Why Regime Change Won't Work

The assumption that democracy would magically ensue


Why Regime Change Won't Work
by Robert Wright

One of the most popular things on the Republican campaign trail--possibly more popular than any of the candidates themselves--is regime change in Iran. Mitt Romney favors it, Rick Santorum favors it, and Newt Gingrich even has a plan for doing it: "cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran and then, frankly, sabotaging the only refinery they have."

Give these guys some credit: At least they don't suffer from the common illusion that a few days of bombing will lastingly set back Iran's nuclear program. Unfortunately, the idea that regime change would do the job isn't much more reality-based.

You'd think that our eight-year adventure in Iraq would have raised doubts about the extent to which changed regimes will hew to our policy guidelines. There we deposed an authoritarian leader and painstakingly constructed a government, only to see the new regime (a) tell America to get the hell out of the country; and (b) cozy up to an American adversary (Iran!).

Maybe boosters of Iranian regime change are thinking: This time will be different; in Iran there are lots of well-educated, somewhat westernized regime opponents--the famous "green movement" that, having been brutally suppressed, lies waiting to take the reins, after which compliance with the international community's wishes will ensue.

An appealing scenario, but here's a flashback that complicates it:

In late 2009, negotiators reached a deal that would have defused tensions over the nuclear issue: Iran would send uranium abroad, where it would be further enriched and returned in a form suitable for medical use but not for use in weapons. President Ahmadinejad favored the deal, hailing it as a "victory". But then the deal was denounced not just by some Iranian conservatives but by Mir Hossein Mousavi, leader of the "progressive" greens. Ahmadinejad quickly changed his tune.

Mousavi's resistance isn't surprising. According to public opinion polls done that year, the greens don't differ much on the nuclear issue from Iranians at large. With sanctions already underway and starting to bite, 78 percent of Mousavi supporters said Iran should not "give up its nuclear activities regardless of the circumstances."

To be sure, they weren't talking about a nuclear bomb. They were talking about a nuclear energy program. But a UN Security Council pre-condition for suspending sanctions is Iran's suspension of "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities." That's the kind of thing that Iranians broadly--green and non-green--seem to oppose; there is a strong, nationalistic insistence in Iran on the right of the country to enrich its own uranium as part of a nuclear energy program. And there is roughly as strong a resistance among the more hawkish Iran hawks to letting Iran do that.

So one key premise of regime change--that the will of a new democratic government would align with the will of regime-change boosters--is dubious even if you assume that greens would be the dominant force in this government. And that assumption, in turn, has two problems of its own: (1) Those 2009 opinion polls showed greens to be in the minority, outnumbered by Ahmadinejad supporters; so even if you ensured fair elections, and restructured Iranian democracy so that the elected president was truly the country's supreme leader, that wouldn't mean greens ran the show; (2) How would you ensure fair elections and restructure Iranian democracy in the first place?

After all, when you induce regime change by tightening sanctions to the choking point, you don't get to micro-manage the transition. Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, champions of regime change, recently wrote that "through sanctions, a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn." Yes, it might. And through rolling a pair of dice, doubles might be born. But at least as likely as a smooth transition to a truer democracy is a civil war in which lots of people die. (When will neocons--and for that matter liberal hawks--learn that authoritarian leaders, though we may call them "autocrats," usually have a large constituency that sees itself as benefiting from their rule and will fight on their behalf?) Among the things that could follow a civil war are more authoritarian rule and regional conflagration. And, as long as we're on the subject of human suffering: How much misery winds up getting inflicted on innocent people before an economic chokehold leads to regime change in the first place?

Even in Iraq--where, with hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, we in theory could micro-manage things--we wound up with a regime that defies our will and is increasingly thuggish. And now we think we can do regime change by remote control and get a happy ending? I'd rather let nature take its course; if you leave Iran to its own devices the regime won't continue to escape the forces, technological and otherwise, that have fueled the Arab Spring.

Support for a policy of regime change rests on two major features of America's national psychology: optimism, reflected in the assumption that democracy would magically ensue; and moral self-confidence, reflected in the assumption that whatever America wants is best for the world and that reasonable people everywhere will see this if given the chance.

The Iranians--whether green or not--don't seem to see this. But who knows? Maybe if we shut off their gasoline imports and blow up their one refinery, they'll warm up to us.

First published in The Atlantic.

Robert Wright is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.



another apologist rears his 'head'.....

by shushtari on

it amazes me that after all the crimes committed by the mullahs, there are 'an-telectuals' who still advocate the preservation of this criminals!!!!

i wonder if this guy thought the same thing about the shah- who was zillion times better than these creatures.... 


IR Change is not a hope

by masoudA on

it is a necessity.  Not only for Iran and Iranians....but for all, and especially for well being of Americans, Euros,.....Isreal......human sanity.......

but here is something to ponder on.... As you indicated, the Republicans are pressing for regime change - they have been for years....George Bush even correctly called Iranians "Hostages" in the hands of Islamists --- yet an overwhelming majority of Iranian/Americans voted for Obama in the last election!!!!!!!  Why????????   so damn frustrating.   Nobody says Republicans are angels....but for an Iranian to vote Democrat on the next election....is unforgivable........Iran is not any different than Italy was before WW2 - we are dealing with another kind of facist.   Uncle Sam rescued Italy....can do the same for Iran. 


