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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With the disqualification of liberal-minded candidates from Iran’s 2004 parliamentary elections, the country’s reform movement has effectively been sidelined as a significant actor in formulating domestic or international policy. Reformist leaders were largely unwilling to challenge the basic parameters of Islamic politics and their organization, which includes nascent political parties such as the Islamic Iran Participation Front, proved unable to mount an effective bid for change. As a result, the reform movement’s central strategy—gradual change brought about from within the existing governing system—has been discredited by Iranian citizens as a viable pathway to reform. As a June 2004 report by Human Rights Watch details, Iran’s conservative forces quashed efforts to promote peaceful political change with a deft strategy of silencing public debate and eliminating potential opposition leaders.
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The reason a policy advocating regime change is a bad idea, given its potential benefits, is the fact that such a policy is beyond America's means. While the United States certainly possesses the capability to eliminate the regime in Tehran, as the invasion of Iraq has shown, eliminating the present leadership is the easy part of regime change. The more difficult and costly challenge is installing a new government. With America's resources already overly committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, taking on a new nation-building mission in a country far larger and in some ways far more nationalistic than Iraq would be the epitome of strategic overreach.
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The potency of the regime-change argument declines with each day of additional trouble in Iraq. If Iraq is what happens when the U.S. forces regime change, then the U.S. should get a different strategy, in the view of most Washington observers today. Still, it is worthwhile to highlight some general problems with this approach. Peaceful regime change cannot be relied upon to produce new leaders quickly enough to turn off nuclear weapons acquisition programs. Generally, it takes countries less time to acquire the capabilities to build nuclear weapons than to reform governments and implement genuine democracy. In Iran, for example, even democrats do not foresee major political reform happening this decade. But Iran is highly likely to master the uranium enrichment process in this time if its current government is not induced to change course.
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The proliferation consequences of Iranian fuel-cycle capability would not necessarily be contained by regime change. Even if the U.S. and other outside actors could speed the fall of the clerical government in Iran (highly unlikely), and a benign government respectful of human rights replaced it (unknowable), the new government could insist on retaining an indigenous fuel-cycle program. Iran's neighbors, particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, would evaluate the Iranian nation's capabilities more than a new regime's intentions. Regimes come and go, but nuclear capabilities tend to persist - this is not to deny that containing further proliferation would be easier with a less militant Iranian government.
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Eliminating non-democratic regimes can create its own great dangers. Iraq is the most recent example, and the only case where regime change was executed explicitly as a nonproliferation measure. Jack Snyder and Edward D. Mansfield have documented that governmental transitions often lead to military conflict. Toppling the government of Iran would unleash intelligence services, basij morality enforcers, Revolutionary Guards, and the violent Mujahedin-i- Khalq underground opposition into bloody conflict offering no confidence that peaceful liberal elements of Iranian society would prevail.
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In theory, another military option exists: not drawing the line at an operation against nuclear sites in Iran, but carrying out a broad land-based assault aimed at overthrowing the Islamic regime in Tehran, as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel certainly does not have this option, even in theory; in practice, however, the US does not have it either. Iran's physical expanse, its terrain, and the size of its population and army make a military campaign to conquer the power centers in Iran far more complex and difficult than in Iraq and Afghanistan. After becoming entangled in Iraq, it is doubtful the US administration would embark on a similar operation in Iran. At the same time, if the administration decides on a military strike against nuclear sites in Iran, it cannot be ruled out that in addition to nuclear targets, it will hit other strategic sites. This option is also restricted to the US; it is difficult to believe that Israel would be willing or able to use it on any measurable scale.
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Political Change: Roll back may come about as a result of a change in policy by the country's leadership, a change of governments, or as a result of regime change. It is possible that the current government in Tehran might abandon its nuclear ambitions in response to foreign pressure; indeed, some claim that the October 21st Agreement signals just such a change in course. Others, however, believe that this was a tactical move reminiscent of dramatic policy reversals by other regional leaders forced to bend by external pressures (e.g., Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, Yassir Arafat after the 1991 Gulf War), that were undone once circumstances changed or external pressures abated. It remains to be seen whether Iran's current leadership will go beyond the October 21st Agreement. Initial signs are not very promising. Fundamental political change in Tehran may be a necessary condition for nuclear roll back in Iran. Such change seems inevitable, given that the overwhelming majority of Iranian youth are alienated from the political system, want change, and will someday likely be in a position to achieve it. It is not clear, however, that political change would be sufficient for roll back. To the degree that it is possible to assess elite and popular opinion in Iran on such matters, support for the country's nuclear program appears to come from across the political spectrum, and a new government or regime might remain wedded to the pursuit of 'the bomb.'
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The United States has fitfully tried to support regime change in Iran, both through rhetoric and at times by supporting an array of opposition groups with relatively limited funding. Such efforts have met with no progress. The Iranian regime is well-entrenched, and its security services have penetrated various opposition movements over the years with considerable success. The most effective sources of opposition to the Iranian regime are indigenous and largely have worked within the system without U.S. support. Even more important, the Iranian people are highly nationalistic. Though there is considerable dissatisfaction with the clerical regime, Iranians are exceptionally sensitive to perceived outside manipulation, and open U.S. backing of oppositionists could easily discredit the very forces we seek to help.Regime change attempts, however, do affect the perceptions of Iranian leaders, both pragmatists and ideologues. Although the money spent is often paltry, it reinforces a sense that the United States is bent on destroying the Islamic Republic and gives ammunition to radicals when they seek to discredit voices that favor greater cooperation with the United States.
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Aggressive democracy promotion undermines the great power cooperation on which nonproliferation success ultimately depends. Any strategy to persuade or coerce a country to reverse a program that has neared the capability to build nuclear weapons requires the full support of all the major powers. The best way to achieve international unity is through the United Nations Security Council. Security Council resolutions made under Chapter VII are mandatory for all states to uphold. But Russia and China hold veto power in the UN Security Council, and they will most likely refuse to support sanctions that would be needed to coerce Iran or other countries to give up nuclear activities so long as they believe that the deeper aim of the United States (and the West) is regime change.
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Beyond Khamenei, any overtures toward Iran will have to contend with the outsized personality and ambitions of President Ahmadinejad. Despite his manifest difficulties with both Iran's political elites as well as its population, it would be a mistake to presume that the era of Ahmadinejad is inherently on the wane. Ahmadinejad will not go quietly from the center stage of Iranian political life. There is no precedent for an Iranian president declining to run for reelection or being defeated at the polls, and given Khamenei's generous support to date, he will likely support his radical protégé unless he sees a grave risk to the Islamic Republic. As Iran approaches presidential elections in mid-2009, the president benefits from the authority to stack the deck in his own favor, as well as from his patrons in the hard-line clergy, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Supreme Leader's office. His proclivity for intervening wantonly in the country's management and distributing oil largesse as widely as possible has done tremendous damage to Iran's economy; however, he has also cultivated a potentially crucial base of support in the Iranian provinces, where voting rates tend to be much higher than in urban areas. New American diplomacy toward Iran must find a way to co-opt Ahmadinejad, unlikely to prove an easy task for a president who has surrounded himself with devoted, like-minded advisors who have little international experience, or circumvent him. Moreover, even if Ahmadinejad somehow passes from the scene, there is every reason to believe that the legacy of his ideological fervor and the constituency whose worldview he has represented – "neoconservatives" or second and third generation ideologues – will continue to shape the options available to any future Iranian leader.
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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