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Should Regime Change in Iran be Part of U.S. Foreign Policy?

Discussants: Robert S. Litwak, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Michael Rubin, editor, Middle East Quarterly; resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Updated: May 3, 2007

With negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program showing scant signs of progress, there is growing debate about whether the United States should pursue a policy of regime change in Tehran. Some experts contend that after 9/11, the threat of rogue regimes like Iran transferring nuclear weapons or technology to terrorist organizations outweighs the risks associated with forcible regime change. Others say deterrence and diplomacy are the preferable options, given the unintended consequences of regime change in recent history.  

Robert Litwak, director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of the recent book, Regime Change: U.S. Strategy Through the Prism of 9/11, and Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly, debate whether regime change in Iran should be part of U.S. foreign policy.

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Michael RubinMost Recent

May 3, 2007

Michael Rubin

Support for independent civil society and diplomacy need not be mutually exclusive. An uprising may be unlikely, but long-term security depends upon accountability of the regime to ordinary Iranians. We should not ignore the increasing frequency in student protests and labor unrest. Nor should we ignore that response to previous engagement has been intransigence and crackdown, not liberalism.

We agree that any military strike would enable the regime to rally its citizens around the flag. An Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear arms would be like dying of a heart attack while a military strike like dying of cancer; that is why effective preventative medicine is so necessary. 

Moscow and Beijing are playing power politics. They will never agree to effective sanctions. The fault is not ours. We should not sacrifice national security upon the altar of multilateralism. Effectiveness matters. There are other economic levers at our disposal, though.

The 2003 Iranian offer is bogus. Washington and Tehran were already talking in Geneva, although Tehran broke the commitments it made there. That was the channel, not an unsigned English fax. Even the Swiss foreign ministry acknowledges privately that Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador, was freelancing. Nor do serious proposals come with the caveat that the issuing party only agrees with 80 percent of its own paper.

But, back to the issue: I wish I had your faith in Iran’s “pragmatic conservatives.” These are the men who built and concealed the nuclear program, and misled the IAEA. Nor is it wise to overemphasize factionalism. Every country has factions. But, when push comes to shove, power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, not parliamentarians and diplomats. For negotiations to be successful, we need to deal with the people who can make a commitment and have it stick. That was the lesson Clinton learned at Camp David II, and that is why negotiations with the Libyans took an extra three years. The history of Iranian adherence to its own commitments does not build confidence.

Ideology matters. We have to assume that Ayatollahs Khamenei, Mesbah-Yazdi, Jannati, and President Ahmadinejad mean what they say. Regime preservation is not in our interests. I look forward to the day when Iran is not a pariah. We should have no more “Chicken Kiev” moments where we sacrifice freedom so as not to complicate diplomacy. Nor, as we have with North Korea, should the deal ever become more important than its contents.


Robert Litwak May 3, 2007

Robert Litwak

The prospect of a successful civil society uprising against the regime within a timeframe relevant to the nuclear question is a vain hope. At the same time, the Bush administration is not able to credibly threaten the use of force to bolster diplomacy because of the mixed message on the objective. Coercive diplomacy is not possible when the apparent objective is the maximalist one of regime change. That a “limited” counter-proliferation strike on Iran’s nuclear sites would be perceived in Tehran as the initiation of a preventive war is a reality, not a straw man. How would a U.S. military attack (which carries the certainty of significant Iranian retaliation) not spiral into general war, Michael?

Given the constraints on the military option, how should the United States approach nuclear diplomacy with Iran? Because of the unresolved contradiction in U.S. policy over the question of regime change, Washington missed a major opportunity. The administration reportedly rebuffed an initiative from Tehran for a strategic dialogue at the moment of maximum U.S. leverage with Iran in the aftermath of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003—before the election of Ahmadinejad, the ramping up of Iran’s nuclear program, and Iraq’s descent into civil war.

Washington’s challenge now is to reestablish policy leverage under far less favorable circumstances. Ahmadinejad’s radical foreign policy has generated a domestic backlash from pragmatic conservatives and reformists, who defend Iran’s right to civil nuclear energy but are open to a nuclear deal. Taking regime change off the table in Washington will put behavior change on the table in Tehran.

