History Shows That Regime Change in Iran Is Not the Answer
Is it time for America to support regime change in Iran? A growing chorus inside the Beltway says “yes.” According to them, the arc of history bends toward freedom in Iran. Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh argue in The Wall Street Journal that “[d]evising a strategy to collapse the clerical regime isn’t difficult” because “the essential theme in modern Iranian history is a populace seeking to emancipate itself from tyranny.” They see the growing economic chaos in Iran as birth-pangs of emancipation and call for America to act as midwife.
Many intellectuals before Gerecht and Takeyh have advanced theories of unstoppable historical change, driven by forces the wise can interpret and accelerate. In the nineteenth century, Hegel thought history was rushing toward human freedom. Marx thought it drove toward the collapse of capitalism and the rise of socialism. More recently, some thought the end of communism foreshadowed an inevitable global shift toward liberal democracy—an “end of history.” Dictatorships elsewhere, they thought, were living on borrowed time. One small push and the tide of history would do the rest.
They put their theory to the test in Iraq in 2003. They promised regime change in Iraq would lead the whole Middle East into the next stage of history: peaceful, tolerant, and democratic. The exact opposite resulted.
Washington’s foreign policy elite used U.S. military power to bring down a brutal autocracy, only to see barbarism follow. Iraq became a land of looting, torture, and beheadings. A sectarian civil war drove out the majority of Iraq’s Christians and sorted Baghdad into a checkerboard of segregated neighborhoods. The Islamic State group sprung up in the chaos. ISIS—not democracy—spread to Iraq’s neighbors. American troops are still cleaning up the mess in Iraq 15 years later. Shaping history had failed. The regime change experiment’s cost was too high and accumulates to this day.
Those now calling for regime change in Iran insist they do not want a repeat of Iraq. That incorrectly assumes the invasion of Iraq was a tactical rather than a strategic failure. They seem to believe overthrowing the mullahs will not only be easier but also lead to even better outcomes—we are asked to suspend reality and ignore the results from Washington’s post-9/11 foreign policy decisions.
It took hundreds of thousands of American troops to remove Saddam Hussein. Iran regime change proponents suggest economic sanctions, a little covert action, and a few mean tweets can do in Ali Khamenei. Even better, democracy is sure to follow, since it is the next stage in Iranian history’s arc.
And that’s possible. Iran is home to a great people with a terrible government. Things can get much better. However, as the regime changers learned the hard way in Iraq, they can also get much worse. Deeper pressure on Iran could strengthen the regime. Sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq did exactly that. As Peter Beinart observed, “sanctions shift the balance of power in a society in the regime’s favor. As sanctions make resources harder to find, authoritarian regimes hoard them. They make the population more dependent on their largesse and withhold resources from those who might threaten their rule.”
In Iran, the hardline Revolutionary Guards have the inside track on those resources. The last round of sanctions let them buy up struggling businesses and run smuggling rings. New pressure could leave the Guards with an even bigger slice of an even smaller pie.
And if new unrest leads to the clerics’ fall, the Guards have the money and the guns. A military dictatorship may be more likely than a democracy. At a minimum, the military would have a veto over the new government. Revolutions can end up in unexpected places. We need to look no further than Iran’s 1979 uprising for evidence. Few realized Khomeini would be more than a figurehead. Intellectuals and left-wing groups that backed Iran’s revolution faced serious persecution after it. Women’s rights supporters held a massive demonstration against mandatory hijab just weeks after the revolution’s success, chanting “We did not make a revolution to go backwards.”
Even if we do provoke an uprising in Iran, uprisings often fail. As Takeyh and Gerecht note, they failed in Iran in 1999, 2009, and late last year.
History is full of thwarted revolts and broken rebellions: Tiananmen Square in China, the Prague Spring, the Fronde, the Vendee Rebellion, the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, the 1953 East German protests, the March 1st Movement in Korea, the 2.28 Incident in Taiwan, the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the 1848 Hungarian revolution, the Basmachi revolt against the Soviet Union, the Constitutionalist Revolution in Brazil, and many more. The regimes that led the crackdowns on these uprisings lasted for many more years—and they were often more brutal than before.
Americans should reject calls for new regime change plans abroad. But that does not mean ignoring dictators, abandoning our values, or espousing moral relativism.
Instead, we should embrace the tradition of humility in foreign policy exemplified by our Founders. They, too, witnessed repression abroad. They, too, loved our system of government and hoped for its spread. They wanted America to be, in John Quincy Adams’ words, “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” But they prudently worried that getting involved in other nations’ internal politics would entangle America in new conflicts it could barely understand, let alone solve. (Iraq showed the price of ignoring their wisdom.)
Freedom is not something to be given away or imposed. It emerges organically, and often slowly, in a people. Its success is difficult to predict. This is why the Monroe Doctrine emphasized America would recognize new states that “maintain” their freedom, not those who merely declare it, and why Adams warned that backing revolts abroad “involve [America], beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
They were heirs to the complicated, uncertain, centuries-long rise of the rights of Englishmen. The Magna Carta was in its sixth century when the Constitution was written. They were also heirs to the classical tradition and thus knew that the establishment of the Republic in Rome or democracy in Greek city-states had not brought about an end to history. They put checks and balances in the Constitution because they knew their project was uncertain. The same uncertainty helped foster their disinterest in using American power to boost foreign revolutions. Lasting republics take time, and they aren’t inevitable.
Unlike today’s regime changers, America’s founding generations realized that history is not predictable.
John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society and coauthor of several studies on U.S. policy toward Iran.