Stephen M. Walt

Be careful what you wish for: Would ‘regime change’ help Iran?

Popular protests continue to occur in Iran, raising new doubts about the future of the clerical/Revolutionary Guard regime. Because predicting if or when a given regime will fall is difficult-to-impossible, nobody really knows where this is all headed. Nonetheless, it seems clear that popular discontent with the current government is widespread and unlikely to go ...

Iranian opposition supporters demonstrate at Tehran University in the Iranian capital on December 7, 2009. Iranian police firing tear gas clashed with crowds of protesters in central Tehran as opposition supporters used Students Day commemorations to stage fresh anti-government demonstrations. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Popular protests continue to occur in Iran, raising new doubts about the future of the clerical/Revolutionary Guard regime. Because predicting if or when a given regime will fall is difficult-to-impossible, nobody really knows where this is all headed. Nonetheless, it seems clear that popular discontent with the current government is widespread and unlikely to go away anytime soon, unless somebody is foolish enough to attack them militarily, thereby generating a new surge of national unity and giving the regime an excuse to crack down even more.

This situation got me thinking about the implications of regime change there, and I’ll confess that I end up somewhat torn. I’ll bet a lot of foreign policy experts think it would be a good thing if the current Iranian regime were replaced by a genuine democracy, and preferably by one that wasn’t overly theocratic. A more accountable and less ideological regime would be better on human rights grounds, and many people also assume that such a government would be less interested in the nuclear option, less hostile to Israel, less supportive of groups like Hezbollah, and on the whole less of a threat to other U.S. interests (such as Persian Gulf oil).

I’m not so sure. On the one hand, I agree that the current regime is chaotic, corrupt, and deplorable on human rights grounds (though far less brutal than some governments with which the United States has had close relations). The regime’s treatment of women is deplorable and the crackdown following the bogus election last summer is indefensible, and its support for groups like Hezbollah is hardly consistent with U.S. interests.  Judged on purely human rights grounds, a more democratic and/or liberal government would clearly be preferable.

But we should not assume that far-reaching political change in Iran would eliminate all sources of conflict between Iran and the United States (or the West). It would have little effect on the nuclear issue: Iran has been seeking nuclear energy (and possibly nuclear weapons) ever since the Shah, and election “runner-up” Mir Hossein Mousavi supports the government’s demands to control the full nuclear fuel cycle and has openly criticized President Ahmadinejad’s initial support for an proposal to have France and Russia convert Iran’s LEU stockpile into safe fuel for Tehran’s research reactor. Iran was a more expansionist power under the Shah than it has been as an “Islamic Republic,”, and the Shah also supported insurgent groups in other countries when he thought it suited Iranian interests. Nor were earlier Iranian governments beacons of tolerance and support for basic human rights. Persian nationalism and Iranian national pride remain powerful forces within the country as well, which means that a truly democratic Iranian regime would be pressed to defend Iran’s regional interests as vigorously as its power permits.

Moreover, the realist in me warns that a more responsive, efficient, and less ideological government in Tehran might challenge the United States in ways that nobody has yet considered. Why? Because a more effective and intelligent government would be able to mobilize Iran’s considerable latent power potential much more effectively than the clerical regime has.

In terms of power potential, Iran is the only state in the Persian Gulf with the latent capacity to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf, especially now that the ill-fated U.S. invasion in 2003 has shattered Iraq’s military power and political cohesion and enhanced Iranian influence in Baghdad. Iran’s population (65 million) far exceeds Iraq (28 million), or Saudi Arabia (22 million Saudis), and Iran’s GDP ($306 billion) — despite poor economic decision making, endemic corruption, and foreign embargoes-is nearly four times larger than Iraq ($84 billion) and not far behind Saudi Arabia ($446 billion). Iran has large oil and gas reserves, a young and fairly well-educated population, some decent universities, and a favorable geographic position. If Iran ever began to realize its latent potential, therefore, it would be an even more formidable player in the region than it is today.

Imagine, for example, a political shift that brought to power the Iranian equivalent of a Deng Xiaopeng. Imagine that this new government adopted smarter economic policies, a far-sighted development strategy, and a more adroit diplomatic posture. Instead of an Iranian leadership that gives stupid and counterproductive speeches questioning the Holocaust, imagine an Iranian leader who conducted an adroit public relations effort designed to show how reasonable Iran was being in the face of “unjustified” U.S. pressure. In other words, imagine an Iran that no longer suffered from self-inflicted wounds, and that focused on converting its latent power potential into real capabilities.

My point is that we often forget that we have been dealing with an Iran that is much less powerful than we are, and much weaker than it would have been under more effective leadership. Those who press for “regime change” in Iran assume that this would produce a government whose policy preferences were more in line with ours, and that the major conflicts that now exist between Tehran and Washington would quickly evaporate. Maybe so, but it might also produce a more effective and capable government that could defend Iranian interests more effectively, even when they clashed with ours.

In particular, bear in mind that a key goal of U.S. grand strategy has been to prevent any single power from dominating the oil-rich Persian Gulf.  In other words, the United States has sought to maintain a balance of power in the region and make sure that there is no “regional hegemon” there. By contrast, Iran would undoubtedly prefer an imbalance of power in its favor, which is precisely the sort of situation the United States opposes.

This is not to say that American-Iranian rivalry is inevitable no matter who is in power in Tehran (or Washington), or that Obama’s efforts to reopen dialogue with Iran’s current government is misplaced. It is rather to suggest that reform (or even revolution) in Iran is not a magic bullet that will suddenly cause all sources of friction to disagree, and to raise the possibility that a smarter and more capable Iran might turn out to be more of a challenge than the government we are dealing with today.

So be careful what you wish for. (Now there’s a good realist precept!) The triumph of the “Green Movement” in Iran might be desirable on purely moral grounds, but there is little reason to suppose that it would solve all (or even most) of our problems in the region. And that’s all the more reason to resist the temptation to interfere within Iran itself: haven’t recent events taught us that toppling foreign governments can lead to lots of unintended and undesirable consequences?

AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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