Though Tehran is vulnerable to economic coercion, international support for meaningful sanctions will be impossible to marshal if others believe the U.S. goal is regime change rather than behavior change. As with Libya, a credible U.S. assurance of regime security would be central to any nuclear deal. The Bush administration must make clear that it would be willing to take yes for an answer. A major question is whether the administration's regime-change rhetoric has priced Washington out of the reassurance market in Tehran.

My major concern is that if the United States can’t bomb (because of the risk of escalation) and won’t seriously negotiate (because that is viewed as rewarding bad behavior), the administration may find itself on a third path—acquiescing to a fait accompli by the other side, as has sadly happened in the case of North Korea since 2003.


Michael RubinMay 2, 2007

Michael Rubin

That all options remain on the table is reality; it has nothing to do with regime change. So long as the Islamic Republic remains the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism and is not forthright about its nuclear program, military action will remain a last resort—one with so many incumbent costs that hopefully it will never occur. The idea that there is a preventive war strategy to change the regime is at best a straw-man argument and at worst a conspiracy theory.

Criticism regarding carrier group dispatch is misplaced. First, it is important that Arab states in the Persian Gulf recognize that the United States is going to defend its interests and protect our allies. Second, while Washington assumes events revolve around our decisions, the danger is Iranian overconfidence. Decision-makers in Iran, those in the office of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard, may confuse democratic debate with weakness and inadvertently cross a red line. We know from their statements that they do not take U.S. diplomatic demarches seriously. That the United States is willing to demonstrate red lines aids transparency and reduces the risk of accidental conflict.

With regard to engagement, we need to abandon the notion that long-term strategies to encourage the accountability of the Iranian government to its citizenry and short-term diplomacy are mutually exclusive. Providing moral support for the Vahed transportation workers’ ongoing attempts to form the Islamic Republic’s first independent trade union will not bring instant change. That does not mean it is wise to ignore them or to collude with the regime that seeks to crush them.

No argument that assistance—when handled improperly—can taint dissidents. But let’s not be ahistorical: Tehran’s crackdown on dissent predated the congressional appropriation of $75 million. Hamid Reza Taraqi, head of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Party, foreshadowed the crackdown in an interview in Etemad well before the Congressional appropriation. Dissidents like Ahmad Batebi and Mansour Ossanlou put their necks on the line regardless of what the regime says about them. The most vocal opponents to U.S. assistance are not dissidents who oppose theocratic dictatorship but rather the reformers who want to soften but preserve clerical rule.

Past practice shows that a strategy of speaking softly and waving a big carrot does not work with Iran. Tehran has become conditioned to expect reward for non-compliance. It is time we end that cycle. What sticks do you see as effective, Robert?


Robert Litwak May 1, 2007

Robert Litwak

Despite the major constraints on the use of force, which Michael acknowledges, the Bush administration has kept the military option "on the table." Open speculation persists in the press over whether the United States will strike Iran's nuclear facilities as it is poised to cross a major technological threshold, or "red line" (with respect to uranium enrichment), on the path to a bomb. But because this "counter-proliferation" option would encompass strikes against a broad range of targets over several days, it is indistinguishable from a preventive war strategy to change the regime.

Furthermore, Washington's mixed message on its objective—regime change versus behavior change—creates confusion about the meaning of U.S. military deployments in Iraq. The recent surge of an additional U.S. carrier battle group into the Gulf, which was intended as a deterrent signal to stop Iranian meddling in Iraq, may well have appeared to Tehran as preparation for strikes on nuclear targets. Given the proximity of U.S. and Iranian forces, the danger of miscommunication and inadvertent escalation is real.

On the contentious issue of engagement, Michael and I have different assessments. He views engagement of the regime as a prop that buys it time to pursue its nuclear ambitions, while stifling forces of democratic change within Iran. Unfortunately, the uncertain timeline for societal change is not in sync with the near-term timeline for nuclear acquisition. The regime has ample coercive means to crack down on opposition (witness its brutal suppression of past student demonstrations) and, with the financial wherewithal provided by $70-per-barrel oil, can insulate itself from internal pressures by buying off potential malcontents. Current U.S. policy eschews direct negotiations with the regime, while seeking to engage Iranian civil society through a $75 million democracy-promotion program that targets non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Yet this government-sponsored program has already had the effect of politically tainting the very groups it is intended to support. Some democracy activists have faced detention and interrogation over alleged complicity in a U.S. plot to foment a "soft revolution." U.S. efforts to engage Iranian NGOs should be done by their American NGO counterparts. In tandem with this unconditional engagement on the societal level, the U.S. government should pursue structured, pragmatic engagement with the Tehran regime on issues of mutual concern, starting with the nuclear question and Iraq. To get leverage on these issues, Washington needs to employ bigger carrots and more effective sticks.


