Why Regime Change Wouldn't End Iran's Nuclear Program

History Shows a Policy Shift Is Unlikely

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sits next to Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, October 2017. REUTERS

This month, U.S. President Donald Trump revealed his administration’s much-anticipated Iran strategy. It involves increasing pressure on Tehran on virtually all fronts, most notably through the decertification of the nuclear deal that former President Barack Obama and the other world powers reached with the Islamic Republic in 2015. Trump premised his remarks on a talking point that has long characterized hawkish narratives on Iran; namely, that a more rational regime would presumably cease its nuclear activities.

“We are determined that the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism will never obtain nuclear weapons,” Trump said in his remarks. “In this effort, we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people. The Iranian people long to—and they just are longing, to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization, its cooperation with its neighbors.” Comments like these are hardly uncommon among members of the administration and U.S. lawmakers. Months prior to these remarks, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told Congress that the United States would be looking to support “elements” within Iran that are opposing and fighting the regime. What Trump and Tillerson imply, and others such as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton have clearly stated, is that the Iranian people favor different policies than the regime and that, by extension, a different Iranian leadership would pursue different policies and behave differently.

This position has long justified calls for regime change in Iran. Yet it is based on flawed analyses of the Islamic Republic’s worldview and capabilities on the one hand, and the costs and benefits of regime change in Iran for Washington on the other. In fact, the country’s nuclear program and its objectives have remained consistent over several decades, despite the rise and fall of new governments and leaders. This suggests that a different regime in Iran will not necessarily lead to a shift in its nuclear policy.


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