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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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.
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Third, would regime change in Iran alter its nuclear ambitions? Regime change could occur through the death or replacement of the Supreme Leader by a successor with less control over the IRGC or with a more pronounced taste for nuclear weapons, or election of reformminded leadership. In either case, however, most regional specialists anticipate no significant change in further development of nuclear weapons technology or compliance with the NPT and other international nonproliferation agreements.Support for the acquisition of advanced nuclear technology crosses ideological and factional lines. Iran scholars question whether Khamenei or his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini approved Iran's possession and use of other weapons of mass destruction (chemical). They are uncertain, too, whether Khamenei has issued a fatwa sanctioning nuclear weapons or simply said they were un-Islamic.10 Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran Few believe that a more reformist-minded government would deny its right to take any measure it deemed necessary for national security. More broadly, press commentaries suggest Iranians increasingly resent foreign efforts to shape their policies on nuclear energy or deny them what is seen as a natural and national right. Considerations of regional prestige would also weigh upon the choices of any future government. If Iran were to step publicly over the nuclear threshold, it would trumpet its interest in sharing its new knowledge and technical advances with other Muslim countries. Even now, Iranian leaders speak publicly about sharing their technology and bringing the benefits of nuclearization to those less fortunate. Except for Israel, few foreign observers believe this means sharing nuclear weapons or other WMD assets with terrorist groups.
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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.
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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