Wrong and right

by choghok on

Surprisingly people has backed off from the point that Nuclear power is our right stance and have become pragmatic. So saying that most people are behind AN or Khameneis nuclear ambition because of studis some years ago is not accurate.

That said, I do also agree that even if we have Americans take over power with no casualties after leaving Iran would be the same mess it is today. This since people in Iran do not hold democratic values high or do not know them at all. They put everything as wholy and untouchable an unquestionable beside the democratic values and I am not talking about the religious people. It takes a century of therapy to solve those issues.

Arash Kamangir

Regime will remain

by Arash Kamangir on

The change of regime by U.S was very much possible after 9/11 however America chose the wrong target to invade. 10 years on the world has fully changed and the West is too weak to invade. Another uprising like of 2009 will be totally crushed by regime.


Robert Wright is an intelligent, honest observer!

by Disenchanted on


       Many on IC would do well to read his views! Check his video here on his new book: Evolution of God:


   Not that I agree with his views in the book!

Sadegh Bozorgmehr

The idea that any foreign

by Sadegh Bozorgmehr on

The idea that any foreign policy of regime change will do anything other than set back prospects for regime change is ridiculous. 

Regime change will come when Iranians don't have to worry about outside intervention, threats, or meddling. The biggest anti-IRI protests happened under Clinton and Obama, whereas very little happened under Bush's confrontation policy and official policy of regime change.   


Several Critical Mis-Assumptions

by bahmani on

Not a bad assessment, but given your key assumptions are off, that makes it optimistically naive but I'll still give you a B-, for effort and taking the time to think it through intellectually. Most don't bother.

First, you have to stop thinking that the Green movement was anything other than the happen chance campaign colors (The primary Mohammedan/Islamic color of choice, not an expression of environmentalism) of Moussavi. M was chosen by Khamenei as a pseudo-opponent for Ahmadinejad. M was not drafted by popular choice. He made some irresponsible campaign promises that fooled the youth into thinking it was going to happen. M was in fact a key revolutionary judge responsible for the death sentences of thousands of political opponents, and the Prime Minister, whose position was eliminated by Khamenei. Tossing him the ticket, was K's way of making peace. Mistakenly rebuked by a still sore over losing his job M, to disastrous result.

So that's your lesson on the Green "Movement". It wasn't one. The West only wished and thought it was.

Second, Iraq was under Iran's control when Moqtada Al Sadr built his militia, or 2 years into it. That is when those of us who recognize it, saw the Iraqi women begin wearing the Iranian style of head scarf, uniquely Iranian in design. The uniform gave it away. Next came key well known allies and paid stooges of Iran who dominated the Iraqi constitution development committees, that finally led to the creation of the actual Iraqi Constitution, whose first 5 sections, are virtually identical to Iran's.

Don't worry, Condoleeza Rice didn't see that one either. And she's supposedly a genius. Meanwhile all of us poor sons of sheep herders over here, screamed to high heaven, "Noooooo!"

By the way, check out the first 5 sections of Afghanistan's C --- I mean the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

No one has ever dared to or will ever dare to poll the Iranian people on whether they want Iran to have a Nuke. So quoting their opinion on Nuclear Power will be exactly the same as what Americans feel about America's Nuclear Power ambitions.

But if you ask an Iranian, they will not want anything to do with weapons. Hence why the government doesn't poll them about it.

Finally, there is an Iranian saying, "If you wound a snake, don't think you can simply toss it to the back of your garden and forget about it."

Iran is America's wounded snake. America has wounded Iran twice. Once in 1953 and once in 1979. And as you have seen, Iran has healed and come back intending to bite America. Iran only needs to give just a small bite, the venom will do the rest.

Had the US killed the "snake", like it did in Germany and Japan. Iran, like Germany or Japan today, would be like Germany or Japan today. Possibly even better, since Iran has oil.

There are some mistakes that put you in such a corner, that you cannot get out of. Because of the US mistakes with Iran (making similar mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan now), regime change without a full 8-12 years of direct overwhelming US occupation and administration (like it did in Germany and Japan with the Marshall Plan) is completely out of the question.

Iran's current C makes it illegal to change a single line of the C. This means any attempt to unseat the Supreme Leader and it's assorted powers and councils is illegal under Iranian law. This also means that even if Khamenei wanted to do so, Iran cannot change it's own C. There is not one clause allowing the slightest modification to the C.

This is the inescapable corner we are in. There are 2 choices:

An internal revolt, and reset via a likely violent coup that could very easily spark a civil war.

The US to come in, and forcibly implement another new Marshall Plan with another 8-12 years of fairly deadly commitment.

That's why your average Iranian is most often pissed off.

To read more bahmani posts visit: //brucebahmani.blogspot.com/

Maryam Hojjat

Mr. wright, Mousavi Does not have many supporters any more

by Maryam Hojjat on

He is considered as IRR/IRI and not trusted by IRANIANS.  He was only an excuse 2 years ago in Green Movement.  Iranians don't care about any IRR/IRI persinality any more and looking into a democratic secular system after fall of mollahs.