Michael RubinApril 30, 2007

Michael Rubin

Even as Iran’s nuclear program has developed, the Bush administration has lacked a cohesive policy toward Tehran. An artificial dichotomy between engagement and regime change has polarized debate. Too often, proponents of engagement construct a straw-man argument about regime change to equate it with military action.

No serious policymaker seeks military action against Iran. Iranians are nationalistic. Any military strike would enable the regime to rally Iranians around the flag. Nor would even targeted strikes against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities end its program; at best, military strikes would only delay it. Nothing would be more irresponsible than the White House using the military to buy time because policymakers have not had the discipline to formulate a strategy.

This does not mean unrestrained engagement is a better option. Between 2000 and 2005, the apex of both European engagement and the Khatami presidency, EU trade with Tehran almost tripled. During that same period, Iranian leaders pumped hard currency into their weapons program and, at the time, still-covert nuclear program. Either Khatami’s rhetoric was insincere or he, like the many diplomats under him, had no insight into or control over the actions of other power centers. 

If engagement is to be successful, it must include the sincere involvement of the people who control those aspects of regime behavior which Washington finds most objectionable—this means the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. This is an unlikely prospect.

Everyone who has been to Iran is aware of the sophistication of Iranian intellectuals and much of the public. Many Iranians resent the corruption and adventurism of their leadership. The reformers are largely discredited. They are new paint on a rotten house. No Iranian inside Iran wants regime change from abroad, but they do embrace the ideas of popular sovereignty and democracy. Here, interests converge. Should the Iranian leadership become more accountable to its citizenry, then they will emphasize what most Iranians want—better schools, medical care, and employment prospects rather than expensive adventurism. 

What policymakers should support are Iranian efforts to democratize and force accountability upon their leadership. This is what independent unions inside Iran struggle for. Democracy is just peaceful regime change. I agree with Robert that we should rely on internal forces as the agents of change. Unfortunately, regime engagement will both undercut those forces and enable the Iranian leadership to run down the clock on its nuclear program.


Robert LitwakApril 30, 2007

Robert Litwak

Throughout the nuclear crisis with Iran, the Bush administration has sent a mixed message. U.S. officials stick to the familiar mantra: “All options are on the table.” But to what end? Is the goal to change the behavior of the Tehran regime or to change the regime itself?

The 9/11 terrorist attacks recast the debate over U.S. strategy toward Iran and other “rogue states.” The administration shifted from a mix of deterrence and containment before 9/11 to an emphasis on regime change. The underlying assumption was that the unacceptable behavior of these rogue regimes derived from their very nature. Hence, to change the behavior, you had to change the regimes. The belief that rogue states were less likely to be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and more likely to provide them to terrorist groups fueled the decision to launch the preventive war in Iraq. After the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, administration officials hailed Iraq as a “type”—a new model of nonproliferation based on externally imposed regime change. One hard-liner declared that the message of the Iraq war for Iran was “Take a number.”

In Tehran, a “limited” U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be viewed as the initiation of a regime-toppling war, which would trigger major Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests worldwide, starting in Iraq. And the Iranian people would rally round the flag with the mullahs against the United States.

Some regime-change proponents view Iran—with its politically energized civil society—as ripe for a revolution from below. But we can’t wait for this indeterminate process of societal change to play out while Iran’s nuclear program accelerates.

The alternative to military action—diplomacy—is at an impasse, and is hampered by the United States’ mixed message. Regime-change rhetoric in Washington strengthens the hard-liners in Tehran, who can point to it as the rationale for a bomb. Has Tehran made an irreversible decision to acquire nuclear weapons? We don’t know. To test their intentions, Iran should be presented with a structured choice in which the United States makes clear that it will take yes for an answer if Tehran changes its behavior. In short, we need to pivot toward a new strategy of containment, whose key elements are deterrence and an assurance of nonintervention. Such a strategy would decouple the nuclear issue from the question of regime change and rely on internal forces as the agents of societal change.

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