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

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.


In the 1950s, long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled his regime, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the U.S.-allied shah of Iran, embarked on a massive and multifaceted modernization process—a project that his father had championed starting in the 1920s. As part of these efforts, the shah hoped to update his country’s infrastructure, expand its military, and invest its fossil fuel revenue in projects that would transform the country in the long term, including by diversifying its energy sources. At the same time, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower launched his Atoms for Peace initiative, which aimed to provide U.S.-aligned states with nuclear technology for civilian use. Iran became one of the beneficiaries of the initiative, kick-starting its nuclear program. For the shah, nuclear power wasn’t just one element of his modernization efforts, affording his country diversified energy sources, but a political symbol. He wanted to return Iran to the glory of its imperial past, and joining a select club of powerful states symbolized this.

When the shah recruited the Swiss-educated nuclear physicist Akbar Etemad in the 1970s to help establish his country’s nuclear program, he faced a major decision. Before giving Etemad instructions on how to proceed, the shah had to decide the scope of his project. He had the option of pursuing either a purely civilian nuclear program or a policy of hedging, which would allow him to weaponize the program if he decided to explore the military aspects of the technology. At the time, the shah believed that Tehran’s friendly relationship with the United States left Iran largely unchallenged in the region and that there was no need to dash for the bomb. But he wanted to have the capability to do so if the security landscape changed—as he believed it would. Iran would then build a nuclear energy program while also preparing for the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon. And Etemad’s challenge was to keep these plans from Iran’s ally and one of its nuclear suppliers, the United States.  

By 1978, the shah’s atomic project was underway against the backdrop of the brewing revolution. The revolutionaries who opposed the shah, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would later replace him as Iran’s head of state, objected to the nuclear program. But as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would recount in his memoir describing his time as the country’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-05, this opposition was based on ideology and a belief that whatever the shah did was wrong rather than a clear understanding of the drawbacks and benefits of the technology.

Upon ousting the shah, the new regime halted the country’s nuclear program, only to resume it after a short hiatus amidst the devastating Iran-Iraq War, which lasted through much of the 1980s. Soon after, the new regime went on a quest to revive various elements of the shah’s atomic project. It, too, pursued a policy of hedging, one which would allow it to acquire nuclear technology for its civil program while also affording the option of dashing for the bomb. In the mid-1980s, Iran became a client of A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, who led the largest illicit trafficking network of sensitive nuclear technology. As that network was exposed and dismantled in the early 2000s, revelations of Iranian noncompliance following the discovery of the covert nuclear facilities brought Tehran to the negotiating table with the Europeans in 2003, the same year that the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq. Around that time, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. intelligence community, Tehran seems to have ceased its “coordinated” weaponization program aimed at developing a nuclear explosive device, reverting instead to “feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” These were halted around 2009. Since then, there haven’t been any “credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” But Tehran continued to develop its uranium enrichment program and heavy water technology, which the international community was concerned could be weaponized if the Islamic Republic made the decision to resume its nuclear weapons program.

Instead of pushing for regime change in the unlikely hope it will fundamentally change Tehran’s behavior, U.S. policymakers should learn from history.

In 2015, after over a decade of trying to get Iran to comply, whether through coercion, consensus-building, international sanctions, and marathon negotiations, the world powers reached an agreement with Tehran to limit the country’s nuclear activities. Today, critics of the deal argue that the agreement isn’t doing enough and doesn’t provide the international community with sufficient oversight of the program. Some administration officials and members of Congress such as CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton (R.-Ark.) go as far as stating that U.S. policy should be one of regime change, because it’s not the regime’s nuclear program that’s a threat to the United States, but its very existence. For them, regime change is the only viable and sustainable solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, not engagement. But as the continuity of Iran’s nuclear aspirations show, there’s no evidence that a different leadership would make a fundamentally different calculation in this regard.


The current nuclear agreement with Iran may not be perfect—no such deal ever is. But instead of scrapping an imperfect deal and pushing for regime change in the unlikely hope it will fundamentally change Tehran’s behavior, U.S. policymakers should learn from history. Regime change is a destabilizing process with an uncertain outcome. Washington should instead focus on how best to limit the country’s technical capabilities—which the nuclear agreement has restrained. To do this, it must keep the deal and build on it by finding an agreed solution to the ballistic missile issue and addressing the post-nuclear agreement landscape.

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  • ARIANE M. TABATABAI is Director of Curriculum and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in the Security Studies Program and an International Security Program Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
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