Should the U.S. Pursue Regime Change in Iran?

By Michael Rubin

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2007


Publication Date: April 30, 2007

Even as Iran's nuclear program has developed, the Bush administration has lacked a cohesive policy toward Tehran. An artificial dichotomy between engagement and regime change has polarized debate. Too often, proponents of engagement construct a straw man argument about regime change to equate it with military action.

No serious policymaker seeks military action against Iran. Iranians are nationalistic. Any military strike would enable the regime to rally Iranians around the flag. Nor would even targeted strikes against the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities end its program; at best, military strikes would only delay it. Nothing would be more irresponsible than the White House using the military to buy time because policymakers have not had the discipline to formulate a strategy.

This does not mean unrestrained engagement is a better option.  Between 2000 and 2005, the apex of both European engagement and the Khatami presidency, EU trade with Tehran almost tripled. During that same period, Iranian leaders pumped hard currency into their weapons program and, at the time, still-covert nuclear program. Either Khatami's rhetoric was insincere or he, like the many diplomats under him, had no insight into or control over the actions of other power centers.

If engagement is to be successful, it must include the sincere involvement of the people who control those aspects of regime behavior which Washington finds most objectionable--this means the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. This is an unlikely prospect.

Everyone who has been to Iran is aware of the sophistication of Iranian intellectuals and much of the public. Many Iranians resent the corruption and adventurism of their leadership. The reformers are largely discredited. They are new paint on a rotten house. No Iranian inside Iran wants regime change from abroad, but they do embrace the ideas of popular sovereignty and democracy. Here, interests converge. Should the Iranian leadership become more accountable to its citizenry, then they will emphasize what most Iranians want--better schools, medical care, and employment prospects rather than expensive adventurism.

What policymakers should support are Iranian efforts to democratize and force accountability upon their leadership. This is what independent unions inside Iran struggle for. Democracy is just peaceful regime change. I agree with Robert that we should rely on internal forces as the agents of change. Unfortunately, regime engagement will both undercut those forces and enable the Iranian leadership to run down the clock on its nuclear program.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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