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Regime Change in Iran: The Fantasy That Will Not Die
The American political establishment will not give up the fantasy that they can somehow bring about regime change in Iran—that the United States can somehow topple the Iranian leadership just like it supposedly toppled the Soviet Union.
Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Sam Brownback of Kansas have introduced legislation (S-3008) that, in Cornyn’s own words: “. . . states that it is U.S. policy to support the Iranian people’s efforts to establish a truly democratic and accountable government and free themselves from the regime headed by Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. ”
Self-avowed neoconservative Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on June 14 entitled "Iran's Revolution: Year 2.” It calls on the Obama administration to support the Green Movement to effect regime change. He writes: “By throwing in his lot with the freedom movement, (President Obama) would surely increase the odds that we won’t have to live with a nuclear bomb controlled by virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic clerics. Democrats, once the champions of promoting pro-democracy movements, need to understand that the good that they can do for the people of Iran far exceeds the great harm that comes from doing nothing.”
Not to be outdone, Democrats are doing something, too. Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution in 2008 with Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) declaring that Iran was inimical to "the vital national security interests of the United States" and "demanding" that the president impose a full-scale naval, air and land blockade on Iran effectively, an act of war. The resolution failed, but Ackerman continues to press for similar actions from the Obama administration.
The question of regime change in Iran is warmed-over Cold War logic dating from the Revolution of 1978-79. In 1980, Edward Sa'id wrote a trenchant piece in the Columbia Journalism Review. He made the point that the dominant government stance after the Revolution had nothing to do with understanding Iran or Iranian history. Instead it asked just one question: "Is Islam for or against the United States?" And, of course, he meant Iran as the embodiment of Islam at that moment.
The answer that has emerged over four decades in the regime change circles is clearly that "Islam (read Iran) is against the United States." It is from that point that the fantasizing begins: How to destroy this anti-American regime.
The government of Israel has succeeded in creating a codicil--also right out of the Cold War: "What threatens Israel also threatens the United States."
The answers are Cold War answers. No imagination. No attempt to understand Iran in social, cultural or historical terms. Just a repeat of what "worked" to bring down the Soviet Union short of direct attack: isolation, inflicting economic pain, scaring the world into thinking “the enemy” is dangerous, and finally fomenting and encouraging internal dissent.
The reason this rhetoric works is because the U.S. public and perhaps many Europeans are already primed to accept both this logic and these solutions having been taught to fear the Soviet Union for three decades. However these stratagems won't work with Iran. Iran is not the Soviet Union. Iran sees itself not as the aggressor, but rather the defender.
All of these strategies have thus far failed.
Isolation of Iran is not working. At a recent conference on the Middle East in London, a leading Italian economist said: "We are Iran's largest European trade partner. When our businessmen show up in Tehran, there are three Chinese businessmen waiting in the outer office. The U.S. is driving Iran into the hands of Asian partners, and ruining our business with them--and for what? To satisfy some American ideology?" The only nation that truly desires Iranian isolation and believes that it can be achieved is the United States.
Inflicting economic pain is not only ineffective, it is counter-productive. We may have brought the Soviet Union down by creating an arms race that they couldn't sustain, but nothing we have or could do to Iran is going to cripple the country to the point of collapse, and it is laughable to think that that could happen. The Iranian people are inconvenienced by these low-level unilateral economic sanctions, such as those pushed through the United Nations Security Council on June 9, 2010, and the U.S. Treasury on June 16. They thus are embittered about the United States, but nothing more. It most decidedly does not make U.S. overtures to them to overthrow their own government more probable.
Scaring the world about Iran has been a complete failure outside of the United States. No one has any proof whatever that Iran has a nuclear weapons program--it is a red herring, and the world knows it. The Non-aligned Movement has continually issued support for Iran’s nuclear energy program. Even if there were a nuclear military program, Iran is years away from having anything that could pass for an effective weapon. The Gulf States may be concerned, as they always have been, about the Shi'a community, since they constitute either a majority (Bahrain) or a significant minority (UAE, Saudi Arabia), but the dead-end idea promulgated by the Bush administration and carrying forward, that Iran is about to attack its neighbors--and with a non-existent nuclear warhead--is the stuff of fiction. Iran would destroy its own economy if it did this. Its relations with its neighbors are completely symbiotic.
Finally, Cornyn and Brownback, Ackerman, Gerecht, and others of their ilk utterly misunderstand the post-1999-election Green Movement in Iran. If the movement is eventually successful, it will not usher in some kind of purging revolution that will create a pro-American government. The Green Movement is about legitimacy of leadership within the current Iranian governmental framework, not about overthrowing the government. Nor will trying to foment dissent in Iran's many ethnic communities, another strategy favored by the regime-change fans, be any more effective. The many ethnic groups that make up Iran’s pluralistic civilization have identified with Great Iranian civilization for more than two millennia.
The worst part of the push for regime change is that the more the United States and other external powers interfere in Iranian affairs, the less likely it is that change will occur. Has no one in power read Iranian history? Does no one understand how Iran has constructed the United States in its own paranoid fantasies? U.S. interference taints every attempt at reform from within, make no mistake.
If there is to be regime change in Iran, it will be from within, over time (and not such a long time frame, either). Yes, talk about the real problem of human rights. Yes, engage in dialogue, but give up the Cold War strategizing with bankrupt, inappropriate methods. They won't work. And open chatter about more strategies for "regime change" merely feeds the Iranian power elite the stuff they need to blame their every weakness and failing on the United States.
William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota. He has lived and conducted research in Iran and the Middle East for more than 30 years and is the author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (Chicago, 2008).