By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh
May 30, 2020
Regime change in Iran is one of the biggest taboos in U.S. foreign policy. Bring it up and you will be scorned as a warmonger, a fomenter of chaos. Yet we have encouraged and welcomed the collapse of dictatorships in other countries, especially within the former Soviet empire. And we used severe sanctions against apartheid South Africa to bring fundamental change. The Islamic republic has been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Syria. Is that a lesser sin?
The Iranian theocracy’s disregard for the rights and livelihoods of its people periodically drives them into mass protests (at great risk to themselves). Its imperialist ambitions endanger its neighbors. Yet American leftists routinely argue that we can never dare to replace it. Two liberal analysts recently warned in The Post that “it is fair to ask whether the political and social collapse of a country of 80 million people at a time of a global pandemic is in the United States’ — or anybody’s — interests.” To speak of its demise, much less try to hasten it, is considered untoward and egregiously ideological in polite Washington society.
To a remarkable extent, we have turned Iran policy into a debate about ourselves. If the regime is opposed by conservatives, liberals veer the other way, often trying hard to find something redeeming about the Islamic republic. For them, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is reactionary, if not a tad villainous, because of his ardent opposition to Tehran. When Cotton prophetically warned Iran’s leaders in an open letter in 2015 that a nuclear agreement would not be binding on a Republican president, his colleague Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) described his move as “undermining the authority of the president,” while Secretary of State John F. Kerry professed himself to be in “utter disbelief.”
The advocates of cooperation with the clerical regime often play down its crude and constant anti-Semitism. Its misogyny and homophobia somehow do not invite calls for sanctions from liberals. The ardent left — for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) foreign policy staff — can see bigotry and bellicosity in any use of “mullah” to describe Iran’s religious government (even though “mullah” is a word used most often by Iranians to describe a cleric). And some even manage to blame Tehran’s harsh repression of its own people on anti-American animus that is allegedly empowering the hard-liners who would be weaker if Washington weren’t so mean.
If the intellectual classes can’t contemplate the demise of the Islamic republic, neither can the intelligence community, which has a knack for echoing the zeitgeist. Without seeing classified documents, one can be assured that a typical CIA memorandum will point out all the problems confronting the regime and end with pretty firm assurance of its survival. By temperament, our spies are rarely capable of spotting discontinuities. Iran today is probably where the Soviet Union was in the 1970s, an exhausted regime mishandling every crisis it encounters. And the same intelligence services that just couldn’t see the Soviet Union dying don’t see the cracks in the clerical regime.
Arms control defines America’s approach to the Islamic republic. It did so during the Obama years, and it lingers in the Trump White House. The problem with an arms-control approach is that you have to pretend that your interlocutors are sufficiently “moderate” to seek regional stability. You have to pretend that the Iranians are willing to concede their religious ideology and imperial ambitions. Most importantly, you have to pretend that the regime you are dealing with is durable and can soften if given access to the global economy. Americans are particularly susceptible to this business argument, even though recent history (see post-Mao China) surely tells us that wicked authoritarianism can adapt to market imperatives.
Much of Washington fears that the only alternative to arms control is war. Far preferable would be a strategy of relentless pressure that with time cracks the regime. This was the definition of containment as envisioned by George Kennan. He advocated unrelenting patience with the Soviet Union; we should do the same with Iran.
It shouldn’t be hard to see that anti-Americanism is an inextricable part of this revolutionary Islamist state, or that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (an ardent fan and translator of the seminal Egyptian jihadist Sayyid Qutb), the ruling clerical elite and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards have no desire to create a normal country. Once you accept this reality (which many Democrats did before the Iran nuclear deal undercut their support for sanctions policy), regime change becomes the only viable option — assuming, of course, that you believe the United States has a role to play the Middle East in the first place.
Seeking regime change isn’t rude. It is pragmatic, cost-sensitive, humane and — in the best sense of the word — liberal.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies