Regime Change Is Wrong

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Eric Edeleman and Ray Takeyh dispense with the usual hawkish smokescreens and evasions and call for regime change in Iran:

“Regime change” is a toxic phrase in Washington. It conjures up images of the Iraq war, with the United States trapped in a quagmire of its own making. That is why those who favor a coercive U.S. approach to Iran are routinely charged with secretly supporting regime change. In response, the accused almost always deny it. They don’t want regime change, they insist: they just want the Islamic Republic’s theocrats to change their behavior.

But no such transformation will ever take place, because the Iranian regime remains a revolutionary movement that will never accommodate the United States. That is why regime change is not a radical or reckless idea but the most pragmatic and effective goal for US policy toward Iran – indeed, it is the only objective that has any chance of meaningfully reducing the Iranian threat.

Edelman and Takeyh are as wrong as can be, but their article does have the virtue of being a straightforward case for this terrible idea. There is no need to tease out the implications of their position to figure out that they want to destabilize the region and cause more massive upheaval, because they tell us this right from the start. At the very least, it saves us some time.

Regime change is a toxic phrase in that few people want to describe their regime change policies that way, but it is evidently not yet a toxic idea if it can still be openly promoted in the flagship publication of the Council on Foreign Relations. The phrase is closely associated with the Iraq war, but it can describe other kinds of destructive interventions in the affairs of other nations. U.S.-backed coups are examples of regime change, and they are horrible and dangerous without needing an American invasion. Intervention in Libya was another regime change war that threw the country into chaos that it still has not recovered from, but there was no quagmire for the US That will be small consolation for the thousands who have perished in the ensuing power struggles. The US helped to fuel the war in Syria with another attempt at regime change. That one failed, but the attempt still contributed to greater loss of life. The record of U.S.-sponsored regime change is bloody and ugly, and it is has reliably made things worse in the countries that suffer from it. That is the future that advocates of regime change propose for Iran: violence, devastation, and displacement.

Iranians understandably don’t want their country to be turned into the next Syria or Libya, so pushing for regime change in their country has nothing to do with what the Iranian people want or need. The “Iranian threat” is a comically exaggerated one since Iran lacks the capabilities to threaten the United States and our treaty allies, so this also has nothing to do with making the US more secure. Regime changers want to bring down the Iranian government because its existence offends against US hegemony and because regime change suits the interests of US clients in the region. Neither of these is a good reason for destabilizing a country of more than eighty million people. Then again, there is no good reason to do that, because doing that is deeply wrong. Regime change is wrong, and those that advocate for it are advocating for wrongdoing.

It is very unlikely that the US can bring about regime change in Iran short of an invasion, but it would be a terrible idea even if it could. Look around the region, and you will see that the countries that have suffered regime change or attempted regime change are among the most miserable in the world. Regime collapse leaves the population at the mercy of armed gangs, and the fight over who replaces the old regime condemns the people to years of living in hell. This does not make the surrounding countries any safer, because they are then forced to deal with the influx of refugees, the proliferation of weapons to extremists, and increased insecurity along their own borders. Instability in a neighboring country also invites some states to fish in troubled waters by backing this faction or that in order to carve out spheres of influence. A destabilized, chaotic Iran would give all of the worst governments in the region opportunities to make mischief. All of this would expose US forces in the region to more dangers. Depending on what replaced the old regime, it might very well create a state that is more aggressively hostile to the US than the current one. That is made more likely if the US was the one responsible for triggering the chaos in the first place.

If Edelman and Takeyh’s prescription of regime change is terrible, their diagnosis of Iran is also badly flawed. They recycle a very dated, ideological interpretation of the Iranian government that hasn’t been accurate in decades. They continue to insist that it is committed to “a revolution without borders” when it has long since settled into being a reactive and opportunistic actor interested primarily in regime preservation and Iranian security. The way that they describe Iran today is like describing the Soviet Union in the 1970s as if Trotsky were still in charge of the Red Army. No doubt Edelman and Takeyh would have denounced détente, too, and they would have made similarly hard-line arguments against it, because they cannot accept the possibility that the revolutionary bogeyman they have been railing against throughout their careers is not what it used to be.

When Edelman and Takeyh talk about promoting regime change, they mostly mean covertly compromising members of Iranian civil society and labor unions:

Adopting the goal of regime change will not be terribly costly, but it will require a stepped-up program of covert action to aid those elements within Iranian civil society that are contesting the regime’s legitimacy. Chief among those are professional syndicates, such as labor unions and teachers’ unions, which have gone on strike to protest government policies and actions, and student groups, which have organized protests on college campuses.

Few things could be worse for genuine Iranian dissidents than to be associated with US covert operations, and the “aid” that they propose to give these groups amounts to a death sentence. The best thing that the US could do to help Iranian civil society is to stop strangling their economy and stop making the lives of ordinary Iranians miserable, and after that it should stop trying to “help” at all. Iran hawks still can’t or won’t acknowledge that most Iranians view our government very unfavorably, and they resent our constant attempts to interfere in their country. As much as many Iranians dislike their government and wish to see significant political change, there is no desire for U.S.-sponsored for regime change. If regime change “must be undertaken by the Iranians themselves,” then it isn’t going to happen and the US will need to learn how to live with and cooperate with the current government.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.

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