New Delhi: A rather serious geopolitical question has arisen that no one seems to be asking. Is it better to try to reform a purported rogue regime from within than attempt to overthrow it and not make much headway? The question acquires salience in the context of the failed coup in Venezuela and the United States’ rather unfocussed and directionless attempts to change the clerical Iran regime. This is not to speak of North Korea’s incipient return to the era of roguery demonstrated by the firing off of short-range missiles that look suspiciously long-range.

On 30 April, the US media was all agog about a Juan Guaido-led opposition coup against the Russia- and China-backed strongman, Nicolas Maduro, in Venezuela. There was breathless reporting about takeover of airfields, changed loyalties of garrisons, senior generals lining up behind Guaido, and so on, none of which were actually true. Major news outlets were accused of publicizing a fake coup initiated by Washington. That would seem an extreme denunciation but what was more likely to have happened is this. The Donald Trump White House perhaps hinted to Guaido & Co. to prepare for 30 April as the big day. The big day was never meant to be one which would put it in the realm of psychological warfare or someone in Washington got cold feet at the last minute. It could only have been President Trump.

Whether it was one or the other is ultimately unimportant because the entire episode overwhelmingly carries the odour of failure. The newspapers now say, quoting the Venezuelan opposition, that neither planning nor resources for a coup arrived from Washington. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, still holds out the possibility of a US invasion of Venezuela, but the iron may no longer be hot to strike. What’s really the problem? Trump has shown himself to be masterly in geo-economics by making the Chinese sweat for the first time since the Korean Armistice. Is he not as sound geopolitically as to make short work of Nicolas Maduro or is he unsure of managing the fallouts? Having gone against his better judgment in committing to stay on fruitlessly in Afghanistan for some more time and the Syria exit timetable not matching his own, the US president justifiably perhaps desires no American boots on the ground in Venezuela. There is no saying how it might play geopolitically and it could seriously boomerang in the run up to the presidential election putting a question mark on a second Trump term.

But the longer Venezuela festers, the more it abundantly makes clear that Donald Trump has taken on a bigger challenge in the shape of Iran than it may have appeared at first. There is an early song co-written by Kris Kristofferson and made famous by Janis Joplin with a crypto-political line that says, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” It may apply in more ways than one to the Venezuela-Iran conundrum. The more one has, the more there’s to lose. Profit and loss makes a profound impression on states. The richest state in the Venezuela-Iran-US tangle is the United States. Although it is also the most powerful of the three, it has the most to lose if the toll takes the form of body bags and a lost face. The loss is not absolute by any means. Venezuela and Iran have also sovereignties they pride and their loss or impairment would hurt them. But relative to the United States, their loss would count as less save the bloodshed on which no price may be set. It is this relative difference in costs which has likely stilled the US hand in both Venezuela and Iran.

In Iran, an absent US roadmap for regime change is even more glaringly evident than in Venezuela. US sanctions have had the predictable effects in Iran as in Venezuela. The economy has collapsed, inflation has run amok, food shortages can no longer be concealed, and medicines and other emergency needs have dried up. The population has turned critical of the clergy and especially its hard-line leader, Ayatollah Khameini, who may be suffering from cancer. Objectively speaking, however, has the United States moved closer to its target of regime change? What sort of regime change does it aspire for? Merely a replacement of Khameini by a moderate chosen by Ali al-Sistani of Iraq in whose favour the balance of power has now shifted or a comprehensive secular transformation? Even having occupied Afghanistan and Iraq for years, the United States has been unable to bring peace to these states. What chance does it have with a state which is the home of Shia Islam and built on an epic Persian civilization? Is regime change even conceivable in Iran in the short span of a presidential term?

As in Venezuela, a lot of hocus-pocus is being generated in and around Iran. It is by far deadlier in Iran than in Venezuela with US naval and air power deployments including nuclear bombers but Iran is not insane to provoke a war just yet. If war, however, should break out, Iran will not only put up a more spirited fight than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did, it would also definitely provoke an extensive Shia-Sunni conflict throughout the Middle East which will consume the region and the peripheries and prove disastrous for the United States. President Trump has exhibited reservation about military intervention in Venezuela and it would be still more prudent on his part to pull back from war in the Persian Gulf which can have no winners.

Barack Obama applied his mind when he sought to reform Iran from within with the nuclear deal. Trump’s ego would prevent a return to the deal but the present course either leads the United States nowhere or to peril. The exercise of geo-economic options though harsh and painful does not usually result in bloodshed. Geopolitics, however, is often sanguinary in its execution and quite removed from the “art of the deal”. Venezuela and most definitely Iran could sink Donald Trump. When Dwight D. Eisenhower had the liberal prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, overthrown in 1953, he simply couldn’t have known how deeply and perpetually he was wounding the United States itself.