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 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

'It's only a game' -- really!

A week ago I had the opportunity to participate in a one-day simulation of the broad international effort to address Iran's nuclear program, sponsored by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The participants were divided into various teams (the United States, EU, Russia, China, Iran, Israel, and a "GCC" team representing other Persian Gulf states), along with a control team that supervised events (and played the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency). Several prominent journalists observed the proceedings and were also available to "leak" information to. The simulation was designed to begin on Dec. 1, 2009 and cover the next twelve months, and various teams were able to negotiate face-to-face (bilaterally or multilaterally), move military forces around, issue press releases, make back-channel offers, etc.; in short, they could undertake virtually any action that might have been possible in the real world.

The result, as has already been reported, was discouraging: by the end of the game, Iran hadn't agreed to halt enrichment, the P5+1 coalition was collapsing, and the United States and Israel were having what could politiely be called a "candid and frank exchange of views." The sole piece of good news was that there had been no recourse to military force by the time the game ended.

Several participants have recently published their own "take-aways" from the experience, which they appear to have found sobering. Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius (who was one of the journalists in attendance) suggested that although it was only a simulation, the game nonetheless "revealed some important real-life dynamics-and the inability of any diplomatic strategy, so far, to stop the Iranian nuclear push." The head of the "Iranian team," former NSC aide Gary Sick, has offered reflections of his own in a recent piece in The National, noting that "By the end of the game, the Americans had driven away all their ostensible allies, and wasted immense time and effort, while Iran was better off than it had been at the beginning." Sick also suggests that "the moves of the US team were quite similar to the strategy actually employed by the United States over the course of the last three administrations."

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience but drew a different set of conclusions from it.  (I was on the U.S. team, and was assigned the role of SecDef Robert Gates). My conclusion at the end of the game was that one could draw no firm conclusions from the experience, and my principal concern was that participants would be tempted to do just that.

In my view, what one might call the "external validity" of the game was limited by three unrealistic features.

First, the timetable of the game was extremely compressed. In effect, we were trying to simulate a full year of negotiations in a mere six hours. Thus, each hour of the game covered two months, which meant that a team could send a message to another team and receive a reply in due course, only to discover that a month or more had passed and the original message was now effectively obsolete. More to the point, the breakneck pace of the game did not allow for any time for reflection, for the weighing of alternatives, or even the formulation of clear or novel strategies. (Each team was given about twenty-five minutes to plan its approach before the game began, and I like to think U.S. leaders do a bit better than that in real life. Heck, Obama just spent several months deciding what to do in Afghanistan). Yes, time is a precious commodity and policymakers are often forced to juggle multiple commitments, but I believe a more realistic timetable would have produced very different results. 

Second, trying to simulate a complex multiparty negotiation with four or five-person "teams" was problematic, particularly when some team members (myself included), had to leave the game temporarily to teach their regular classes. This constraint required me to be absent for 90 minutes, which in terms of the game's timetable meant that the U.S. Secretary of Defense was effectively incommunicado for three "months." The same problem sidelined the person who played the Secretary of State for a similar period. Moreover, given that team members had no staff and thus no subordinates to give orders to, there was no one to delegate to and it was impossible to conduct continuous consultations with all of the relevant parties, even when both sides may have wanted to. What must have looked to some like Bush-era "unilateralism" was instead simply an unavoidable artifact of the game's structure.

Third, the composition of the different teams was unavoidably slanted. The U.S., Russian, Chinese, Iranian teams were all populated with and led by Americans, while the Israeli team was made up entirely of Israelis and the EU team was composed of Europeans. To have confidence in the validity of the results, therefore, you have to assume that each of the teams actually played the way that their real-life counterparts would have. That might be true in the case of the U.S., Israeli, and European teams (though I wouldn't assume it), but it's obviously more of a stretch with the others.

These difficulties are not the fault of the game's organizers, who faced obvious constraints in putting the exercise together. Ideally, such a simulation would have been played over a long week-end and covered a shorter time period, but it would have been far more difficult to assemble an equally impressive array of participants for an entire weekend. Putting together a genuinely multi-national participant list (including appropriate Iranians?), would have been even harder if not impossible.  

The bottom line is that one ought to be exceedingly wary about drawing any conclusions about what this artificial exercise actually teaches. To me, its real value is not as a crude crystal ball that allows us to divine the future, or even as an analytical device that helps us identify particular barriers to resolving some thorny diplomatic problem. After all, it's not exactly headline news to discover that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue isn't easy, that there are certain tensions within the P5+1, or that Iran's objectives are at odds with those of the other participants. 

Rather, the potential value of such an exercise lies in forcing participants to take on different roles and see how a problem looks from a wholly different perspective. With hindsight, I wish we had mixed things up a lot more: with some Israelis on the Iran team, with real Russians, Chinese or EU citizens playing on the U.S. or Israeli side, and so forth. That might have taught us about some of the sources of misunderstanding that have made this issue so hard to resolve, whatever the actual "outcome" of the game might have been.