks can end Iran’s dispute with the U.S. and Israel is to bring about the departure of the Iranian clerical leadership.
“Then, everything will start making sense [in terms] of whatever action you have to take, from sanctions to helping the [Iranian] people. In that scenario, we can see a true alternative shaping up,” he said.
In a January 31 letter to Trump, Pahlavi said the U.S. should play a “pivotal role” in supporting what he called the Iranian people’s “quest for liberty and justice.” Pahlavi leads an Iranian opposition group called the Iran National Council for Free Elections.
A tougher approach
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton also spoke in favor of “regime change” in Iran at a Washington forum held by U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) on February 9.
“It should be declared American policy to overturn the regime in Tehran, because that is ultimately the only way you will get Iran to back off the pursuit of nuclear weapons,” he told the forum.
Bolton said that policy requires more U.S. support for the Iranian opposition, rather than military action. Even so, he believes there may not be enough time to achieve regime change before Iran’s Islamist rulers acquire nuclear weapons.
Critics of the 2015 nuclear deal say it will allow Iranian leaders to quickly build a nuclear bomb when restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities begin expiring after 13 years. That, said Bolton, “is why, if you don’t want an Iran with nuclear weapons, you have to contemplate the use of military force to prevent that.”
WATCH: Bolton Discusses Iran’s Nuclear Program
Responding to a question from VOA Persian at the UANI forum, Bolton said any U.S. attack on the Iranian nuclear program would resemble what he described as “very surgical and very limited” Israeli airstrikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities in 1981 and 2007.
However, Iran poses a distinct challenge for the U.S. military because its nuclear program is more dispersed, according to Bolton.
“The danger is that we have let so much time go by that there are any number of [nuclear] facilities that we simply don’t know about in Iran, so that we could destroy those we know about … and we still wouldn’t close the program down,” Bolton said. “I’d nonetheless be prepared to take that risk than see the program proceed unimpeded, which is the course we are on now.”
Risking unintended outcomes
Bolton’s tough talk drew a sharp response from Iran analyst Barbara Slavin of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Speaking to VOA via Skype, she said any kind of military action against Iran would be a “disaster,” given the U.S. military’s recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The kinds of threats coming from people like Bolton [also] will have the reverse effect than we would want,” Slavin said. “It would perhaps make certain elements in Iran more interested in acquiring nuclear weapons to deter an attack.”
WATCH: Slavin Talks About Iranian Political Change
Slavin said the best way of achieving regime change in Iran is to encourage a “peaceful evolution” of its political system by reintegrating the country into the international community.
“If it means more contact between Americans and Iranians, that’s fine,” she said. “We should get to know each other better. We should reduce the hostile rhetoric. And then, I think, Iran will have a brighter future, and I think the U.S. will, too.”
VOA’s Babak Gharehdaghi and Guita Aryan contributed to this report.