Regime change is not a viable option to resolve Iranian nuclear crisis
Beyond the sheer challenge of trying to attempt regime change in Iran on a military and logistic level, there is the very real possibility that whatever regime taks the place of the one the U.S. topples will continue the nuclear weapons program for the very same reasons the current one is.
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The international community would be unwise to base its policy toward Iran on the assumption that the Islamic Republic will fall soon. For better or worse, the international community will have to deal with the current Iranian government as long as it is in power. But recognizing the necessity of dealing with the current government does not mean that the international community should take steps that might prolong the life of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps the following is the best way to think about the dilemma: 'Two clocks are ticking in Iran: the nuclear clock and the democracy clock. The strategic objective of western policy must be to slow down the nuclear clock and speed up the democracy clock. Our problem is that some of the things we might do to slow down the nuclear clock are likely to slow down the democracy clock as well.'
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On the surface, Iran seems to be a good candidate for revolutionaryagitation, thanks to its disproportionately young population; restiveethnic minorities; an inefficient, distorted economy; and a regime miredin an obsolescent ideology, riven by factional feuds, and reliant onrepression. But the Iranian regime retains enormous capacity for controlover society and appears to be firmly entrenched in power for theforeseeable future. Despite long-term and widespread publicdissatisfaction, the persistence of the Islamic Republic over threedecades of considerable internal and external pressures should leave fewillusions about its staying power. The Islamic Republic is unpopular athome, but revolutionary change remains unlikely.
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SAGAN: Official U.S. policy of regime change, potentially by force, is incompatible with our nuclear non-proliferation policy. This policy encourages the Iranians to believe that nuclear weaponry is the one thing they're going to need in the medium term. We need to reduce Iranian fear of the United States by taking regime change by force off the table: The U.S. should also promise, in an international context, not to use nuclear weapons against states that have not developed nuclear weapons.We have an opportunity today to recognize that there are different forces in Iran who have different views on its nuclear program. Some want to move quickly, others want to have options in the future, and still others are willing to take economic benefits and potential military security guarantees in exchange for constraining their uranium enrichment program. And yet the United States doesn't know who's who, because we won't talk to them. We should start these negotiations as quickly as possible.
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Whatever the expectations might be, the prospects for political change in Iran are slim: civil society faces increasing governmental repression, while religious conservatives tighten their grip on power, pushing aside both veterans who helped found the Islamic regime thirty years ago and reform-minded politicians accused of being disloyal to the revolution. The results of Iran's March 2008 elections confirmed the conservative consolidation of power; the relationship between the Supreme Leader and the president may be more intimate than most observers believe; and the growing power of the military and paramilitary forces since 2005 does not provide grounds for optimism. The Iranian economy is essentially driven by the price of oil while basic investments are not made; although criticism of economic management is widespread in Iran from both hardline and pragmatic conservatives, it has produced little change so far (however, the current sharp decline in oil prices would allow additional international pressure to work, since the only legitimacy of the regime since 2005 is the improvement of the economy). Finally, it may be worth recalling that even the reputedly less difficult interlocutors—the so-called pragmatists, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani—would still adopt an uncompromising policy on the nuclear program.
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In an insightful analysis of political discontent in Iran as reflected in nonparticipation in elections and the deliberate casting of "spoiled" ballots, Abbas William Samii concludes that effecting fundamental changes in the political order of the Islamic Republic "could take a generation and is by no means guaranteed." Writing a year before Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, Samii notes that "the generation of revolutionaries who opposed the monarchy is getting older and dying out, and some two-thirds of the population is under thirty. Presumably, these youngsters with no experience of the revolution will bring about permanent reforms to the system once—and if—they become politically active and involved. Yet there is a generation between these two, and it includes young conservatives in their forties with common experiences forged during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War. Just as the revolutionary clerics had networks based on their affiliations to different theological institutions, this generation has networks based on affiliation with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Basij, and the regular armed forces."
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Press for political change in Iran. This is an excellent idea that lacks concrete content and strategy. It sounds nice to recommend a policy slowly compelling the leadership "to transcend the ideological gaps that have alienated it from large sections of its population." The problem is simply how to achieve this result. Experienced Iranians recognize that they frequently do not understand themselves how the political power works in their own country. So how could we? As a matter of fact, external pressure on Iran has been very limited. For instance, in 2004 and 2005, the policy vis-à-vis Iran was one of great caution, in order not to allow the conservatives to use external pressure in the presidential electoral campaign. And the result was … Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ultraconservative. Th is should not prevent efforts to address Iranian civil society, which remains the first victim of the repressive and ineffective policy conducted by Tehran: if Iran suffers while its neighbors benefit from peaceful nuclear cooperation, the regime should be increasingly hard-pressed to explain why. Three decades after the Islamic revolution, economic challenges may lead Iran to seek practical solutions, abandon ideology, and meet the most important expectations of its population: containing inflation and developing employment. But can these goals be attained before the bomb is built? Who would be ready to bet on that?
