In a new Foreign Affairs article this week, Eric Edelman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh argue that the United States should be using every tool of statecraft at its disposal to aid dissidents in Iran to overthrow the regime.
They bluntly state that, with Iran, the “only U.S. policy that makes sense is to seek regime change.” They contend that the Iranian regime is inherently revolutionary, and as such, American interests in the Middle East can only be secure once the regime is deposed.
To carry out regime change in Iran, the authors contend that covertly supporting dissident movements, engaging in public diplomacy campaigns, and continuing the use of sanctions and other tools of statecraft to put maximum pressure on the regime is necessary. In so doing, they contend that the U.S. can aid local dissidents and protestors to overthrow the theocracy in Tehran, and the U.S. can begin reaping the benefits of negotiating with a less revolutionary regime.
There are a host of issues with this argument that the U.S. has implicit interests in engaging in regime change in Iran. Chief among these problems is the belief that the regime change strategy proffered “will not be terribly costly.”
Even if the diagnosis of a weak, revolutionary theocracy in Iran is correct, the costs of engaging in regime change cannot be minimized. Attempting regime change in Tehran would harm not only average Iranian citizens and future relations between Iran and the U.S., but also the utility of various tools of American foreign policy in future contexts.
Research has shown that regime change fails to succeed in its objectives, increases domestic unrest and instability, and harms the effectiveness of various tools of American foreign policy when they become seen as agents of regime change. In the end, the pursuit of regime change in Iran would only most likely harm the dissident movements and domestic population the authors seek to support more than the Iranian regime they distrust.
Rather than producing a stable Iran cheaply, the academic research on regime change is clear that any form of regime change is unlikely to produce the effects the authors predict. Regime change is unlikely to produce greater democracy, greater stability in the region, nor is an imposed government more likely to be amenable to American interests.
Even more, predictions that the U.S. can achieve regime change quickly and cheaply, as the authors suggest, overlook the most likely costs that go along with regime change missions. Since the nineteenth century, regime change has been associated with a higher likelihood of civil war and instability after state institutions are weakened during the regime change mission.
Accordingly, the level of government repression and human rights violations carried out as the government tries to gain more control following the regime change mission has also been shown to increase. It is indeed this kind of instability that comes from regime change that proponents often overlook and leads to stumbling into a lengthy military intervention to prop up the new government to overcome the instability created. Thus, rather than being a cheap policy tool, regime change is more likely to spiral into higher costs for both American taxpayers and, more importantly, average Iranian citizens.
However, the cost regime change proponents most often omit in these discussions is that using covert support for dissident movements, democracy promotion funding, civil society support programs, economic sanctions, and more as regime change tools only harms future effectiveness of these options. Rather than using them to support greater democracy, humanitarian missions, or enhance American security interests, they mostly become seen as de facto trojan horses for regime change.
Indeed, there have already been multiple foreign regimes that have thrown out democracy promotion organizations engaging in civil society support from their countries because of fears surrounding regime change motives. Others have targeted civil society groups for repression or harassment when there is a vague link to American funding, claiming that the U.S. is using the civil society group to support their regime change policy. Thus, the use of regime change and continued pursuit of aiding groups to overthrow the regime in Tehran will make it more costly for American democracy assistance and civil society support to be effective in broader contexts.
Further, the continued calls for regime change encourages a view of the U.S. foreign policy as only interested in regime change. When the U.S. then tries to engage Iran or other states on different issues, whether they are nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, or other critical areas of interests, rather than reaching agreements on areas of shared interest, foreign regimes instead will view possible policy agreements through fears of American regime change intent.
The perception of the U.S. as singularly interested in regime change then encourages the regime to act more aggressively both domestically and internationally to secure itself against American regime change goals. This only serves to harm domestic activists and democracy builders, many of whom have no links with the U.S., and leads to greater government repression in an effort to preserve regime security. In other words, regime change advocates often overlook the long shadow that pursuing regime change in Iran and elsewhere can have on future tools of American statecraft and perceptions of American behavior.
Thus, while Iran still poses policy challenges for American interests, seeking regime change in Iran only exacerbates these challenges and harms the local dissidents whom regime change proponents claim they support.
Instead of working to improve American security and fostering stability, pursuing regime change through a maximum pressure campaign will instead only make confrontation and escalation more likely, while also being more likely to harm the local population rather than the regime itself.
A more restrained Iran policy focused on diplomatic engagement and the external behavior of Iran, and not on the makeup of the Iranian regime, would be the best way to enhance American security while also ensuring all tools of American statecraft are not simply seen as part of regime change efforts in the future.