Don’t Count on Regime Change to Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program

Gordon, The Atlantic, May 5, 2018

certainly possible the Islamic Republic could fall sometime soon. But the
nuclear deal prevents weapons development now.
A man
walks past an anti-U.S. mural in Tehran. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi / TIMA /
It now
looks like President Trump intends to withdraw from the nuclear deal, with the
support of critics like Reuel Marc Gerecht, who enumerated
in The Atlantic what he sees as the deal’s flaws. To sum up, as I understand
it, Gerecht would have only accepted, and would now only accept, a
fundamentally different nuclear deal—i.e. one that forever prohibited Iran from
having an enrichment program, even for energy production and under
international monitoring; forever banned any advanced centrifuge research and
development; provided for snap, anytime/anywhere inspections (including
military bases); required an admission of past deception about its
nuclear-weapons development; required changes to Iranian policy in the region;
and banned testing or development of long-range ballistic missiles, even if
Iran agreed to all the nuclear demands. And if he didn’t get all of that he
would have “walked away,” as he writes a “stronger president and secretary of
state” would have done, patiently waiting for sanctions to bite deeper.
I’d take
that deal too, but unfortunately we live in the real world. Insisting on an
agreement that required Iran to abandon its entire nuclear program as well as
fundamentally transform its regional foreign policy would mean having no
agreement at all. “Zero enrichment,” after all, was essentially the U.S.
position from 2003 until around 2014—during which time Iran mastered the
nuclear fuel cycle and advanced to the brink of a weapons capability. The bulk
of that progress was made during the administration of George W. Bush, and
included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Bolton—none of whom is known
for the discomfort with military force or American hegemony Gerecht attributes
to Obama. (That pacifist Obama, by the way, deployed tens of thousands of
additional troops to Afghanistan, increased deadly U.S. drone strikes to unprecedented
levels, bombed Libya for seven months, ordered thousands of airstrikes against
ISIS, provided far more advanced weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia than any of
his predecessors, authorized the development of the weapons necessary to
destroy underground Iranian bunkers, and sent U.S. special-operations forces on
deadly raids in the region multiple times for multiple purposes.) Gerecht’s
suggestion of “patiently waiting for sanctions to bite” while no inspections
are in place has also been our approach to North Korea since the mid-1990s,
during which time Pyongyang produced, tested, and stockpiled nuclear weapons
and developed missiles capable of hitting the United States. The Iran deal—with
permanent application of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most advanced
inspections regime and a permanent ban on any nuclear weapons work—doesn’t look
so bad next to that, does it?
Gerecht and I, and others, have debated these issues for years and are not
going to agree, so we should spare readers a rehash of old arguments. Debating
whether a better deal was possible several years ago is now a bit like me
alleging Gerecht paid way too much for his house, him insisting that was the
best deal he could get because the seller would have otherwise walked away, and
neither of us ever being able to prove our case. So let’s look forward. For
better or worse, a deal is in place, it has for now verifiably set back and
frozen the Iranian nuclear program, and the near-term issue is whether Trump
blows it up next week. I think it would be unwise to destroy an agreement in
2018 because out of concern about its provisions after 2030, while Gerecht
seems to think that would make sense.
the issue of the technical merits or drawbacks of the JCPOA, there’s the
question of how to assess the prospects for regime change in Iran in terms of
when it might come about, whether and how to promote it, and what impact it
would have on the nuclear issue and the region. Like Gerecht, I want to see a
different regime in Iran, and I believe one day we will—I just don’t think we
can rely on that when it comes to stopping their nuclear program, and I have
different views on what the United States should or should not do to try to
bring it about.
