Is the Obama administration hoping for regime change in Iran?

All the chatter online is about the Cheney-Biden Sunday talkshow dustup, which was heavy on drama and light on news.

But the real story today is what the U.S. national security advisor, Gen.  James L. Jones, said:

“We are about to add to that regime’s difficulties, by engineering, participating in very tough sanctions,” Jones said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” Combined with internal dissent, the sanctions “could trigger regime change,” he said.

First, let's get one thing straight: There will be no tough sanctions. As FP's Colum Lynch has reported, China doesn't even have a go-to Iran hand right now, and has shown little interest in damaging relations with a country that supplies 11 percent of its oil imports. Beijing will see to it that whatever sanctions do pass the U.N. Security Council are toothless, as the Chinese have done on all previous occasions. They'll give just enough to allow the Obama administration to say it passed something, while wringing concessions out of Washington that we may never know about.

Second, whatever fresh U.N. sanctions do pass will not "trigger regime change," and I hope the White House doesn't really believe that. Yes, Iran's economy has real problems, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being criticized for them. There's a danger, though, that new sanctions will only allow him to blame his screwups on the West without forcing his government to cry uncle on the nuclear issue. After all, we're talking about a regime whose founding ideology is built on isolation in the world and standing up to the "global arrogance." Sanctions, for Iran's hard-line leaders, are the diplomatic equivalent of throwing Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch.

The most optimistic scenario that I can come up with, realistically speaking, is that there's going to be a lot going on behind the scenes -- the kind of economic warfare waged by the Treasury Department's Stuart Levey, for instance, will scare off a good number of potential investors in Iran's overt economy. Some European countries, like France, will do their part. And meanwhile, continued sabotage operations (much of it through doing things like setting up dummy companies to sell Iran faulty nuclear-related equipment) will keep Iran's scientists from making any major breakthroughs. Hopefully, oil prices won't climb too high and over time the opposition will be able to build in strength. But regime change is a long-term hope, not a plan.

UPDATE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's rhetoric has shifted, too. Speaking in Doha, Qatar, she said Iran is "moving towards a military dictatorship" as the Revolutionary Guards assume ever more power. She's right, by the way. But I don't think sanctions will work, and Clinton is about to get an earful from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah about the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Stay tuned.


Israel-Palestine: nothing works

For all the grief I gave Andrew Sullivan the other day, I have to admit: He's the unquestioned master of his medium. In the days since Leon Wieseltier's hit piece, Sully has curated a wide-ranging debate about himself and the thorny subject of Israel, and it's made for pretty good reading.

Still, some nuance would be helpful. Here, for instance, is a point I partly agree with:

I believe, after the last year, that it is in the interests of the United States to use serious leverage to get Israel to get serious about ending settlement construction permanently and beginning the dismantling and removal of these impediments to any serious progress in the region.

The settlements are a real problem. But I have grave doubts, especially after what has transpired in 2009, that allowing them to become the focus of negotiations is helpful. Instead of backing Benjamin Netanyahu into a corner and making Israelis fear for the future of their alliance with the United States, the issue got his hackles up and let his allies paint Obama as pro-Arab to an already suspicious Israeli public. And instead of buying goodwill from the Palestinians, it made them grow intransigent in the hopes of pocketing a more substantial settlement freeze. A lot has changed since the 1990s, notably the Israeli public's lurch rightward and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Our analysis of the situation needs to change, too. (One thing that hasn't changed: AIPAC still gets what it wants in Congress.)

Maybe, as some have suggested, it would be better to forget about a lasting peace for now and go for a  cease-fire in the hopes that moderates on both sides would gain strength over time. Another approach might be to focus on improving the lives of Palestinians and avoid the kind of high-stakes diplomacy that has tripped up all efforts to date. Maybe.

Here's the thing about Israeli-Palestinian peace, though: Nothing works. We can try to draw lessons from past agreements, like the 1978 Egypt-Israel accords at Camp David, the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace deal, or the various interim agreements between Israel and the Palestinians that ultimately led nowhere in the 1990s. But none of them prove anything about a final-status deal over the West Bank and Gaza. For Israelis and Palestinians, things that sound stupid to most of us -- like fighting over flower pots and patches of infertile desert -- are a matter of life and death. All this makes the ins and outs of this conflict endlessly debateable, but also maddeningly difficult to solve.