Iran's behaviour on a number of fronts is unpalatable to the United States. But a policy of regime change is not the answer.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of IISS-Americas, and Samantha Hay, IISS-Americas intern

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump maintained that the Iraq war was a mistake and that attempts at regime change in the Middle East were dangerous and wasteful. As president-elect, he appears to have largely stuck to that line. Many of his selections for top national-security posts may have a different view, however – and particularly when it comes to Iran.

The Iranian regime has long been a thorn in the side of Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, retired general James Mattis. His longstanding antagonism towards the Islamic Republic is believed to have been the impetus behind his removal as head of US Central Command. In April 2016, Mattis referred to the Iranian regime as ‘the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East’ and a ‘revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem’.

Mattis has stopped short of outright regime-change advocacy. But Mike Flynn, Trump’s selection for national security advisor (and another retired general), has gone further. He has been explicit in his condemnation of the Iranian regime, has advocated for the American overthrow of regimes that are ‘Islamic Republics’, and in 2015 testified before Congress that ‘regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program’.

Representative Mike Pompeo, chosen to head the CIA, is known for his harsh rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, and once called upon Congress to ‘change Iranian behavior, and ultimately, the Iranian regime’. A day before his appointment was announced, Pompeo took to Twitter to say ‘I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.’

One exception to this attitude is Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state. In an interview last March, he said Exxon might in the future seek to conduct business in Iran. Tillerson won out over three prominent Trump advisers from the regime-change camp: Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and John Bolton. Yet they likely will remain influential. Bolton had been in the running for number two at the State Department. Arguably the most hawkish of all, he has been a long-time advocate for regime change in Iran, referring to it as the ‘only long-term solution’ to the threats posed by the country, and once said ‘the ayatollahs are the principal threat to international peace and security in the Middle East’.

Circling in Trump’s orbit are others who have embraced a controversial partner in the case for regime change: the People’s Mujahedin Organization (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group that, until 2012, was designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States. Elaine Chao (Trump’s pick for transportation secretary), Giuliani and Gingrich have all spoken at the MEK’s annual ‘Free Iran’ rallies. Within the MEK, they contend, there exists a viable alternative to the leadership in Tehran. At the 2014 rally, for example, Giuliani asserted that regime change in Iran would be ‘easy’, with the MEK on hand to step in. In a similar vein, Bolton has called for US support for Iranian opposition groups as a way of conducting regime change without the use of American military force.

There is good reason – in theory – to want a different regime in Tehran. Anti-Americanism was a founding principle of the 1979 revolution, and the anniversary of the 4 November 1979 embassy takeover is marked each year with public celebrations. Iran shows its animosity in the jailing of dual US-Iranian citizens and such actions as last January’s humiliating capture of US seamen. Although Iran is in compliance with the nuclear accord, whatever trust with the US that deal built after 35 years of hostility has done little to soften Tehran’s belligerency elsewhere. And while Iran’s misbehaviour is often exaggerated, its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria, its missile tests and its sustained menace toward Israel are all unpalatable.

Yet, after Iraq, it is difficult to support the idea that regime change can ever be ‘easy’. Moreover, the cult-like MEK is generally reviled in Iran because of its explicit support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. And any group that the US publicly backed as an alternative to the Islamic Republic would be seen as an American puppet. In any case, the Iranian people are not inclined to try to topple the regime. Seeing how the Arab Spring played out in Libya and Syria has made them far more disposed to work within the system. An American policy of regime change would also vindicate those in Iran who argued against accepting any limits on the nuclear programme, and could well spur nuclear weapons development.

One of the current authors has called for unification of the Korean Peninsula under Seoul’s auspices as the only ‘happy ending’ to the tortured saga of North Korea. All other policies have failed, and the Kim Jong-un regime has made clear it will never willingly barter away its nuclear weapons. In the Iran case, by contrast, diplomacy has been shown to work. The most worrisome aspect of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its nuclear programme, has been bottled up – for now at least. Similar diplomatic approaches should be pursued to address Iran’s missile-development programme and other concerns. Let us hope that Tillerson’s business-like style – whether or not he is confirmed– wins out. 

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