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Why a US policy of fomenting regime change in Iran is a bad idea

A couple of think tank hawks are bummed that regime change isn’t cool anymore.

In a recent Washington Post column, Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh made an impassioned case for seeking regime change in Iran while bemoaning the supposed risk they run of being “scorned as a warmonger, a fomenter of chaos.” The tone of their article is best captured in its final two sentences, “Seeking regime change isn’t rude. It is pragmatic, cost-sensitive, humane and — in the best sense of the word — liberal.” Unfortunately, these claims do not withstand even a cursory examination of the facts.

Let’s focus on pragmatism. To be pragmatic, regime change in Iran would represent an effective, low-risk avenue to achieving strategic American objectives. To clarify, the United States has consistently sought stability in the region as a key strategic objective. The U.S. has also directly carried out or supported the military overthrow of no fewer than four governments in the Middle East and North Africa region in the past 20 years, presumably in furtherance of its strategic objectives. Unfortunately, the resulting instability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria is plain for all to see. It is harder to see how efforts at regime change have contributed to the U.S. objective of regional stability in any of these cases, two of which border Iran and another of which is Iran’s closest ally and the host of great power proxy warfare.

Regime change has a long track record of costly failures as a U.S. policy, which is evident from the outcomes of its most prominent examples. In Iraq, Libya, and Guatemala, the U.S. successfully changed the regime, but each country destabilized and erupted into civil war. In Chile, the U.S. facilitated regime change, at the expense of destroying Chilean democracy for 17 years, which returned despite U.S. intervention not because of it.

In North Korea and Cuba we have pursued decades-long pressure campaigns similar to what Gerecht and Takeyh propose. These policies have not only failed to change those regimes but they have resulted in the world’s newest nuclear power. The historical record demonstrates that U.S. policies of regime change have been ineffective at best, and tend to foment disaster in the long term.

Gerecht and Takeyh’s proposed strategy of “relentless pressure that with time cracks the regime” sounds like a perfectly benign policy by their description. In reality, it is a policy designed to be highly destabilizing. By “relentless pressure,” they effectively mean that the U.S. should do its best to help compliment the misrule of the Iranian regime with persistent, crippling sanctions and military threats.

In spite of rhetorical gymnastics, their theory of change is that the immiseration of the Iranian population will eventually lead to the overthrow of the Supreme Leader. Regime change in Iran would be massively de-stabilizing (remember, that’s the opposite of what we want). Obviously, the process of popular revolt is terribly unpredictable and predictably terrible, regardless of outcome.

To illustrate the point, let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine that the United States somehow fell under the control of an authoritarian theocratic regime, and people across the country came out to protest in support of the restoration of democratic, constitutional government. The authorities might well deploy the police and even the military to repress the protesters. In this scenario, credible claims that the protestors were backed by the Iranian government would certainly only provide the regime with a “national security” justification for an even more severe crackdown on pro-democracy protests. This is essentially what has happened in Iran.

The kind of civil unrest that the U.S. is currently experiencing in cities across the country is a mere shadow of the kind of disruption and destruction that the sudden collapse of the regime would bring about in Iran. The most likely result would be that the country would descend into internecine warfare, causing huge levels of civilian suffering. Turning Iran into a failed state would be neither cost-effective nor humane, and a more liberal democratic outcome would be far from certain.

Most ironically, the authors neglect to mention that the Islamic Republic is itself a consequence of a U.S. regime change operation. Iranian anti-Americanism is not rooted in hatred for our liberalism so much as it is rooted in American involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953 and replacing it with an autocracy drenched in the blood of its people while America looked the other way. The policy of regime change created the Islamic Republic, and persistent pressure to crack the regime has been a mainstay of the so-called “Blob” for the past 40 years.

Rather than cowing Iran or aiding reformers, past American efforts to undermine the regime have actually helped sustain Iranian hardliners by making the population more dependent on it for protection and economic necessities. This is illustrated by the Trump administration’s foolhardy “maximum pressure” campaign, which has brought the U.S. to the brink of all-out war with Iran, twice.

Furthermore, the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 willfully undercut the incentives for Iran to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, while efforts to compel Iran to cease its support for regional proxies and allies have predictably failed. Starting negotiations with an overt promise to bring about the destruction of the opposing side provides a poor foundation for diplomacy, even coercive diplomacy. The all or nothing strategy espoused by advocates of regime change gives Iran no incentive to moderate its actions and every incentive to continue to pursue destabilization.

Regime change as U.S. policy toward Iran has not actually been taboo, but it should be. Perhaps we should consider how Iranian democracy might evolve with a little less “help” from U.S. sanctions and threats.