Talk to anyone in or close to the Trump administration in Washington and you will hear two things about Iran. The first is that the Islamic Republic remains on top of the list of the United States’ “concerns” about foreign policy. The second is that there is, as yet, no comprehensive policy on Iran, something which is in the drafting stages. It was because the new policy isn’t fully shaped that President Trump decided to extend a further three months the controversial nuclear deal negotiated with Iran by Barack Obama.
The question that one may ask, however, is the aim that the new US administration may have envisaged for a new Iran policy. Under Obama, the US policy aimed at persuading Iran to change aspects of its behavior through a mixture of sanctions and concessions in the context of strategic support for the Rafsanjani faction regarded as “moderates”.
Since Trump is determined to undo as much of what Obama had done as possible, a fact illustrated by the new president’s partial denunciation of the deal made with Cuba, it is unlikely that new Iran policy would also aim at nothing but limited behavior change.
That the putative policy won’t have that aim became clear last week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Congress that the new administration pursues regime change in Iran.
“Our Iranian policy is under development,” Tillerson said. “It’s not yet been delivered to the president, but I would tell you that we certainly recognize Iran’s continued destabilizing presence in the region, their payment of foreign fighters, their export of militia forces to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, their support for Hezbollah. And we are taking action to respond to Iran’s hegemony. Additional sanctions have been put in place against individuals and others.”
The Secretary of State went on to say: “We have designated the Quds [Force]. Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Those elements are there, certainly as we know.”
Since the start of tension between the US and the Khomeinist regime in Tehran in 1979 this is the first time that a senior American official acknowledges regime change as a policy aim.
The previous administrations, from Jimmy Carter’s to George W Bush, may have desired regime change but never actually adopted it as a policy aim.
The Reagan administration tried a carrot and stick policy towards Tehran. With the help of Israel, it smuggled vitally needed arms to the Islamic Republic in the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
But at the same time, it tried to split the Khomeinist leadership by opening secret channels with both the Rafsanjani faction and the faction led by the then Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussawi while also funding a range of exile opposition groups.
President Bill Clinton pursued a policy of change within the regime and lifted some of the sanctions imposed on Iran. President George W Bush pursued a similar policy especially because Tehran offered its help in the toppling of both the Taliban in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Inside the Bush administration supporters of regime change, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz lost to supporters of “accommodation” with Iran led by National Security Adviser, then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
As for Obama, he bent backward to persuade Tehran to modify its behavior in exchange for US help to become the major power in the Middle East. On more than one occasion Obama publicly denounced regime change and insisted that was not what the US wanted under his watch.
Thus, publicly setting regime change as policy aim represents a major twist in American strategy in the Middle East.
The question analysts ask is: but is the Islamic Republic ripe for regime change?
The concept of regime change has a long history in US global strategy, dating back to the start of the Cold War in the mid-1940. Initially, it was supported by a small group of geostrategists and directed at the Soviet Union.
During the Truman presidency, it didn’t get much traction because the fashionable doctrine at the time was “containment” as spelled out by George Kennan. The idea was that, if contained, the USSR would be subject to the second law of thermodynamics, a closed system ending up in implosion.
Under Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles introduced the doctrine of “quarantine the aggressor” which provided for surrounding the USSR with a string of military alliances tied to the US.
That doctrine was put on the backburner before it could be fully tested in a reasonable time-frame. Eisenhower’s successor, John Kennedy, adopted Mc-George Bundy’s doctrine of “flexible response” which meant dealing with the Soviet Union on a case-by-case basis in a pragmatic way.
Under Nixon, the new doctrine of “détente” was designed to weave the USSR into a new global balance of power that would reduce conflict and strengthen stability. Washington went even as far as showering easy credit on the Soviets to delay the USSR’s economic collapse.
The Reagan administration abandoned that doctrine and adopted ”rollback” as its ultimate aim in dealing the Soviet Empire. That meant pushing the Soviets out of their zones of influence, inch by inch if necessary, until the heartland itself gives in.
However, over more than six decades, though never fully adopted as official policy, the doctrine of “regime change” remained an element in the American foreign policy toolbox. Partly thanks to funds supplied by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) regime change also became an academic discipline in several leading universities and inspired hundreds of research papers and dissertations.
Over the past decades, many innovative techniques of regime change have been developed and tested, sometimes with success sometimes with failure, in numerous countries from The Philippines to Nicaragua and passing by Georgia, Ukraine, and Serbia. Dress rehearsals of the doctrine have taken place even in post-Communist Russia and, in 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Regime change techniques, often relayed by activists trained by US scholars and specialists, also played a role in the recent “Arab Spring” with varying degrees of success.
