Why is the United States edging closer to a military confrontation with Iran? The Trump administration appears to be contemplating such a scenario, while embarking on a dicey enterprise with little or no understanding of the possible consequences. Regardless of how we understand and interpret the rhetoric of regime change coming out of the Trump administration, it is about intervention, which is broadly understood to be a flagrant violation of state sovereignty.
The conceptions of regime change are subject to different interpretations and tend to evoke varied reactions, but in general military interventions—which are different from advocating soft revolutions—most fundamentally entail illegal acts. The Trump administration’s rhetoric of regime change in Iran carries worrisome implications. The potential costs and consequences of regime change need to be carefully gauged.
Several decades of punishing Iran via sanctions and diplomatic isolation have proven counterproductive. Moderation in US foreign policy toward Iran, involving dialogue not threat, has often been more effective than intimidation, as evidenced by the conclusion of the 2015 nuclear deal. Almost four decades after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran remains a stable country in a tumultuous region with internal political and socioeconomic dynamics that point to positive changes to come.
Those dynamics, rooted in its young, dynamic, and tech-savvy population that favors integration into the world economy, are likely to outlast the longevity of the Islamic Republic and its more conservative Islamist political impulses. Increasing integration into the world economy would expedite such dynamics, rendering Iran a natural ally of the Western world in the longterm.
As Iran’s main trading partner, the European Union (EU) is also a key factor in accelerating such dynamics. Iran-EU ties are projected to benefit from cooperation in trade, environmental and sustainability issues, education, and combating the international drug trade. In the crisis-ridden region, success in confronting ISIS and dealing with immigration call for Iranian cooperation. U.S. business restrictions on dealing with Iran, even as sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program have been partially lifted, could put the U.S. private sector at a great disadvantage.
The U.S. dual-track policy of lifting some sanctions—for progress in one area—while imposing a new set of sanctions—for behavior on a different issue—is bound to be problematic, however. The continuation of sanctions on Iran’s banking and finance sectors will stunt the country’s overall economic growth, adversely affecting the vast majority of Iranians.
For the impasse in the U.S.-Iran relations to be broken, the remedy lies neither in isolating Iran nor in changing its current regime by outside interference. Confrontational rhetoric toward these ends is likely to strengthen Iran’s hard-liners and push Iran toward China and Russia insofar as commercial ties are concerned.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” project, which promises more than $1 trillion in infrastructure in over 60 countries across Europe, Asia, and Africa will connect Tehran to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.[i] In this scenario, Iran will be subordinated to a Chinese-dominated economic system in Asia that is bound to shape the new economic balance of power—regionally and globally—in the coming years.
Iran’s strategic interests in the region are complementary to many U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). There are more overlapping than conflicting interests between the two countries. Both need a strategic recalculation in the face of radicalism (that is, al-Qaeda franchises and ISIS groups cropping up) and sectarian divisions that are tearing apart the region. Both share the same strategic mission: containing the contagion of Islamic extremism. Both will continue fighting ISIS and sharing intelligence, especially in areas where similar counterterrorism strategies vis-à-vis the Islamic State can be adopted.
Washington and Tehran seem keen on promoting stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, while also advocating cease-fire in Syria in hopes of terminating civil war there—with or without the Assad regime. Iranians have never been able to shape the outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflicts and are highly unlikely to do so in the future, notwithstanding their support for Hamas in the past. They have repeatedly shown deference to the Palestinian leaders’ decisions, asserting that Tehran can/will live with any decisions that the Palestinians themselves make in their negotiations with Israel.
Quite to the contrary, Saudi Arabia’s attempts at fueling sectarianism—largely by promoting strict and ultra-orthodox strains of Wahhabism by dispersing their petrodollars to build religious schools and mosques—has been a direct cause of extremism in the region. Such policies have proven more destabilizing than Iranian involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The younger generation of princes in Saudi Arabia lack a vision for stability in the region, nor do they have the necessary political skills to come to grips with the region’s new realities. Their involvement in Yemen has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, Riyadh’s initiative to unite Sunni states in an anti-Iran alliance has failed as indicated by Qatar’s and Turkey’s sustained commercial and diplomatic ties with Tehran.
U.S. policy in the MENA region after Obama is clearly binary, favoring Saudi Arabia over Iran. Why has the United States not pursued a less binary foreign policy? And why does this binary conception favor so clearly one or the other vs. some balance, integrating constructive relationships with both countries instead of always favoring Saudi over Iran? The Obama administration tried to make strides to bring Iran into some ongoing relationship moving forward. Is that really a potential outcome? Notwithstanding its factional and repressive politics, Iran has a relatively deep and healthy society, not one so fragile that the U.S. pressure can soon “disrupt” and “replace.”
The craving for democracy and basic freedoms is palpable among Iranians and underpins a civic culture that provides a firm footing for a democratic political system—a sense that could no longer be concealed, much less denied. Drawing Iran further into regional conflicts against Saudi and American interests runs the risk of military showdown in a region already handicapped by brittleness, sectarian strife, and domestic storms.
The policy of regime change favored by some hawkish elements within the Trump administration sends an ominous sign for the stability of the entire region. It is worth noting that the region’s problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, as well as inequality, corruption, and the persistence of authoritarian regimes and policies, must be resolved through diplomacy and political channels. Concluding a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is unlikely to lead to any sustainable solutions.
Regime change became all but dead in the Obama administration. The resurrection of this policy and its future prospects remain uncertain. Perhaps the best thing that the Trump administration can do to pursue an effective foreign policy toward the region is to recognize Iran’s legitimate security interests and regional status. Seeking cooperation with Tehran is not simply a matter of acknowledging Iran’s regional interests, but also of recognizing the cost and consequences of the absence of such collaboration.
To avoid a rapid descent into instability and disorder, both Washington and Tehran must seek a new compromise. The election to a second term of the centrist administration of Hassan Rouhani in Iran provides a perfect opportunity to seek such understanding. Any change in Iran’s regional policies ultimately depends on redefining Iran’s role and place in U.S. national and security interests.