Why Regime Change Won't Work in Iran

A few days of bombing won't lastingly set back Iran's nuclear program

One of the most popular things on the Republican campaign trail--possibly more popular than any of the candidates themselves--is regime change in Iran. Mitt Romney favors it, Rick Santorum favors it, and Newt Gingrich even has a plan for doing it: "cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran and then, frankly, sabotaging the only refinery they have."

Give these guys some credit: At least they don't suffer from the common illusion that a few days of bombing will lastingly set back Iran's nuclear program. Unfortunately, the idea that regime change would do the job isn't much more reality-based.

You'd think that our eight-year adventure in Iraq would have raised doubts about the extent to which changed regimes will hew to our policy guidelines. There we deposed an authoritarian leader and painstakingly constructed a government, only to see the new regime (a) tell America to get the hell out of the country; and (b) cozy up to an American adversary (Iran!).

Maybe boosters of Iranian regime change are thinking: This time will be different; in Iran there are lots of well-educated, somewhat westernized regime opponents--the famous "green movement" that, having been brutally suppressed, lies waiting to take the reins, after which compliance with the international community's wishes will ensue.

An appealing scenario, but here's a flashback that complicates it:

In late 2009, negotiators reached a deal that would have defused tensions over the nuclear issue: Iran would send uranium abroad, where it would be further enriched and returned in a form suitable for medical use but not for use in weapons. President Ahmadinejad favored the deal, hailing it as a "victory". But then the deal was denounced not just by some Iranian conservatives but by Mir Hossein Mousavi, leader of the "progressive" greens. Ahmadinejad quickly changed his tune.

Mousavi's resistance isn't surprising. According to public opinion polls done that year, the greens don't differ much on the nuclear issue from Iranians at large. With sanctions already underway and starting to bite, 78 percent of Mousavi supporters said Iran should not "give up its nuclear activities regardless of the circumstances."

To be sure, they weren't talking about a nuclear bomb. They were talking about a nuclear energy program. But a UN Security Council pre-condition for suspending sanctions is Iran's suspension of "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities." That's the kind of thing that Iranians broadly--green and non-green--seem to oppose; there is a strong, nationalistic insistence in Iran on the right of the country to enrich its own uranium as part of a nuclear energy program. And there is roughly as strong a resistance among the more hawkish Iran hawks to letting Iran do that.

So one key premise of regime change--that the will of a new democratic government would align with the will of regime-change boosters--is dubious even if you assume that greens would be the dominant force in this government. And that assumption, in turn, has two problems of its own: (1) Those 2009 opinion polls showed greens to be in the minority, outnumbered by Ahmadinejad supporters; so even if you ensured fair elections, and restructured Iranian democracy so that the elected president was truly the country's supreme leader, that wouldn't mean greens ran the show; (2) How would you ensure fair elections and restructure Iranian democracy in the first place?

After all, when you induce regime change by tightening sanctions to the choking point, you don't get to micro-manage the transition. Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, champions of regime change, recently wrote that "through sanctions, a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn." Yes, it might. And through rolling a pair of dice, doubles might be born. But at least as likely as a smooth transition to a truer democracy is a civil war in which lots of people die. (When will neocons--and for that matter liberal hawks--learn that authoritarian leaders, though we may call them "autocrats," usually have a large constituency that sees itself as benefiting from their rule and will fight on their behalf?) Among the things that could follow a civil war are more authoritarian rule and regional conflagration. And, as long as we're on the subject of human suffering: How much misery winds up getting inflicted on innocent people before an economic chokehold leads to regime change in the first place?

Even in Iraq--where, with hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, we in theory could micro-manage things--we wound up with a regime that defies our will and is increasingly thuggish. And now we think we can do regime change by remote control and get a happy ending? I'd rather let nature take its course; if you leave Iran to its own devices the regime won't continue to escape the forces, technological and otherwise, that have fueled the Arab Spring.

Support for a policy of regime change rests on two major features of America's national psychology: optimism, reflected in the assumption that democracy would magically ensue; and moral self-confidence, reflected in the assumption that whatever America wants is best for the world and that reasonable people everywhere will see this if given the chance.

The Iranians--whether green or not--don't seem to see this. But who knows? Maybe if we shut off their gasoline imports and blow up their one refinery, they'll warm up to us.