The Middle East Channel

Is regime change in Iran the only solution?

As the prospects for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program dim, and an anxious American public contemplates the grim prospect of military action, attention has turned again to the prospect of changing Iran's regime. But is U.S. regime change in Iran, whether through sanctions or direct action, really a viable prospect?

Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz have argued that the United States should pursue sanctions that lead to regime change. According to them, through sanctions, "a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn. A democratic Iran might keep the bomb that Khamenei built. But the U.S., Israel, Europe, and probably most of the Arab world would likely live with it without that much fear." The attraction of removing the Islamic Republic may be obvious. Sanctions may slow down Iran's nuclear drive but most likely will not roll back the program. Military strikes would do damage but are hardly guaranteed to destroy major facilities such as the recently opened Qom enrichment plant, buried beneath 300 feet of rock. For many, only a change of the regime would diminish the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

What is often missing from this debate is that only Iranians can achieve any meaningful regime change. The United States can no longer effect political change in Iran, as it did with the overthrow of Iran's popularly elected government in 1953. Sanctions against the central bank, for example, may create widespread economic panic, and shake the population's trust in the Iranian government. Sanctions could even increase Iranians' dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs to such an extent that they are more prone to go into the streets in protest. However, Iranians are not going to overthrow their rulers due to economic hardships alone, and certainly not at the behest of the United States.

The sources of Iranian angst vary, and range from the miserable state of the economy to government mismanagement and corruption. The most crucial factor, however, is the regime's lack of legitimacy due to its overall treatment of the Iranian population. The 2009 presidential election shattered the faith of millions of Iranians in electoral politics. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards' consolidation of power, and their violent response to opponents, showed Iranians that the regime -- which often refers to Khamenei as an "absolute" ruler only beholden to God's authority -- no longer views popular will as a pillar of the political system.

And the regime's opponents are not merely the fashionable and largely secular men and women who inhabit northern Tehran. Even members of the Revolutionary Guards are disillusioned with Khamenei's authoritarian style of rule. The former Guards navy chief, Hossein Alaei, recently wrote a letter to a major Iranian newspaper implicitly comparing Khamenei's behavior to the former Shah, who once treated the aspirations of his people with contempt. Disillusionment with the regime exists throughout Iran's political and military circles. It often lies beneath the surface, but it is very real, and potentially quite powerful.

Only Iranians can achieve regime change, should they seek it. Iran has the ingredients for a more democratic political system, much more so than many of its neighbors. It has a large and well educated middle class, and a suppressed but still alive civil society.

Sanctions will not directly lead to the regime's downfall, but they can create the space and time necessary for the United States to forestall Iran's nuclear weapons program while a better political system emerges in Iran. The United States should not pursue sanctions with the intent of changing the regime, but to contain it in order to give Iranians a chance to effect change themselves. At the same time, the United States should increasingly focus on human rights abuses and lack of legitimate elections as the regime faces parliamentary and presidential elections.

Unfortunately, sanctions could also hurt the same Iranians who are opposed to the government. The Green Movement, supported by Iran's middle class, will bear the brunt of sanctions. Elements of the Revolutionary Guards, involved in Iran's illicit trade, may actually benefit from sanctions in the short run. However, no section of Iranian society or the political system is likely to be spared in the long run given the magnitude of sanctions against the central bank. Iran as a whole may suffer, but the effort to contain the Iranian regime will not be cost free for the United States or the Iranian people.

Alireza Nader, coauthor of Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran (RAND, 2011), is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that improves policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egyptian revolution anniversary marked by celebrations and protests

Egyptian revolution anniversary marked by celebrations and protests

Egyptian youth activists planned a sit-in in Tahrir Square demanding a transfer to civilian rule and vowing to remain in the square in Cairo until the military council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, yields power. They were part of the crowds amassed -- some in protest and some in celebration -- throughout Egypt on January 25, and tens of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square to mark the one-year anniversary of the revolution that led to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. Activists protested saying the ruling military has failed to realize the revolution's demands, claiming nothing has changed since Mubarak. Attiya Mohammed Attiya, a protester present in Tahrir said, "I am here for a second revolution. The military council is made of remnants of the Mubarak regime. We will only succeed when we remove them from power." There were no police or troops posted at Tahrir Square over concerns that their presence would provoke violence. While no major clashes were reported, events were not without tension, as the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-military protesters ran competing soundstages.

Headlines  

  • The Arab League mission in Syria continued without Gulf observers as security forces were deployed to Douma, a Damascus suburb plagued with clashes.
  • Two bomb attacks killed 13 people in Iraq including two policemen and their families in their home south of Baghdad.
  • China criticized the European Union's ban on Iranian oil as "not constructive." Meanwhile, Iranian legislators are drafting a bill that would preemptively cut off oil exports to Europe.
  • The Syrian Arab Red Crescent's vice president, Abdulrazak Jbeiro, was shot and killed while driving from Damascus to Idlib, however the "circumstances are still unclear."
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said "exploratory talks" have come to an end as the deadline for border proposals expires today.

Daily Snapshot

CAIRO, EGYPT -- Egyptian people continue to demonstrate in Tahrir Square on January 26, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. Tens of thousands of Egyptian people gathered yesterday to celebrate the anniversary of the start of the uprising which ended President Hosni Mubaraks rule (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images). 

Arguments & Analysis

'Can Israel stop Iran's nuke effort?' (Karl Vick, Time)

"Cordesman reckons Israel probably has enough aircraft and enough range to do serious damage to 10 to 12 of Iran's atomic facilities. But damaged labs can be rebuilt, he notes, and Iran has announced plans for 10 new enrichment sites-further dispersing later-generation centrifuges in places smaller, harder to locate and easier to harden. The issue, Cordesman says, is not simply capability but consequences. "If anyone tells you this is sort of binary, either ‘Yeah, they can do it' or ‘Oh, no, they can't,' they don't know what they're talking about," he says. "Israel is going to act strategically. It's going to look at the political outcome of what it says and does, not simply measure this in terms of some computer game and what the immediate tactical impact is.""

'January 25th and the Egypt the revolution has made' (Steven A. Cook, Foreign Affairs)

"This perverse political order in which institutions are rigged to serve the elite remains intact. Yet how to finally finish the job? The instigators of the uprising have taken a principled stand against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, because they believe the military is a counterrevolutionary force. But the activists' permanent revolution has had diminishing returns. They may have started the revolt, but as the first phase of Egypt's transition comes to a close they are finding themselves marginalized." 

'The seasonal effects of an Arab Spring' (Imad Mansour, Open Democracy)

"Iranian and Turkish messages about their important positions in a transitioning Arab system come from two different backgrounds and offer varied promises in terms of policy; they both might be hard-pressed to find an all-attentive Arab audience. But then for decision makers, the external and domestic policy domains are intricately joined; and so it might be that a significant part of such messages is really intended for a receiving domestic audience. It remains to be better analyzed, but foreign policy posturing has been well invested domestically in power balancing (e.g. among the various political actors) and/or electoral purposes."