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Finally, there is reason to worry even if, against all evidence, Kristol and Gerecht turned out to be correct. Many of the leading proponents of 'limited' military strikes against Iran's nuclear program have regime change very much in mind as the ultimate strategy for Iran. As Gerecht has written forcefully, 'In the end, only democracy in Iran will finally solve the nuclear and terrorist problems. Ditto for the rest of the Middle East.' By this logic, an escalation from limited strikes to forcible regime change in Iran could be a blessing in disguise. What if the Iranian people did decide to overthrow their government under bombardment from the United States? What would Iran's 70 million people do then? Our strategy of 'creative destruction,' in Michael Ledeen's apt phrasing, has led to much destruction and little creation in Iraq. Who would take power in Iran? Would the deep ethnic and sectarian fissures that are touted as such a source of weakness for the Iranian regime bubble up to the surface and create a low-level civil war as they have in Iraq? What would be the medium- and long-term strategic implications? The prospect of targeted air strikes eventually escalating to regime change raises a whole host of questions about the postwar environment, and these questions have not been addressed by war proponents. Similar questions either were not asked or were answered with propaganda and wishful thinking before the Iraq war, and America is still paying the price. We should not repeat the same process with respect to Iran.
Yet if history gives cause for optimism regarding the opposition’s prospects for success, it also gives cause for caution. Their primary goals achieved, the coalitions leading the past century’s three reform movements quickly crumbled, riven by conflicting objectives and ideologies. After the Constitutionalists ousted the shah’s prime minister and convened a parliament, they quickly found themselves pitted against clergy advocating an Islamic state. By 1911, Russian troops had shelled and disbanded the parliament, leading clerics had been executed, and Iran was controlled by the Russians in the north and the British in the south. Two years after coming to power, the coalition led by the National Front was similarly fractured, and communist partisans were the strongest force in the streets. A U.S.- and British-organized coup soon ousted Mossadeq. And finally, in the months after the Islamic republic was established, Khomeini’s Iran plunged into bloody violence between competing factions. The regime likely only survived due to the unifying effect of the war with Iraq in 1980.
The international community should not worry that the Green Movement is doomed, but it should harbor no illusions that its success would inevitably lead to peace and democracy in the long term. Indeed, the United States and its allies should be considering not only how best to support the democratic aspirations of Iranians but also how to prepare for the real possibility of instability in Iran should the opposition prevail.
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The regime-change thesis might seem more plausible if we had not heard similar arguments in the years leading up to the Iraq war. Indeed, the argument for regime change and the strategy embodied in the Iran Freedom Support Act are eerily reminiscent of the approach adopted with respect to Iraq between 1998 and 2003. Congress also passed and funded an Iraq Liberation Act during that period. American policymakers swallowed the self-serving propaganda of Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, which said that with just modest U.S. financial and logistical support Iraqi factions opposed to Saddam Hussein would be able to overthrow his regime. It has since become apparent that the INC never had more than a meager domestic following. (Chalabi's party garnered less than 0.5 percent in the December 2005 parliamentary elections in Iraq.) There are manipulative (and in some cases utterly unsavory) Iranian exiles waiting in the wings to pull the same con game on Washington. They include notorious arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, a shadowy figure in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration. Perhaps the most unsavory opposition group is the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which even the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization. The MEK , an organization founded on a combination of Islamism and Marxism, has a long history of terrorism and cult-like behavior. The MEK is the military wing of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), regarded by many neoconservatives as a key ally in the effort to overthrow the Iranian clerical regime. After moving its base of operations from France to Iraq in 1986, the MEK was reportedly funded by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and sent into combat against Iran. It has also been implicated in the killing of American citizens. Currently led by a married couple, Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, the organization has increasingly become a cult of personality.
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Moreover, in the unlikely event that the United States and the Iranian exiles were able to bring a secular, democratic regime to power in Tehran, that would not necessarily mean the end of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Proponents of regime change seem to assume that Tehran’s nuclear program is the pet initiative of the Islamic elite, while most Iranians are indifferent or hostile. Regime change, according to that logic, would not only remove an odious regime, it is the ultimate solution to the nuclear problem.
That is yet another dubious assumption. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions date back to the 1970s when Iran was still ruled by the shah. The bulk of the evidence suggests that a “peaceful” nuclear program has widespread support in Iran for reasons of national pride and regional prestige. The goal of a nuclear- weapons arsenal is more controversial, but given the dangerous neighborhood in which Iran is located, support for that objective extends well beyond the mullahs and their staunch supporters. Washington could be making a serious miscalculation if it assumes that a democratic Iran would be content to remain nonnuclear.
The authors counter the current Trump administration's call for regime change in Iran by referring to the historical record to show that regime change operations rarely work out the way the instigators intended.
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"Just as they did with Saddam Hussein, concerned governments have implemented economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and low-level violence to weaken the Iranian regime and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, with the long-term objective of regime change. In Iraq, and seemingly now in Iran, diplomacy and inspections became a means to an end: building up a casus belli. The strategy failed miserably in Iraq a decade ago. It probably will in Iran, too..."
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