Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has framed Iran as the biggest threat to the world for over two decades, and President Donald Trump has backed him with practical action, pulling America out of the Iran nuclear deal.
But Netanyahu’s success has led to a quandary: If the mode of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran has been rejected and thus disabled, how then to prevent Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear military capabilities?
The only other option is regime change. And the preferred tool, at least in public speeches by administration officials, is sanctions.
In Trump's Iran deal pullout announcement he made a less-than-subtle reference to this policy, describing the almost "40 years since this [Iranian] dictatorship seized power and took a proud nation hostage the future of Iran belongs to its people."
In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech this week, he declared the U.S. would engineer "the strongest sanctions in history" against Iran and repeatedly urged the Iranian people not to put up with their leaders, specifically naming President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. An Iranian official confirmed this was the message they’d heard, commenting: “his remarks showed that America is surely after regime change in Iran."
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The freshly-installed National Security Advisor John Bolton has made a long career out of public calls for regime change in Tehran, even saying that the declared policy of the United States of America should be “the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” setting a target of 2019.
Perhaps aware that banging the drum too hard in his new job carried the risk of miscalculation and pre-emptive Iranian action, he made an about-turn last week, saying regime change “is not the policy of the administration. The policy of the administration is to make sure Iran never gets close to deliverable nuclear action,” but hedged his words by noting President Trump, not he, had the final say on national security decisions.
Trump lawyer and confidant Rudy Giuliani recently made a call similar to Bolton's long record, saying it was "more important than an Israeli-Palestinian deal[and] the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East," and claiming Trump was firmly committed to it.
Netanyahu himself has been hoping for regime change since 2002, when he mistakenly predicted an invasion of Iraq would have a spillover effect on Iran leading to regime change.
Netanyahu and Trump envision reinstating and augmenting sanctions and ramping them up to such a painful point that the Iranian people will rise up against and overthrow their tyrannical leaders.
Such an aspiration is a dangerous pipe dream. It has never worked.
While sanctions have had modest success in bringing adversaries to the negotiations table – most notably the Iran nuclear deal, democracies have tried and failed using sanctions to topple authoritarian regimes nearly 60 times between World War I and 2000, according to a long-term study. Examples range from Cuba and Panama to North Korea, Libya and Iran.
If anything, the regime under siege doubles down and uses the sanctions as a rallying cry for national unity and anti-Western sentiment – see Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Iran.
In none of these cases did sanctions dampen the regime’s appetite to pursue an arms program or inspire a democratic insurrection. In most cases, the elites – the very people who might be counted upon to overthrow a regime – go into exile.
In most cases, the sanctions are lifted without achieving the desired effect. In some cases, partial success is achieved – sanctions are lifted in exchange for important, albeit partial, concessions by the regime under pressure. That is precisely what happened with Iran – in other words, the West extracted as much if not more from Iran than any other sanctions campaign in history.
If Trump and Netanyahu want regime change, they would do better to follow the successful model that brought down the Berlin Wall, and consequently the Eastern bloc – killing them with kindness, or at least normalization. It’s a long-term strategy that does not deliver the instant gratification of an airstrike but it has worked more consistently.
For two decades the West treated East Germany like North Korea and Cuba, completely shunning it. Then came Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, a diplomatic strategy that led to mutual relations between East and West Germany and the opening of a West German consulate in East Berlin in 1974.
Over the next 15 years, instead of living under antagonistic siege by the West, East Germans could see for themselves the growing gap between the two blocs, leading to greater discontent among the people. When civil resistance grew in the fall of 1989, that West German consulate became a refuge for hundreds of defectors and a catalyst for the collapse of the regime in the following weeks.
Berlin wasn’t the only breaking point. Austria and Hungary took down part of the wall that divided them in the spring of 1989, which led to the defection of hundreds of Hungarians through their border. Trump’s instinct would have been to put the wall back up. Yet, that breach proved to be the beginning of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe.
When Obama put America’s name on the Iran nuclear deal, this is what he had in mind. He understood that insisting on having no sunset clause was a non-starter, but that a deal that not only stopped Iran’s nuclear ambitions in their tracks, but also turned back the clock, was better than no deal and one that would buy precious time, during which the very nature of the Iranian regime could change. Treaties with expiration dates, such as the SALT and START, are the norm, not the exception.
In some ways, Iran was already on a path to regime change. As the Iranian people saw how their leaders squandered the benefits of the lifting of sanctions on military exploits abroad, discontent was growing. It’s not for nothing that Iranian President Hassan Rohani leaked the budget that showed increases in military spending on the backs of social expenditures in order to mobilize the public to push for social reform. The Islamic regime’s legitimacy was beginning to slip away.
Now, Trump has rescued the ayatollahs from the jaws of defeat. He has given them leverage to reunify the people against the United States and to blame any future economic woes on the renewed sanctions.
Bolton stated last week that the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal is not an excuse to put American boots on the ground in Iran. However, if Iran restarts its nuclear program in defiance of sanctions, just as North Korea did, what other option would that leave this hawkish administration?
The result would be lose-lose. Either Iran will get the bomb, or the United States will launch a war that would be even more disastrous than the one it triggered in Iraq – another folly that followed a failed sanctions regime.
Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz