Exclusive: Senior official says US seeks change in Iran’s behaviour, not regime change

Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told The National that Washington will not stay silent when it comes preventing violence against protesters

REFILE - CORRECTING SOURCE People protest near the university of Tehran, Iran December 30, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.  NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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With at least 21 dead and 450 arrested in the first six days of the protests in Iran, the Trump administration has moved swiftly to support the protests and levelled harsh criticism at the government in Tehran.

Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told The National in an exclusive interview  that Washington is seeking a change in the behaviour of the regime in Iran, not the regime.

Mr Peek, formerly a US military intelligence officer who served on president Donald Trump’s transition team, said the US administration rejected the idea of staying silent when it came to preventing violence against protesters.

He described Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's response to the protesters as "tone deaf" and urged Tehran to fix the problem.


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With the number of arrests and incidents of violence climbing in Iran, how does the US administration view the situation?

Andrew Peek: We are watching the situation very closely. From what we see, there are differences from 2009 [ the so-called Green Movement protests], in where this started, and the initial focus on food prices. It is more varied geographically and demographically as well than 2009. But there are also some similarities, in that the protesters are calling for the upholding their basic rights. And similar to 2009, what started with a focus on a specific issue, has transformed into a bigger set of grievances with the regime.

One of our primary focuses is to make sure that the regime does not resort to violence. That is something we are working hard to prevent.

Both Iran’s supreme leader and the foreign minister are pointing fingers at “enemies” and “infiltrators” fomenting instability. What do you say in response?

Mr Peek: That was remarkably tone-deaf on the part of Iran's supreme leader. He cited the Iraqi Baath party, which has not been a threat to Iraq for nearly two decades now. What these protests are about are the rights of the Iranian people, not some foreign fantasy of Mr Khamenei.

This is about his regime’s inability to deliver to its people their basic human rights, prospects of economic opportunity, of political freedom. They can try to explain this away all they want, but it doesn’t change the underlying reality.

Reformist groups in Iran and hardline media outlets have also accused the US of fuelling these protests, in part because of an over-enthusiastic response by the Trump administration. Do you fear that you are playing into those hands? 

Mr Peek: We absolutely reject the idea that the best thing to do when people are trying to protest peacefully is to have violence committed upon them. We absolutely reject the idea that the most supportive thing for people protesting is to do nothing when these protesters' rights are being trampled.

That is why we are working to deter violence on behalf of the regime against the peaceful protesters, and to take other measures such as rousing international support to try to prevent a brutal crackdown by the regime.

Because of Iranian history, there will always be an opportunity for somebody to paint a conspiracy and cry out ‘foreign meddling’. And any time an autocratic government cracks down on its people, there will always be a decision about whether you say something and feed into the hardliners’ narrative about foreign interference, or do nothing and allow them to crack down.

One of the lessons we took from the ‘70s and ‘80s and the communist world, is that it is powerful when you speak up on behalf of those people, it makes them less anonymous. It makes the disparate balance of power between the regime and the average Iranian in Mashhad a little less unbalanced.

But if we look at the previous administration, former president Barack Obama was the first to speak up against Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad, and called on him to step down in August 2011 and here we are today. What is different with Iran and how far are you willing to go in supporting protesters? Are we talking pressure on regime, covert support?

Mr Peek: The difference here [with Mr Obama on Syria] is we are calling for the rights of the people to be respected. We are not talking about anything else. What we would like to see above all is the regime change its behaviour in a whole lot of ways but in particular towards the protesters.

So we are not talking about regime change [in Iran]?

Mr Peek: No.

Are you seeking sanctions on Iran, and what is the latest on your consultations with the Europeans?

Mr Peek: We are still working out the modalities on how exactly we can prevent violence against the peaceful protesters.

As I mentioned previously that may include sanctions and it may include other methods. But we are still on the operational level, and working that out. It will be one of our main efforts.

Are you at all concerned that by upping pressure on the Iranian regime, Tehran may retaliate by targeting US interests in the Middle East, be it diplomatic or military presence in places such as Iraq and Syria?

Mr Peek: The safety of the American people, personnel and military is always a concern of ours. But we will continue to focus on encouraging basic human rights, that is one of our national security interests.

But Iran has targeted the US naval presence and US military in Iraq in the past. Are you prepared for such scenarios if they were to happen?

Mr Peek: We certainly hope the regime doesn't fob off its interior difficulties by trying to strike at the external world. Iran's problems here are internal, not external.

What are you hearing from your consultations with Europeans or Arab partners? They have been quieter publicly on this. 

Mr Peek: I don't think that is necessarily true. UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson had a readout last night, the German foreign minister and the Italians put out a statement. We all share a common interest, in discouraging the use of violence against protesters.

What would the ideal end goal  in Iran look like for the US from these protests?

Mr Peek: We would like to see a change in behaviour from the Iranian regime, in a lot of different areas - not least of which is human rights.