I’m troubled when I see elected officials who have real influence with the administration on foreign policy who recommend flatly insane policies. For example:
“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who speaks regularly with White House officials about foreign policy. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he added.
It’s hard to define what might be an acceptable level of safety. The Iranian government certainly takes an adversarial posture toward the United States. They have been responsible for ordering acts of terrorism against our people serving abroad and against our allies. The worst examples I can think of are in the 1980s and 1990s, but they’ve certainly been working hard to build up the military power of Hizbollah and lending support to Hamas, both of which of have used terrorism in their struggle against Israel. They’ve also been locked in a kind of subterranean escalating war of tit-for-tat against Saudi Arabia which has taken on the flavor of a regional sectarian war across the region, from the Emirates and Yemen to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and even the heavily Shiite portions of Saudi Arabia itself. During our occupation of Iraq, Iran lent a big hand in the resistance which resulted in the death of many American soldiers, particularly at the hands of roadside bombs.
There is also, of course, the nuclear issue. The Obama administration worked diligently with the international community, including Russia, to put in place a program that can prevent Iran from rapidly and secretly obtaining nuclear weapons. It’s important that this program work not just because Iran is an adversary that engages in asymmetric warfare. It’s important on general principle as a demonstration that the international community can function in its anti-proliferation role. It’s also key for preventing other countries in the region from seeking their own nuclear weapons programs. We can debate how rational the Iranian regime really is, and whether or not they hold worrisome religious beliefs that might make them more prone than most to act irresponsibly with a nuclear arsenal. The safer course is not to get distracted by such side-arguments and instead just hold to a policy based on anti-proliferation and avoidance of a regional nuclear arms race.
We should be able to agree that Iran’s government poses a risk to the United States and our allies, but we should also be clear that this has been true for decades now and it has been manageable. We have suffered far more from the terrorism and terroristic ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominant allies. Al-Qaeda was created when elements of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who were opposed to the government of Hosni Mubarak joined with mostly Saudi fighters who were animated by their desire to topple the House of Saud. Many of the members were veterans of the Russian-Afghan War who had been indoctrinated for the fight in Saudi-sponsored madrassas. These are the folks who tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and then bombed our African Embassies in 1998, attacked and damaged the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and finished up with the 9/11 attacks.
They were at the heart of the Sunni resistance to the occupation of Iraq, and they metamorphosed into the Islamic State which has taken credit for a growing number of terror attacks against civilians in Europe and even here in the United States. Sunni governments have supported these groups and utilized them where they have thought it to their advantage, and also fought them when they’ve presented a threat to their own power. We’ve seen these Saudi-sponsored soldiers show up in the former Yugoslavia, in Chechnya, in Kashmir, in Sudan, and in Iraq and Syria. Wherever they go, weak states become failed states and civil war and terrorism flourish.
Nothing comparable can be said about the role of Iran. In fact, Iran’s primary responsibility for this has been that their Islamic Revolution inspired the Saudis to respond in this way. It has been a competition to show who has the more genuine and effective plan to resist Western imperialism and Israeli occupation. It’s a war for credibility that also should be understood as a marketing war for the two main branches of Islam. Iran established an Islamic government in a region where secular governments had been the norm. Ever since, the Sunni nations have been drifting toward more Islamic governments in response, including in the most aggressively secular nation of Turkey.
Nothing created more fodder for the Islamic Revolution in Iran than the 1953 British/American-sponsored coup in Iran that restored the Shah to power. That was an example of a successful regime change that also had the benefit at the time of being low-cost and low-risk. It didn’t turn out that way.
There’s probably no place on Earth more inhospitable to an American-led coup than Iran. And it’s not because the government there is popular. It’s because the one thing virtually all Iranians can agree about is that they don’t want Americans determining who will lead them.
Likewise, the nuclear threat from Iran would exist even under a secular government. Iranians believe it is their right to pursue nuclear weapons and that any decision not to should be made by them on a voluntary basis. Under the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, nations are free to pursue a domestic nuclear power program, but Iran is regularly treated as if all their research is a violation. It’s doubtful that any alternative government in Tehran would feel differently about nuclear power, nuclear weapons, or national sovereignty. They’d want to be ready to make nuclear weapons but not committed to doing so. They’d want to make a decision about nuclear power the same way all other nations do. And the people would support politicians who insist on their right to make these decisions freely and without being singled out for pariah status.
So, we face a bigger terrorism threat from our regional allies than we do from Iran. The nuclear problem would exist even if the regime was toppled and would have to managed in pretty much the same way. It might even be harder to manage if the government in Tehran was considered friendly and responsible. And the last time we did a regime change in Iran it turned out to create immeasurably bigger problems than it solved (which is also true for the regime change in Iraq).
There are two final reasons why a policy of regime change for Iran is insane. The first is that the American people have no appetite for it if it involves the commitment of American troops or some kind of occupation. And you can’t succeed in a large military mission if the American people won’t support it both initially and over the long haul.
The second is that Iran is a much tougher adversary than Iraq. They have a better military, more and tougher terrain, a strong alliance with Russia, and fewer people who stand to benefit. Toppling Saddam Hussein brought the majority-Shiites to power. It also benefited the Kurds. Iran’s government also has indigenous resistance, but not on that level. Occupying Iraq proved impossible, but it was an easy job compared to trying to do anything similar in Iran.
Maybe the idea is to sponsor regime change in the old 1953 style, covertly and without any plan to occupy the country. But, we tried that against Saddam Hussein and it didn’t work in much more favorable circumstances. We had no-fly zones over half the country, for example, and a United Nations-approved rationale for being there. Of even more concern, making it official policy to create a change in regime is an obvious act of war which will inspire and even justify retaliation. If the plan is to do little and hope for the best, then making that declaration is itself a threat to our security.
A better course for America is to work to tamp down sectarian differences rather than to pick sides and escalate them. We can’t disentangle ourselves from the region entirely, but we can refuse to take actions sure to inflame things. On the terrorism front, we have more to worry about from our allies than our adversaries, and we should focus on that as our first priority.
In theory, the failure of the Islamic Revolution in Iran could result in the reversal in the trend toward more religiously based government in the Sunni regions and a return to more secular government overall. But that is more likely to result if the failure is seen as being natural and brought about by the Iranian people who make these demands themselves.
Calling for regime change in Iran is a error in priorities that endangers us, inflames the region, and would be catastrophic if we actually acted on it.