We’re Back to Regime Change as Iran Policy

It’s unfortunate that more Americans, including the Americans responsible for crafting our foreign policies, don’t know enough about our history in the Middle East and subcontinent. And if they know little about our history, they know even less about the resentments created by the British Empire. It was a testimony to our unwillingness to learn that the Iranians were able to hold American hostages for 444 days in 1979-1981 without the nation ever really understanding their grievances.

It’s a familiar liberal intellectual refrain that Americans should know about what happened to Mohammad Mosaddegh or about the crimes of the Shah’s CIA and Mossad-trained secret police. I share that view but I also am somewhat bored by it. If you take the U.S. and U.K. out of the equation and just look at the Iranian revolutionary government on its own terms, they’ve now had a 40-year run of abusing the Iranian people. The Shah’s (interrupted) reign lasted only 38 years.

I can certainly understand the sentiment of anyone who would like to see regime change in Iran, especially if it resulted in a truly representative government that turned Iran into a good neighbor dedicated to human rights. But the regime sprang into being and sustains itself off of the history of British and American exploitation and indifference to human rights violations. We are not the right people to effect regime change in Iran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just delivered a speech in which he described what he expects Iran to do in order to avoid sanctions.

He insisted that Iran end all nuclear enrichment programs and close its heavy water reactor, saying it did not have the right to such a program. He also appealed directly to the Iranian people, suggesting they should reject the clerical government in Tehran, the capital.

“What has the Iranian revolution given to the Iranian people?” Mr. Pompeo asked at one point, and then offered an answer: “The hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.”

Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is debatable. More than a dozen countries in the world enrich uranium, with several doing so solely for civilian purposes, such as energy generation and medical uses.

But Mr. Pompeo’s speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation was intended to throw down the gauntlet against Tehran, piling on after President Trump’s withdrawal earlier this month from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated with world powers in 2015. While he did not directly threaten the use of military force, Mr. Pompeo said that if Iran restarts its nuclear program “we will respond.”

He also demanded that Iran admit to the military purposes of its now-moribund nuclear weapons program, end its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis, and withdraw all of its forces from Syria.

“You know, the list is pretty long,” Mr. Pompeo conceded. But, he added, “we didn’t create the list. They did.”

These demands have their merits (although Iran does retain the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes) but they amount to asking the Iranian revolutionary regime to abandon all its foreign policy objectives which no government would ever do. It’s not going too far to interpret that Pompeo is saying that sanctions will remain in effect until there is a change of regime.

To put this in other words, the point of the sanctions is no longer to contain Iran or to prevent them from building nuclear weapons or proliferating nuclear technology. The point is to force a collapse of the government.

If the Iranian people rose up and were willing to die in substantial numbers, this strategy could conceivably work without the U.S. or U.K. having to step in militarily. Of course, the regime survived an eight-year war with Iraq and it has survived isolation and sanctions in the past. It has easily quelled domestic uprisings.

Unfortunately, if we create a logic that only regime change can eliminate sanctions then we’re setting ourselves up to do the regime change ourselves. And I’m not convinced that killing a lot of people is the best way to free them from tyranny.

What’s even more problematic is that we have a tendency to ignore the fact that any truly democratic government in Iran would still have many of the same foreign policy objectives as the present government. A government truly responsive to the people would still cater to national pride and still see uranium enrichment as a national right. It would still be opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and still concerned to promote the interests of the global community of Shiites, whether they live in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Lebanon.

I don’t care for religious fundamentalists regardless of where they live, whom they govern, or what sect they belong to, so I have no love for Iranian regime and would be pleased to see them removed from power. I feel the same way about the Saudi Royal Family and the American Republican Party.

That I’d like to see something happen doesn’t entitle me to kill hundreds of thousands of people, however, and we should have learned by now that oftentimes what follows the fall of a terrible regime is worse.

The Iranians were justifiably incensed by the Shah’s reign of terror and rightly blamed the U.S. and the U.K. for imposing and enabling his abuses, and they’re justified in feeling the same way about the revolutionary government that oppresses them now. They’ve had a long string of bad leadership and bad luck, and I have no interest in making this worse.

We should learn the virtues of patience, have some tolerance for risk, and above all learn for once about the concept of hubris.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.