October 24, 2020

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The case for regime change in Iran


What can or should be done in response to the continuing Syrian bloodbath? And who, if anyone, should do it?

In a NY Times column, Max Fisher has described “America’s Three Bad Options in Syria” (he leaves out the fourth bad one, which is doing nothing).

His argument is simple: 1) Limited, punitive strikes are ineffectual;  2) escalating aid to Assad’s enemies can easily be matched and exceeded by Iran and Russia; and 3) an intervention that actually collapsed Assad’s government would throw the region into chaos, costing even millions more lives, and risk a military confrontation with Russia.

He doesn’t discuss the consequences of doing nothing. I suspect this might actually shorten the active conflict, since it would result in Assad reasserting control over much of the country, and Iran and Russia becoming the de facto ruling powers in the region. But this is also a bad option, because while it might reduce the bloodletting in the very short term, it would set the stage for future very severe conflicts, which could include Europe and the US (and definitely would include Israel).

There is another option that needs to be considered. It’s based on the understanding that today there is one source of most of the conflict in the Middle East (and it is not the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which has always been only a proxy for the ambitions of Israel’s larger neighbors or the struggle between the US and Russia).

That source is the Iranian ambition to export its revolutionary Shiite Islamism to the world, and to establish a caliphate in the Middle East. Iran is well on her way to doing so. She has effective control of Lebanon through her Hezbollah subsidiary, she controls the central government and much of the territory of Iraq, and she is able to do almost whatever she wants in Syria (the ‘almost’ is thanks to Israel). Iran also threatens the vital Bab al-Mandeb strait, through her influence on the Houthi regime in Yemen (almost all trade between the EU and Asia passes through Bab al-Mandeb, as does as much as 30% of the oil produced in the Gulf).

The Iranian regime has done all this relatively cheaply and with conventional means. When it obtains a nuclear umbrella, we can expect it to be an order of magnitude more dangerous. It is presently developing missiles that will place Europe under threat of nuclear attack. ICBMs that can reach the US will be the next step.

ISIS, al-Qaeda and similar groups are far less dangerous. They are at most terrorist militias which could easily be crushed by the West (which instead has allowed Iran to use them as an excuse to gain control of parts of Iraq and Syria).

The option that I am proposing is what former King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia advised the US to do back in 2008: to “cut off the head the snake.”

Abdullah may have meant only to destroy the Iranian nuclear program, but I am suggesting that in addition, the present regime should be overthrown and opposition elements helped to take over.

With Iran out of the equation, the Syrian problem is not solved, but at least simplified. The best solution at this point would be a partition that would keep the various religious and ethnic groups away from each other’s throats. Clearly the present situation in Syria in which a Sunni majority is ruled by a small Alawi minority has shown itself to be unworkable.

While Russia can project power there with its air force, it cannot afford to send a large number of ground troops – until now, the cannon fodder has been provided by Iran’s Hezbollah ally and its Iraqi Shiite militias, which will lose their support when the snake is dead. Both Russia and Assad would find themselves much more prepared to compromise when the Iranian muscle has been taken away.

Other conflicts would also lose impetus. Hezbollah, Israel’s most dangerous enemy in the short term, would waste away. Hamas would lose its major source of financial support. Although the Palestinian desire to destroy Israel won’t disappear, the loss of Iranian support will mean fewer hot wars, which may pave the way for eventual reconciliation. The conflict in Yemen also will become amenable to solution without Iranian support for the Houthis.

Iran’s fingerprints have been found on terrorist attacks all over the world, including Latin America and Europe. Hezbollah is heavily involved in illegal drug and weapons trafficking. No other single country is responsible for as much mischief and violence around the world as Iran, and it is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.

The example of Iraq is often used to argue that attempts at regime change can have unexpected and sometimes unpleasant consequences. There is no doubt that this is true, and that such an enterprise is very risky. But there were clear mistakes made in Iraq: the “de-Baathification” purge of the armed forces, government and civil service, which left no one competent to run essential services; the lack of planning for a temporary occupation regime and police force; the belief that if a tyranny was removed and elections held, democracy would automatically take hold; and of course the biggie – the failure to understand that Iran would walk into the vacuum created by overthrowing Saddam.

The Iranian people are relatively well-educated and cultured. Iran does have home-grown opposition factions that could replace the mullahs that rule the country. The difficult problem would be dealing with the Revolutionary Guard and its paramilitary Basij, who are loyal to the present regime and would resist its overthrow.

Any successful regime change would have to be accomplished by empowering the opposition and supporting its takeover from the present regime. It would need to be accomplished with as little damage to non-military infrastructure as possible. Nevertheless, there would certainly be some military confrontations with the Revolutionary Guard. But the approach taken in Iraq – smashing the country to smithereens and then trying to rebuild it from the ground up – failed there and would fail here as well.

The Western powers that would need to do this would have to push over the old regime, and stand aside – even if what replaces it is not entirely to their liking.

Yes, it would be a risky endeavor. The mullahs could be replaced by something worse (but at least it wouldn’t have an advanced nuclear weapons program). I think, though, that the potential benefits – for the region, for the Iranian people, and for the civilized world – make it a risk worth taking.

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