Beware of regime change in Iran

Published 28.06.2019 00:06
Updated 28.06.2019 17:36

The war drums between Washington and Tehran may have quieted for now, but judging from the trend over the past 15 years, it is only a matter of time before they beat again.

Make no mistake – the United States is not concerned as much by Iran's nuclear program, nor its regional meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries or its ill-record of human rights.

The incumbent Trump administration is adamant on one thing: Regime change.

This should not come as a surprise. The United States has in the past century been the world's foremost practitioner in toppling the governments of other countries. It backed the Free Officers Movement that toppled Egypt's King Farouk I, it backed the toppling of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and it orchestrated numerous attempts to kill Cuba's leader Fidel Castro. Some of these CIA designed attempts have even been turned into cinematic pieces. However, toppling governments is no laughing matter. It's a bloody business where civilians often pay the highest price.

And Iran is no laughing matter either. With its ideologically indoctrinated military, widespread public disdain toward foreign interference and deep national consciousness, the country is a much harder nut to crack.

The domino effect

A change of regime will only foment more regional chaos and instability. Here is why:

First, in the absence of a coherent and viable political successor in Iran, the likelihood of regime change succeeding is unlikely. The American-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and the 2011 intervention in Libya were justified partly on the grounds of removing non-democratic regimes and promoting democracy and stability.

However, they succeeded only in creating knee-deep quagmires, a proliferation of armed nonstate actors, infighting and wanton destruction. By installing pliable dictators or governments, intervening states fail to develop democratic governance and result in creating politically weak and economically poor states that are least likely to democratize. Take Iraq and Afghanistan as a case in point: According to Freedom House's Freedom in the World survey, Iraq is barely more democratic today than it was prior to the 2003 invasion. The same goes for Afghanistan. Rare are cases that transformed wartime adversaries into stable, democratic allies. The decades-old U.S. occupation of Japan and West Germany following World War II are a case in point. That is partly because intervening states often lack the political, military and economic commitment to remain indefinitely in the invaded country in the face of political opposition and/or armed resistance.

Second, toppling the existing and functioning government in Iran is bound to create regional instability with serious repercussions. According to Alexander B. Downes, more than 40% of states that experienced foreign-imposed regime change have had a civil war within 10 years. A civil war in an intervened state can erupt either during the process of removing the old regime from power and suppressing its remnants or because of the abrupt reversal of the status of formerly advantaged groups or because of the reversal of popular policies and the introduction of unpopular ones.

We have seen this in Iraq and Afghanistan where former Baathist and Taliban members shortly after the U.S. led-military intervention, took up arms in a deadly insurgency. In addition, history teaches us that – once the central government weakens – the periphery and border provinces vie for more autonomy that can lead to secessionism and armed conflict.

Should a country slide into war following regime change, as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of people seek (temporary) shelter in the nearest stable country (Turkey) and (permanent) shelter in the European Union.

A new influx of Iranian refugees in Europe will create yet another wave of Islamophobia and xenophobia, further empowering far right parties that have made significant gains in the latest European parliamentary elections.

Liberal system crumbles

Last, it's worth recalling that during the Cold War, Washington considered the Soviet Union its biggest security threat.

The collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union heralded the triumph of Western liberal democracy, the end of history. Three decades later, with communism dead and (an illiberal) parliamentary system in Russia, Moscow is still perceived by the U.S. national defense strategy as the biggest threat to the United States. The same can be said for 19th century Imperial China and the Ottoman Empire, both of which were viewed as competitors and threats to European imperial designs in Asia and the Middle East respectively, continue to be viewed with suspicion today.

Why is that so? It's because strong and centralized states such as Iran, Russia, China and Turkey will zealously protect their national interests and stand up to foreign encroachment. Even if Iran's Islamic government is toppled and a pro-Western one installed, nothing will essentially change if the U.S. continues to disregard Teheran's legitimate security concerns.

Many hawks in the current Trump administration tend to forget that Iran zealously protected its geostrategic interests in the Middle East even when the pro-American Shah Reza Pahlavi was in power. Toppling the Iranian government will not make Iran a client state. Any government in Iran, be it socialist, nationalist, Islamic or monarchial, will continue to pursue its strategic interests and security concerns – including in countries it shares borders with – such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

In other words, even if a seemingly offensive regime is removed, the state with its core national interests will remain and these interests will continue to be pursued no matter what system of governance is in place. Hence, lessons from the recent past beg for a general reconsideration of the wisdom of regime change.

* Broadcast journalist covering the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in Sarajevo

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