The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
As the Iranian nuclear agreement turns two years old this month, Iran hawks are once again advocating their preferred solution to the Iranian problem: regime change. Last month, Politico reported that shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank, had submitted a memo to the National Security Council arguing that “Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power […] The very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse.” As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh put it in another example, “The task for the administration now is to study ways that we can take advantage of Iran’s looming crisis to potentially displace one of America’s most entrenched adversaries.” U.S. President Donald Trump and his team’s hostility toward the Islamic Republic has surely encouraged such hawks, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently indicating that peaceful regime change is a policy option that his team may pursue. Regime change, however, simply isn’t feasible unless the United States is ready to commit, politically and militarily, to another Middle Eastern theater for an extended period of time. Trying to achieve a transition of power on the cheap, with limited political commitment and military presence, is conducive neither to realizing the goal of removing the Islamic Republic nor to developing a viable replacement government.
Ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran has posed a strategic challenge to the United States. To counter Tehran’s nefarious activities, ranging from its human rights violations to its nuclear program and support for terrorist groups, some pundits and scholars have pushed Washington to put more pressure on the regime. But too often, their recommendations come with fundamental flaws. For example, some have posited that air strikes could stop Iran’s nuclear activities. But they often fail to outline a realistic strategy these proposed military operations would support and don’t adequately address potential complications. Others have pontificated that regime change is the only way to stop Iranian misbehavior once and for all, but have failed to adequately outline the required means to get there and to make the outcome sustainable.
Good policymakers should recognize that a cost-benefit analysis of regime change in Iran is contingent on the strategy and means employed. The United States’ long history of regime change indicates that there are roughly two avenues by which Washington could attempt to accomplish the goal in Iran: by supporting a faction more friendly to the United States or by invading the country and replacing its institutions. Even if it were a given that regime change was in the United States’ interest, however, neither strategy would produce the desired end.
There are, theoretically, three candidates for U.S. support in Iran.
The first is the People’s Mujahedeen, or the MEK, which is known for its opposition to Tehran. The group is increasingly visible in Washington and has some support among certain officials and lawmakers. Although the United States removed the group from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list in 2012 following an agreement disarming and moving their operatives from Iraq’s Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s violent and cultish brand of communist Shia Islam makes it a dubious ally. More importantly, the MEK is extraordinarily unpopular domestically because of its support for Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran, where it fought alongside Iraqi forces, even as Baghdad used chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds. In short, MEK-backed change would be destined to fail.
The second option would be the Green Movement that emerged during the contested 2009 presidential elections that ended with hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection. Although the movement essentially faded away a few months after the elections, some in Washington still believe that it nearly toppled the regime and could be revived today. But the movement was never a cohesive faction and didn’t aim to topple the regime. Two of the movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are currently under house arrest. Former President Mohammad Khatami, also a critical figure in the protests, is also under close watch. Despite this, each would provide institutional continuity were he put into office. In fact, all of them have stated time and again that they support the institutional foundations of the Islamic Republic, and all endorsed moderate Hassan Rouhani for president in the two elections held since 2009, in 2013 and 2017. Like the broader Iranian public, this contingent wanted reform of the regime, not revolution. That is why they didn’t call for a boycott during the subsequent presidential elections to continue the movement. Instead, they chose to let Rouhani bring about change through existing institutional mechanisms and processes. These figures wouldn’t welcome U.S. interference in Iranian domestic politics, nor would their empowerment represent real regime change.
Iran's Green Movement wanted reform of the regime, not revolution.
Lastly, the United States could support the monarchists who fled the country during the revolution. The former Shah of Iran’s son, Reza Pahlavi, currently resides in the United States and could theoretically return to Iran to reclaim his father’s throne. In fact, following the 2016 presidential election, Pahlavi congratulated the president-elect on his victory and, trying to position himself as a political player, asked Trump to engage with secular and democratic forces in Iran. But, although the monarchy is more popular than the MEK, nostalgia for it is limited. After all, the country didn’t undergo a revolution, fight a devastating eight-year war, and endure nearly 40 years of sanctions and isolation to return to the status quo ante.
All these groups either lack political capital and popular support or the willingness to work with the United States to topple the regime. As a result, another option worth considering is a covert operation taking out key figures within the regime. For example, the U.S. intelligence community could undertake an assassination campaign to remove Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and key Revolutionary Guard commanders. However, this would not address Washington’s issues with Tehran. Iran’s government is composed of a fairly complex web of players within and outside the political and security establishments. These apparatuses have been intentionally designed to safeguard the regime from potential coups. This makes the system different from pre-2003 Iraq, where Hussein’s centralization of power made it easier to topple the regime by removing its leadership.
Absent any viable opposition figures to support, the only other option for Washington would be regime change through military means and the installation of a new system. But no leadership transition can ultimately succeed and be sustainable without an institutional overhaul. Without resilient and legitimate institutions, the country would be prone to instability and cycles of leadership transitions or coups, further destabilizing an already fragile region. As a result, the only way to secure a sustainable political system is to create strong institutions with popular support. But creating the necessary institutional infrastructure and new political processes from scratch takes considerable time and resources. This would likely entail a long-lasting and costly campaign in a very complex operational environment, one three times the size of Iraq and twice that of Afghanistan that includes vast deserts, mountains, and plains, as well with major cities where over 70 percent of Iran’s poppulation of roughly 80 million resides—leading to brutal urban warfare. Once initiated, such a revamp would be ineffective and costly at best, and would lead to a civil war at worst.
History has shown that even following organic and peaceful transitions of power, new states often have fragile systems and weak institutions, and are relatively more conflict prone. And as the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath demonstrated, these effects can be amplified when the transition is motivated from the outside and the new government is created by a foreign country.
Over the past 14 years, Americans have learned the hard way that regime change through military means isn’t a quick and easy fix. In fact, to achieve a sustainable regime change, the transition of power is often just the beginning of a more enduring military campaign. If the United States wants to create a friendlier and more compliant state, it should instead use the other tools in its foreign policy tool kit which don’t entail the same commitment of blood and treasure and will and which have proved far more effective in the long term.
Today, the European Union is building on the nuclear deal to engage Tehran on its other nefarious activities, including support for terrorism, human rights violations, and ballistic missile program. Both Brussels and key capitals, including Berlin, Paris, and Rome, have a number of open channels with Tehran to discuss these issues. As EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini put it, “We always look for common ground. We believe that there is always a possibility to work together and to find solutions that are not zero-sum solutions.” And these efforts are already bearing fruit, as even the more conservative elements of the Islamic Republic have agreed to work with the Europeans, as is the case of Iran’s notoriously conservative Justice Minister Sadegh Larijani, who has accepted talks on the country’s human rights track record.
This is the example to follow. Washington should use the leverage it has to try to push Iran to change its policies. Diplomatic avenues have by no means been exhausted. U.S. and Iranian interests align more frequently than hawks in Washington care to admit. For example, both countries share an interest in defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) a key priority for the United States. The group’s defeat and ensuring continued stability and security in the region both require the country’s involvement. To be sure, the two countries don’t see eye to eye on everything and the United States shouldn’t leave critical Iranian threats unanswered. But giving up on diplomatic avenues before they have a chance to succeed would be foolhardy.