According to the regime change doctrine, at least five conditions must be present before regime change becomes possible as a realistic option. The question is: how does a regime become “overthrowable”?
The first condition is that the targeted regime must have lost all or most of its legitimacy. In the case of the Islamic Republic, most analysts agree that a significant loss of legitimacy has occurred. The backbone of that legitimacy was the 1979 revolution which drew support from a wide range of political forces. Since then, however, many of those forces have either severed ties with the regime or joined its active opponents. The Mussadeqists, the “religious nationalists”, the whole range of leftist factions and Westernized liberals are now opposed to the regime. Relying largely on the use of force, the regime has lost the legitimacy that was initially based on popular support.
The second condition for regime change is that a substantial segment of the regime must break with its main body. That, too, has partly happened in Iran. Even those who played prominent roles in different stages of the revolution now question its very validity. Ibrahim Yazdi, who served as Foreign Minister under Khomeini, describes the 1979 revolution as “the victory of ignorance over despotism.”
Mohsen Sazgara, one of the founders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, now says had he known what he knows today, he would not have joined the revolution. Mir-Hussein Mussawi, once a leader of the most radical faction in the regime, is now under house arrest. Ayatollah Abdallah Nuri, an Interior Minister in the Khomeinist era, has described the 1979 revolution as “a jumble of good intentions leading to tragedy.”
The third condition for regime change is that the bulk of its coercive forces must not be prepared to kill its opponents in a civil confrontation. That, too, is partly the case in Iran today. The regular armed forces have made it clear they see their task solely as one of defending the country against foreign aggression. Army chief General Ata-Allah Salehi says they are not willing even to fight in Syria to save President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic Republic has created six separate security forces, often mistakenly rolled together as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. However, the IRGC has never been a monolith and some of its elements of have even refused to crush urban protesters, leaving that task to the Basij (Mobilization), Ansar al-Mahdi and Karbala Brigades.
However, even those forces are no longer totally reliable, a fact underlined by the creation of a special division, known as Ansar Wali al-Amr, operating under the direct command of the “Supreme Guide”. It is not a tall certain that the bulk of the regime’s forces of coercion will remain loyal in the face of a massive popular uprising.
The fourth condition for regime change is the emergence of an alternative source of moral authority to that of the government. That, too, is partly taking shape in Iran as more and more people listen to other voices, especially thanks to social media, and seek information and guidance from individuals and groups not associated with the regime. A full alternative source of moral authority does not yet exist and the regime’s monopoly in big media still gives it an advantage. The many Persian-language radio and TV channels abroad financed and controlled by the US and allies enjoy vast audiences in Iran but do not contribute to the emergence of an alternative source of moral authority because they back one of the factions within the regime.
The fifth condition for regime change, perhaps the most important, is even more problematic in Iran today. Under that condition society at large should perceive the presence of an alternative government before it moves to support regime change. Like nature, societies have a fear of the void and would not endorse radical change unless assured there would be no vacuum.
In 1978-79 the clergy in Iran provided that alternative government-in-waiting. It was credible because it had been part of Iranian reality for more than four centuries that is since Iran converted to Shiism. Today, a majority of the clergy is opposed to the Khomeinist regime but cannot play the role of alternative because that would mean politicizing themselves in precisely the same way they denounce in the case of Khomenists.
Since all political parties have been crushed and/or driven into exile, the fifth condition cannot be fulfilled by any classical political outfit. Old institutions such as the traditional bazaars played a key role in 1978-79. This time they are marginalized because a tsunami of wild-west capitalism swept them into marginality. Of the 200 richest Iranian families at the end of the 12970s, none is still in place in Iran. Instead, totally unknown figures have emerged at the head of fortunes that no Iranian could have dreamed of 30 years ago.
Could the military provide the backbone of an alternative government? Maybe.
Like counterparts in other Third World countries, the Iranian military is anxious to gain access to the latest weapons’ systems and technology and to secure a bigger say in governing the country. However, contacts with elements within the military remain limited, sporadic and indirect.
The US and allies have invested heavily in creating networks of contacts within the clergy, among technocrats, in academia, and the Iranian business community. But when it comes to the military little has been done. Worse still, the Trump administration is threatening to declare the entire IRGC “a terrorist organization” making future dialogue with elements within it even more difficult.
Judging by yardsticks set by regime-change experts, the Islamic Republic could be a candidate for such treatment. However, not all conditions for regime change are actually assembled in Iran today. But even when those conditions are assembled, as was the case in 2009, the whole scheme may be blown out of the water by a sudden retreat by the Khomeinist leaders. If the price of survival is surrender, they will surrender, as they have done on several occasions in the past, even at the 11th hour.