Gate Crashing the Opposition

Why Washington Should Leave Regime Change To the Iranians

In his July 31 article "Tehran Takedown," Michael Ledeen, Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argues that both threatening war and continuing to impose sanctions are unattractive options for Western governments' responses to the Iranian nuclear program. Ledeen instead proposes that the United States promote regime change in Iran in order to topple the current system and to replace it with more moderate figures. Ledeen is right to urge U.S. support for democratic change in Iran, but wrong in several of his key assumptions. 

For one, Ledeen asserts that sanctions failed in Iraq and therefore won't work in Iran. That is incorrect: they succeeded in pushing Saddam Hussein to stop all work on his weapons of mass destruction programs and to destroy what weapons he had already built. Similarly, sanctions are raising the cost of the nuclear program for the Iranian regime and damaging its prestige at home and its influence abroad. Iranian leaders might not be willing to scrap their nuclear program, but they have not yet decided to build actual nuclear weapons. The mounting sanctions are likely making them even warier. 

Some of Ledeen's assumptions about the state of the Iranian opposition and the United States' ability to support it are also flawed. As he correctly asserts, Iran has the key ingredients to help create a more democratic political system -- a young, educated, and politically active population with a large middle class that wants to be part of the global community. The United States will not, however, be the instigator of democratic revolution in Iran. The struggle for a democratic future will be shaped by Iranians; they will win or fail largely on their own. 

The best -- and, at this point, almost the only -- concrete thing Washington can do to advance democracy in Iran is to support those transitions already underway in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and, particularly, Syria. The United States has greater access and influence in these countries than it does in Iran. Meanwhile, Iranians remain plugged into the world. They will closely watch the rest of the region and will want to emulate any successful transitions that take place around them.

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