I Wonder If Richard Haass Will Herald A Trend

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 23, 2010


Up until now, most of the realist, or realpolitik school of American foreign policy has opposed–resolutely, one might add–any effort at fomenting regime change in Iran, doubtless spurred by what the school has perceived to have been the mistakes of American foreign policy vis-à-vis regime change in Iraq. As a realist–or realpolitik practitioner–in good standing, it might have been expected that Richard Haass would not deviate from the dictates of the school.

As it turns out, however, Haass is now promoting regime change in Iran:

I am a card-carrying realist on the grounds that ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done. I also believe that Washington, in most cases, doesn’t have the luxury of trying. The United States must, for example, work with undemocratic China to rein in North Korea and with autocratic Russia to reduce each side’s nuclear arsenal. This debate is anything but academic. It’s at the core of what is likely to be the most compelling international story of 2010: Iran.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration judged incorrectly that Iran was on the verge of revolution and decided that dealing directly with Tehran would provide a lifeline to an evil government soon to be swept away by history’s tide. A valuable opportunity to limit Iran’s nuclear program may have been lost as a result. The incoming Obama administration reversed this approach and expressed a willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions. This president (like George H.W. Bush, whose emissaries met with Chinese leaders soon after Tiananmen Square) is cut more from the realist cloth. Diplomacy and negotiations are seen not as favors to bestow but as tools to employ. The other options—using military force against Iranian nuclear facilities or living with an Iranian nuclear bomb—were judged to be tremendously unattractive. And if diplomacy failed, Obama reasoned, it would be easier to build domestic and international support for more robust sanctions. At the time, I agreed with him.

I’ve changed my mind. The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a nuclear weapon; there is no other explanation for the secret uranium-enrichment facility discovered near the holy city of Qum. Fortunately, their nuclear program appears to have hit some technical snags, which puts off the need to decide whether to launch a preventive strike. Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.

It ought to be added that there is nothing inherently contrary to the dictates of realpolitik in urging regime change. Realist theory–not to be confused with realpolitik, which is a set of policy prescriptions, rather than a theory as to how nation-states behave–posits that nation-states seek to maximize power rationally. Concerning America’s interactions with Iran, power maximization would naturally entail regime change as being, at the very least, an option in the American foreign policy arsenal. It need not be the only option, but there can be little doubt that the United States would stand to gain a great deal if there were a change in government in Iran. The long-standing interests of a nation-state do more to influence the shape and nature of its foreign policy than does the nature of the nation-state’s government, but even realists admit that the nature of a nation-state’s government plays some role in shaping the foreign policy of that nation-state, just not as much a role as non-realists claim. To the extent that a change in government in Iran can advance American–and international–security interests, that change ought to be welcomed, and the realpolitik school (and let it be noted, I consider myself a realist, theory-wise, and a member of the realpolitik school when it comes to policy formulation) ought to jump at the chance to bring about the kind of non-violent change Haass advocates.

I might differ somewhat from Haass in that while he believes that there should be no meetings between senior Administration and Congressional members and their Iranian counterparts, I think that meetings could take place, but that human rights would have to be part of the agenda. Of course, advancing human rights in Iran is a worthy project standing alone, but as I argued, it would also serve to advance American realpolitik interests by bringing up the issue with the Iranians. My argument rests on the precedent of bringing up human rights with the Soviet Union in discussions during the Cold War, pursuant to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, an analogy that I believe still holds:

. . . commonsense statements regarding the need to respect human rights and political liberties became part and parcel of any and all negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. By consistently raising them in the context of summits and other high level discussions, the United States managed to elevate the issue of human rights concerns regarding the Soviet Union to the point where questions regarding the treatment of Soviet dissidents became insistent, led to the liberalization efforts pursued by Mikhail Gorbachev and eventually served to break apart the Warsaw Pact and bring an end to the Communist governments in the Soviet Union and in its satellite nations.

If negotiations eventually ensue concerning Iran’s nuclear program, the United States should take the opportunity during those negotiations to expressly bring up the principles of Articles VII and VIII of the Helsinki Accords and other provisions from charters and treaties concerning human rights and political liberties, and challenge Iran to live up to those principles both during the negotiations and in public statements.

Furthermore, the United States should make clear that it will make discussions of human rights and political liberties part of every round of negotiations between it and Iran. This tactic will both serve to prevent the Iranian regime from gaining the legitimacy it desires from direct contacts with the United States, and will also help bring the Iranian regime’s myriad human rights violations to the attention of the international community. If a constant emphasis on Iran’s human rights violations help do to the Iranian regime what they did to the Soviet and Eastern European Communist regimes, then so much the better.

I should note that whatever my differences on this issue with Haass, I certainly have no problem agreeing with this portion of his article:

New funding for the project housed at Yale University that documents human-rights abuses in Iran is warranted. If the U.S. government won’t reverse its decision not to provide the money, then a foundation or wealthy individuals should step in. Such a registry might deter some members of the Guards or the million-strong Basij militia it controls from attacking or torturing members of the opposition. And even if not, the gesture will signal to Iranians that the world is taking note of their struggle.

Quite so. And again, a focus on human rights would serve as an excellent instrument, from the toolbox of realpolitik to bring about change in Iran that would both advance American and international security interests, and help improve the lives of the Iranian people.

It is very refreshing to see that Haass is making an effort to convince the realpolitik school that supporting regime change is consistent with the school’s line of thinking. Having read his article, I certainly feel as though I am no longer fighting a lonely battle. Hopefully, more reinforcements in that battle will be arriving shortly.

Previous post:

Next post: