In the Name of the Iranian People- Regime Change or Regime Reform?
The Bush Administration has been without an Iran policy since it took office in January 2000. The containment policy it inherited from the Clinton Administration was under review when the tragedy of September 11 occurred. The US then drifted toward the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and declared Iran as belonging to an “Axis of Evil.” However, as Iran’s nuclear crisis became more global, the Administration refocused attention on Iran. The broad contours of an Iran policy were outlined by Secretary Condoleezza Rice and two senior officials of the State Department on 15 February 2006. Dr. Rice made her remarks at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the officials briefed the media.i
The new Iran policy is said to differ from the previous policy in two significant ways: It distinguishes the “Islamic regime” from the “Iranian people,” and it focuses on changing (some say reforming) the Islamic regime, rather than its behavior. In short, it is a regime change (or regime reform) policy in the name of the Iranian people. On a practical level, the policy relies on international isolation and domestic destabilization of the Islamic regime. The dual pressure is expected to make the system collapse, or bend, hereby delaying or preventing Iran from building nuclear bombs, or making a prospective nuclear Iran safer.
This Iran policy is part of a new “transformational diplomacy” that Secretary Rice is promoting within the Administration, and marks a shift in the US approach to Iran, from a reactive to a proactive diplomacy. Specifically, Secretary Rice has made a number of long-overdue decisions to rebuild the American capacity to deal constructively with Iran, such as establishing Farsidesignated positions after years of neglect. The new Office of Iran Affairs is another example of a more proactive approach to Iran. One hopes that these developments would lead to a much needed insightful understanding of Iran and to proper strategies and tactics.
There is serious concern that the Bush Administration might at some point opt for a military solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis before it “exhausts” all other available options. The President and some in the Congress have repeatedly said that the use of force remains “a last option.” Meanwhile, former and current Israeli officials have called for immediate military strikes against Iran, with the tacit approval of Vice President Richard Cheney; some have even revealed “Israeli plans” for the purpose. I have argued in previous articles that the road to the UN Security Council can logically lead to war, and that our current complacency could prove disastrous.ii
However, in the present article I am focusing on the new Iran policy, which takes a long view of Iran. As such, it can help postpone or diffuse the military option and give democracy time to develop. Meanwhile, the equivocal position of the State Department between regime change and regime reform will encourage further debate, giving the proponents a chance to advance the policy, and the opponents an opportunity to voice dissenting views. Even if the Administration likes to think that the new policy is appropriate, and its position does have support among neoconservatives, many Iran experts and US allies remain unconvinced.
In what follows, I will offer an exposition of the new policy, critically evaluate its key assumptions and initiatives, explain the difficulties implementing the policy will face, explicate its pros and cons for the pro-democracy Iranians, and offer an alternative perspective on how the US might help reform the Iranian regime without presenting itself as an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. I shall draw from past US experiences with dictatorships that became democracies in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.