Don't Count on Regime Change to Stop Iran's Nuclear Program

It’s certainly possible the Islamic Republic could fall sometime soon. But the nuclear deal prevents weapons development now.

A man in front of an anti-U.S. mural featuring the Statue of Liberty, the American flag, and a map of Iran in barbed wire
A man walks past an anti-U.S. mural in Tehran. (Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi / TIMA / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a debate about whether to stay in the Iran deal. Read the other entries here.

It now looks like President Trump intends to withdraw from the nuclear deal, with the support of critics like Reuel Marc Gerecht, who enumerated in The Atlantic what he sees as the deal’s flaws. To sum up, as I understand it, Gerecht would have only accepted, and would now only accept, a fundamentally different nuclear deal—i.e. one that forever prohibited Iran from having an enrichment program, even for energy production and under international monitoring; forever banned any advanced centrifuge research and development; provided for snap, anytime/anywhere inspections (including military bases); required an admission of past deception about its nuclear-weapons development; required changes to Iranian policy in the region; and banned testing or development of long-range ballistic missiles, even if Iran agreed to all the nuclear demands. And if he didn’t get all of that he would have “walked away,” as he writes a “stronger president and secretary of state” would have done, patiently waiting for sanctions to bite deeper.

I’d take that deal too, but unfortunately we live in the real world. Insisting on an agreement that required Iran to abandon its entire nuclear program as well as fundamentally transform its regional foreign policy would mean having no agreement at all. “Zero enrichment,” after all, was essentially the U.S. position from 2003 until around 2014—during which time Iran mastered the nuclear fuel cycle and advanced to the brink of a weapons capability. The bulk of that progress was made during the administration of George W. Bush, and included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Bolton—none of whom is known for the discomfort with military force or American hegemony Gerecht attributes to Obama. (That pacifist Obama, by the way, deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, increased deadly U.S. drone strikes to unprecedented levels, bombed Libya for seven months, ordered thousands of airstrikes against ISIS, provided far more advanced weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia than any of his predecessors, authorized the development of the weapons necessary to destroy underground Iranian bunkers, and sent U.S. special-operations forces on deadly raids in the region multiple times for multiple purposes.) Gerecht’s suggestion of “patiently waiting for sanctions to bite” while no inspections are in place has also been our approach to North Korea since the mid-1990s, during which time Pyongyang produced, tested, and stockpiled nuclear weapons and developed missiles capable of hitting the United States. The Iran deal—with permanent application of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most advanced inspections regime and a permanent ban on any nuclear weapons work—doesn’t look so bad next to that, does it?

But Gerecht and I, and others, have debated these issues for years and are not going to agree, so we should spare readers a rehash of old arguments. Debating whether a better deal was possible several years ago is now a bit like me alleging Gerecht paid way too much for his house, him insisting that was the best deal he could get because the seller would have otherwise walked away, and neither of us ever being able to prove our case. So let’s look forward. For better or worse, a deal is in place, it has for now verifiably set back and frozen the Iranian nuclear program, and the near-term issue is whether Trump blows it up next week. I think it would be unwise to destroy an agreement in 2018 because out of concern about its provisions after 2030, while Gerecht seems to think that would make sense.

Beyond the issue of the technical merits or drawbacks of the JCPOA, there’s the question of how to assess the prospects for regime change in Iran in terms of when it might come about, whether and how to promote it, and what impact it would have on the nuclear issue and the region. Like Gerecht, I want to see a different regime in Iran, and I believe one day we will—I just don’t think we can rely on that when it comes to stopping their nuclear program, and I have different views on what the United States should or should not do to try to bring it about.

The first issue is simply one of timing. Gerecht seems to think positive change in Iran could be just around the corner, potentially absolving us of having to cut a nuclear deal with the current regime. By this logic, presumably, we should just confront Iran in the region, impose more sanctions, if necessary set back the nuclear program with some targeted military strikes, and wait for a democratic revolution to bring Iranians to power who neither seek nuclear weapons nor to impose hegemony on their neighbors.

