Monday, March 19, 2007

Iran, “Regime Change,” and Détente

An article in the March / April, 2007 Foreign Affairs by Ray Takeyh, “Time for Détente with Iran,” raises interesting issues concerning how best to go about influencing the internal workings of a nation-state like Iran. The reasons to want to effectively influence Iran are apparent. Concerns about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear development, the country’s overall influence in the Mid-East region, the overt and extreme Anti-Semitism of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or human rights within the country could each be reasons not only for the U.S. government but also the residents of the U.S. and a host of other countries to have an interest in moderating the policies and practices of the Iranian government.

Takeyh argues forcefully that current U.S. governmental policies and practices toward Iran, premised as they are on “Regime Change,” are wrong-headed and ineffective. There are a number of reasons why regime change is not going to happen in the case of Iran, and thus, why a détente of sorts offers a better way forward, on pragmatic grounds at least. The Bush Administration continually insists that all options are “on the table.” The big problem with that is that any options or tactics which are geared towards regime change will not work, whether in the form of military action, supporting an opposition group or movement to reform and/or topple the government from within, or economic sanctions.

Military Action

Given the ongoing military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is in no position to take on another war currently, even if there were a good reason to do so, and the American public is clearly in no mood to perceive any good reason for war with Iran. The U.S. military could destroy the Iranian state, but the result would be region wide chaos, clearly not in the interest of anyone.

Supporting the Opposition

There is a reformist opposition within the Iranian government which is worthy of support. The trouble is that any effort to support them within the context of an overall policy clearly premised on regime change consistently ends up undermining rather than actually supporting those reformers. And as Takeyh points out, beyond the reformers, there is essentially no opposition outside of government looking to topple the government. Radio broadcasts and other efforts to support such non-existent anti-government revolutionaries have the effect of affirming nationalist resistance to outside interference if they have any effect at all.


Sanctions and other economic tools like embargos, when aimed at regime change, are ineffectual. Just look at North Korea, Iraq throughout the 1990s, or Cuba. To the extent that such uses of sanctions have an effect, it is to shore up the power of authoritarian leaders and it is usually the population at large that is hurt. This doesn’t mean that sanctions have no place, or even that they have no place in international policy towards Iran, but that their power is far more limited than anything like “regime change,” and that for them to be effective at all, they must be very carefully and specifically targeted and for a specific more limited purpose.


This brings us to Takeyh’s argument for détente with Iran. If the U.S. and other governments are to move forward with more positively influencing Iran, it must be in a transformed context no longer premised on regime change. As Takeyh also argues, doing so doesn’t mean refraining from criticism of the Iranian government. Instead, by at least recognizing the right of the Iranian government to continue, a way is opened to more positively recognize some real common interests between Iran, the U.S., and other countries, and to engage in a more open and continuous dialogue concerning items of contention.

As with sanctions and other methods, though, we should be aware of the realistic limitations of détente. My main criticism of Takeyh is that on occasion he seems to hope and perhaps even expect too much from détente. For example, he says (p. 29), “The United States has an interest in promoting a more tolerant government in Tehran, but it will not help itself by broadcasting tall tales from Iranian exiles or with Bush’s appeals to an indifferent Iranian populace. (True enough.) Integrating Iran into the world economy and global society would do far more to accelerate its democratic transformation.”

I would note that many on the left argue much the same with regard to Cuba, that if only the U.S. embargo were lifted, democracy would surely flourish. (Aside from the fact that both Cuba and Iran are targets of “regime change” by the U.S. government, I’d also like to note that I’m not suggesting any other real commonality between the two cases.) While I do support an end to the embargo of Cuba, and I do support détente with Iran (though possibly along with some specifically targeted sanctions, especially with regard to nuclear programs), I don’t believe that such actions would particularly democratize either country. Here, the People’s Republic of China is an important comparative case. Détente has done essentially zero to democratize China, even alongside one of the most dynamic economies in the world. True, the Chinese government is currently considering reforms concerning private property in order to assuage the concerns of the growing middle class (see two articles in the March 10, 2007 issue of The Economist, “China’s Next Revolution” [p. 9] and “Governing China: Caught between right and left, town and country” [pp. 23 – 25], for discussion), but it is not particularly doing so in a democratic fashion and is only doing so several decades after détente with the west. In short, Takeyh is right that détente should be a main goal for interaction with Iran, but while this would provide better options than current policies and practices, we shouldn’t expect too much.

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