In Which I Partially Agree With Paul Pillar

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 15, 2011

I think that his views on the viability of regime change in Iran are correct:

I was in Los Angeles today to speak at a conference at UCLA on Iran. There was sufficient disagreement about policy issues to keep most of the discussions lively. There was mostly consensus, however, on the prospects for change from the current regime. As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment characterized the situation, the collapse of the regime is both inevitable and unpredictable. Sadjadpour noted that on each of the dimensions that underlay the ouster of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia—corruption, repression, and economic malaise—Iran is in even worse shape than those two Arab states were. Abbas Milani of Stanford observed that since the mid-nineteenth century, no Iranian head of state has survived the “wrath of the people.” He said that Supreme Leader Khamenei’s legitimacy as a spiritually based leader has been weakened the more that he has weighed in directly on practical affairs of state and become increasingly dependent on the Revolutionary Guard.

Against that backdrop that makes change inevitable in the long run, the unpredictability comes from the lack of any clear path to change. The regime still has potent assets in the near term, including the Revolutionary Guard, which—unlike the Egyptian military—identifies more with the regime than with the nation. It also has the financial cushion of oil. Moreover, the Iranian opposition lacks clear leadership and a clear goal.

What I don’t understand is why Pillar believes that “U.S. policy toward Iran should not be looked at primarily as an instrument of instigating regime change.” Obviously, U.S. policy should be looked at primarily as an instrument of furthering American interests, but there is nothing wrong with examining ways in which the demise of the regime can be hastened. If your enemy is down on his knees–as Reagan taught us during the Cold War–you kick him until he collapses. That such a policy might help bring about the liberalization of Iranian society and politics is a feature, not a bug.

To be sure, I think that Pillar is right in stating that there are a lot of things in flux when it comes to the future of Iranian politics. But I confess myself to be rather tired of continued statements by foreign policy wise men and women telling us that there is little to nothing that we can do in order to further undermine the regime in Iran. That’s just not so.

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