It’s certainly possible that the Iranian regime will fall sometime soon (and if it did it would not be soon enough). Practically every time the Iranian public has had the chance to express itself in the past couple of decades—even given the limited choices made available by the regime—it seems to vote for candidates who most represent change, an encouraging sign that should be troubling to the Islamic Republic’s leaders. And the demonstrations that spread across large numbers of Iranian cities earlier this year—which seem to have started out as protests against economic conditions and then morphed into attacks on the regime itself—must be also be causing some sleepless nights for leaders in Tehran. I applaud the courageous Iranian women and men who are risking their freedom and even their lives to oppose the regime’s corruption, economic mismanagement, and social repression.

These are all positive developments, but I think that to leap from noting encouraging signs of public discontent to expecting that the Islamic Republic is on its last legs would be a case of relying on hope over experience. Indeed, how is it that some critics of the nuclear deal have gone from insisting that 10-15 year restrictions on uranium enrichment bought nowhere near enough time for potential political change in Iran, but now seem to be suggesting that regime change could be just around the corner? Last October President Trump claimed that the nuclear deal “threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic lifeline,” but now we are supposed to believe that the regime is in its dying days? If anything, far from lifting pressure on the regime as Trump insisted, the nuclear deal seems to have undermined the regime by raising public expectations that it could not meet and taking away its ability to blame others for its poor economic performance. That seems to me to be a win-win policy proposition. If change in Iran is possible, and the JCPOA not only doesn’t prevent it but might even promote it, doesn’t it make sense to keep that agreement in place?

Gerecht is not simply counting on the regime to fall of its own weight but wants to accelerate the process with more sanctions, regional confrontation, and support for the opposition. I read with great interest his piece in The New York Times earlier this year in which he took issue with my argument, in the same paper a few days before, that President Trump should keep quiet about the protests that were breaking out. Whereas I warned that high-profile American interference could do more harm than good, Gerecht wrote that “the absolute worst thing that the United States can do for the Iranian people is to stay silent.” Really? Would silence be worse than calling on Iranians to rise up against the regime and watching them get slaughtered, as happened in 1991 in Iraq when the first President Bush called for a Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein? Would it be worse than fomenting sectarianism in Iran by providing U.S. assistance to “Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others” as Bolton recommends in his published memo to Trump? To be honest, I doubt U.S. rhetoric about protests—which are domestic developments driven by domestic conditions—makes much of a difference one way or another. But I do think that getting in the business of trying to shape Iran’s political future by fostering a violent uprising—particularly along sectarian lines— would be wildly irresponsible. And yes, worse than doing nothing.

That brings me to a final, and related, point. Gerecht and I have both made an analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union, a previous adversarial regime that ultimately collapsed. But whereas he seems to think it collapsed uniquely because Ronald Reagan confronted it and supported its repressed citizens, I think that is too simplistic a view of what happened, and no template for dealing with Iran today. There is no doubt that tough, Cold War policies like bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan and outspending them militarily contributed to the regime’s demise. But it’s also true that change in Moscow only came about after decades of containment and generational change, that we had no control over or ability to predict its timing, and that it was no bottom-up revolution but the regime itself—in the form of Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev—that ultimately recognized the need to try to reform and salvage a crumbling system. I can see that happening in Iran one day, I just have no idea when. So like George Kennan, I think “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment” is a better way to go. We should probably also keep in mind that the Afghanistan jihad (apparently Gerecht’s model when he envisages bleeding the Iranians in Syria) also helped produce al-Qaeda, the Taliban, 9/11, and a U.S. war that has lasted nearly two decades, so it wasn’t exactly without catastrophic costs of its own.

Like Gerecht, I think we need to contain Iran and I want to see its people one day become free. I’d just rather avoid exacerbating the risks of proliferation and conflict—with wildly unpredictable consequences—in the process.