Iran Regime-Change Talk Revives in Washington
A US advocacy group dominated by Republican Party stalwarts is trying to revive the idea of regime change in Iran. A recent policy paper issued by the group, The Committee on the Present Danger, urges a "peaceful but forceful strategy" to drive Iran's Islamic clerics from power. The paper is notable for urging the United States to re-engage Iran diplomatically.
Neo-conservatives who dominate the Bush administration's foreign-policy team have long harbored dreams of toppling the Islamic Republic. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist tragedy, President George W. Bush included Iran in the "Axis of Evil." And following the successful US military effort to drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, neo-conservatives spoke openly of Tehran being the next regime-change target. Such hubristic rhetoric, however, quickly ceased as US forces became bogged down in Iraq, confronted with a still-spreading insurgency. Now that Bush has secured a second presidential term, his hawkish supporters are ready to renew the quest to oust the mullahs from power in Tehran.
The committee's paper, titled "Iran: A New Approach," attempts to strike a moderate tone. The "new approach" primarily involves a call for direct engagement with Iran, ending over a quarter century of diplomatic estrangement dating back to the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis. If implemented, the re-opening of diplomatic relations would indeed mark a radical departure in US policy toward Iran, as American conservative have traditionally championed the existing embargo strategy. At the same time, the paper offers clear indications that the committee members are not so much interested in diplomatic engagement as they are in using a re-opened US Embassy in Iran to help drive a wedge between the Iranian public and the country's clerical establishment.
The committee (CPD) paints Iran's government as monolithic, under the total control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader "presents a fundamental threat to peace, for all signs point to his determination to develop nuclear weapons," the paper begins. "He [Khamenei] is seeking regional hegemony, both ideologically and militarily. His growing oil wealth increases his capacity for wreaking havoc on his own people and the region."
The paper goes on to assume that a majority of Iranians would welcome US efforts to overhaul the Islamic Republic. "They [the Iranian people] want to free themselves from Khamenei's oppression and they want Iran to join the community of prosperous, peaceful democracies," the paper states, without providing contextual information to support this assertion. "Khamenei and his regime are the problem and the Iranian people our natural allies."
The impetus for the paper appears to be Iran's nuclear program. Though Iranian leaders have denied seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, they have resisted international inspection efforts. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many in the international community, especially US policy makers, are convinced that Iran aims to build a bomb. The paper characterized Iranian nuclear research as an imminent security danger requiring immediate and determined action to coerce Tehran to abandon any weapons-making intention. "Khamenei should ... understand that if he does not comply with legitimate international requirements to keep his nuclear weapons development program suspended, we and others reserve the right to take out or cripple his nuclear capabilities."
"For too long an academic debate over engagement vs. containment, dialogue vs. regime change has dominated and weakened America's approach to Iran," the report stated. "'The CPD believes that we need a new approach, one based on a sober recognition of the threat Khamenei presents, but also an appreciation of our new strengths and the opportunity before us."
Several academic specialists on US-Iranian affairs disputed the report's underlying assumptions. For one, they maintain, the Iranian political establishment is far from monolithic. Although conservatives are clearly ascendant at the moment in Tehran, various factions are currently involved in a bitter struggle over Iran's policy direction. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. It is also erroneous to assume that Iran would permit the United States to reopen an embassy in Tehran in the event that American leaders expressed the formal desire to do so, the experts added.
In addition, the notion that the Iranian public would support an outside attempt to influence domestic political developments is highly suspect. Though a majority inside Iran appears to hold a favorable impression of the United States, a highly developed sense of national pride held by most Iranians would likely prompt many to rally around the government if American leaders were perceived as meddling in Tehran's internal affairs. Lastly, some experts suggest that regardless of the country's system of government, Iranian leaders would seek to develop nuclear weapons, seeing such capability as in the country's national security interests.
One Iran expert, William Beeman, head of the Middle East studies program at Brown University, said he was ''appalled'' by the six-page paper. "They have no idea about Iranian politics or governmental structure. They have decided for some bizarre reason to present Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as if he were some kind of Saddam-like dictator," Beeman said. "I suppose this helps their audience fit the current Iranian governmental structure into a ready-made pigeonhole."
The Committee on the Present Danger is a Cold War-era group that resurrected itself last June. Whereas it once sought to defeat Soviet totalitarianism, it now purports be "dedicated to winning the war on terrorism." The committee is co-chaired by former US secretary of state George Shultz and former CIA director James Woolsey. The policy paper's principle author, Ambassador Mark Palmer, admitted that the document was released in late December only after heated internal debate. Some committee members viewed the paper as too conciliatory towards Teheran.
''There was concern that (sending an ambassador to Teheran) would strengthen or legitimize the regime as it is,'' said Palmer, who said it took two months to harmonize opinion within the committee in order to produce policy paper. Ultimately, he added that the committee decided that opening a diplomatic channel could be productive. He cited the Cold War experience, when Washington maintained embassies in Soviet bloc nations in the 1980s but still supported democratic forces. The US diplomatic presence was seen as an important element in the mainly peaceful process that resulted in the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Beyond efforts to reopen a US embassy in Iran, the policy paper calls for a far-reaching media campaign, incorporating radio, television and the internet, to communicate American points of view directly to the Iranian people. The paper characterized existing media initiatives, including the Farsi-language Radio Farda, as "under-funded." Concurrently, the paper said "smart sanctions" should be developed to specifically target the business operations that are closely tied to conservative political groups in Iran, including the Revolutionary Guards. The paper claims that "35 percent of Iran's import-export businesses are directly controlled by Khamenei."
The paper also urges a dramatic increase in educational and cultural exchanges, along with expanded official contacts, in order to undermine "the pillars of support" for the Islamic republic. "The United States has opportunities to develop relations with the [Iranian] military and various services in Iran and should seek to do so," the paper said. "One objective ... should be to make clear that those [in Iran] who cooperate in the transition to democracy can thrive on the other side (as many others in former dictatorships have done), but those who persist in committing crimes against the Iranian people or others will be prosecuted."
The carrot-and-stick approach figures prominently throughout the policy paper. At one point it suggests that if religious leaders fail leave the political stage they should face prosecution before an international tribunal. Citing a 1987 German court ruling that implicated Iranian leaders in the killings of Iranian exiles in Germany, the paper said; "Deftly making it known that a case is being marshaled against Khamenei would create good leverage."
"A dialogue with them, about a way to exit peacefully from political power, combined with credible indications of alternatives (jail or hanging) can play an important role," the paper continued.
Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, said the policies outlined in the paper would clearly not "be met with approval and approbation by Iranian leaders." He also suggested that the CPD had made a "false reading" of political conditions in Iran by placing so much emphasis on Khamenei's role in the Iranian establishment. "He's not the cause, he's a symptom," Sick said. Nevertheless, Sick said he was "surprised and pleased" to see that a group dominated by conservative political thinkers had come out in support of renewing diplomatic ties.
"There is lots that I don't agree with [in the paper]. But the fact that they chose to support engagement in trying to bring about regime change is a dramatic shift," Sick said. "This [the paper] represents a debate that is going on within neo-conservative ranks. ... An interesting fact is that the [American] Right isn't unified."