The first
issue is simply one of timing. Gerecht seems to think positive change in Iran
could be just around the corner, potentially absolving us of having to cut a
nuclear deal with the current regime. By this logic, presumably, we should just
confront Iran in the region, impose more sanctions, if necessary set back the
nuclear program with some targeted military strikes, and wait for a democratic
revolution to bring Iranians to power who neither seek nuclear weapons nor to
impose hegemony on their neighbors.
certainly possible that the Iranian regime will fall sometime soon (and if it
did it would not be soon enough). Practically every time the Iranian public has
had the chance to express itself in the past couple of decades—even given the
limited choices made available by the regime—it seems to vote for candidates
who most represent change, an encouraging sign that should be troubling to the
Islamic Republic’s leaders. And the demonstrations that spread across large
numbers of Iranian cities earlier this year—which seem to have started out as
protests against economic conditions and then morphed into attacks on the
regime itself—must be also be causing some sleepless nights for leaders in
Tehran. I applaud the courageous Iranian women and men who are risking their
freedom and even their lives to oppose the regime’s corruption, economic
mismanagement, and social repression.
These are
all positive developments, but I think that to leap from noting encouraging
signs of public discontent to expecting that the Islamic Republic is on its
last legs would be a case of relying on hope over experience. Indeed, how is it
that some critics of the nuclear deal have gone from insisting that 10-15 year
restrictions on uranium enrichment bought nowhere near enough time for
potential political change in Iran, but now seem to be suggesting that regime
change could be just around the corner? Last October President Trump claimed
that the nuclear deal “threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic
lifeline,” but now we are supposed to believe that the regime is in its dying
days? If anything, far from lifting pressure on the regime as Trump insisted,
the nuclear deal seems to have undermined the regime by raising public
expectations that it could not meet and taking away its ability to blame others
for its poor economic performance. That seems to me to be a win-win policy
proposition. If change in Iran is possible, and the JCPOA not only doesn’t
prevent it but might even promote it, doesn’t it make sense to keep that
agreement in place?
is not simply counting on the regime to fall of its own weight but wants to
accelerate the process with more sanctions, regional confrontation, and support
for the opposition. I read with great interest his piece
in The New York Times earlier this year in which he took issue with my argument,
in the same paper a few days before, that President Trump should keep quiet
about the protests that were breaking out. Whereas I warned that high-profile
American interference could do more harm than good, Gerecht wrote that “the
absolute worst thing that the United States can do for the Iranian people is to
stay silent.” Really? Would silence be worse than calling on Iranians to rise
up against the regime and watching them get slaughtered, as happened in 1991 in
Iraq when the first President Bush called for a Shia uprising against Saddam
Hussein? Would it be worse than fomenting sectarianism in Iran by providing
U.S. assistance to “Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others” as Bolton
recommends in his published memo to Trump? To be honest, I doubt U.S. rhetoric
about protests—which are domestic developments driven by domestic
conditions—makes much of a difference one way or another. But I do think that
getting in the business of trying to shape Iran’s political future by fostering
a violent uprising—particularly along sectarian lines— would be wildly
irresponsible. And yes, worse than doing nothing.
brings me to a final, and related, point. Gerecht and I have both made an
analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union, a previous adversarial regime that
ultimately collapsed. But whereas he seems to think it collapsed uniquely
because Ronald Reagan confronted it and supported its repressed citizens, I
think that is too simplistic a view of what happened, and no template for
dealing with Iran today. There is no doubt that tough, Cold War policies like
bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan and outspending them militarily contributed
to the regime’s demise. But it’s also true that change in Moscow only came
about after decades of containment and generational change, that we had no
control over or ability to predict its timing, and that it was no bottom-up
revolution but the regime itself—in the form of Communist Party General
Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev—that ultimately recognized the need to try to
reform and salvage a crumbling system. I can see that happening in Iran one
day, I just have no idea when. So like George Kennan, I think “long-term,
patient but firm and vigilant containment” is a better way to go. We should
probably also keep in mind that the Afghanistan jihad (apparently Gerecht’s
model when he envisages bleeding the Iranians in Syria) also helped produce
al-Qaeda, the Taliban, 9/11, and a U.S. war that has lasted nearly two decades,
so it wasn’t exactly without catastrophic costs of its own.
Gerecht, I think we need to contain Iran and I want to see its people one day
become free. I’d just rather avoid exacerbating the risks of proliferation and
conflict—with wildly unpredictable consequences—in the process.