Unconfirmed report of a US-Israel task force to put pressure on Iran

The task force is reportedly led by US national security adviser John Bolton and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Sunday 08/07/2018
US national security adviser John Bolton steps from Air Force One upon arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida, last  April 16. (Reuters)
Hands-on policy. US national security adviser John Bolton steps from Air Force One upon arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida, last April 16. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The United States and Israel are working to encourage protests inside Iran to pressure the Islamic Republic government, said an Israeli news report, which the United States did not dispute.

Israel’s Channel 10 news reported that the United States and Israel created a task force, which has met several times in recent months, to sow discord inside Iran as part of the US effort to weaken Iranian leadership.

The task force is the first indication that the administration of US President Donald Trump is trying actively to stir up domestic unrest in Iran. It represents a sharp departure from the hands-off policy of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who stayed out of Iranian internal affairs as he negotiated a nuclear agreement, which Trump withdrew from in May.

The task force is reportedly led by US national security adviser John Bolton and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, who have met several times since Bolton was appointed in April.

Although US officials would not confirm the Channel 10 report, many US leaders, including Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pointed to protests in Iran as evidence of popular opposition to the country’s leadership.

“The Iranian people are rightly frustrated with the regime and they are expressing their frustration in nationwide protests and in smaller acts of defiance throughout the country,” US State Department Policy Director Brian Hook said. Repeating a common refrain from US officials aimed at emboldening protests, Hook said: “The United States stands with the Iranian people.”

Pompeo posted on Twitter what appeared to be a photo of Iranian men protesting and wrote above the photo: “Iran’s corrupt regime is wasting the country’s resources on Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas & Houthis, while Iranians struggle. It should surprise no one [that] Iran protests continue. People are tired of the corruption, injustice & incompetence of their leaders. The world hears their voices.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has posted videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in which he encouraged Iranians to protest against their government. The videos are translated into Farsi.

Another Israeli news agency, Hadashot TV, reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry urged its diplomats around the world to “expand the pressure” on Iran and was planning anti-Iran actions at the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

US State Department officials have said that the Iranian protests started over a variety of issues in December. It was in December that US and Israeli security officials reportedly established a “framework for future cooperation” under which the two allies would counter Iran on several fronts, including its effort to develop ballistic missiles and its support of Hezbollah. One area of US-Israeli cooperation would be creating domestic pressure on Iran’s leadership.

Although Bolton advocated for Iranian regime change before Trump appointed him, Israeli officials told news outlets that regime change is not their goal. “Nobody is seriously thinking about regime change but this team is trying to see if we can use the internal weaknesses of the Iranian regime in order to create more pressure that will contribute to changing Iranian behaviour,” an unidentified Israeli official told Axios.

US officials have denied wanting to oust Iran’s leaders but have also signalled to Iranians that they might want new leadership. In a speech in May about US policy towards Iran, Pompeo said Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is 78 years old, “will not live forever” and he cast doubt on Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“Rohani and Zarif are your elected leaders,” Pompeo said in a portion of the speech aimed at Iranian civilians. “Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles? Are these two not responsible for wasting Iranian lives throughout the Middle East?”

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