A View to a Coup?

March 1, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Superpower

A View to a Coup?

Mini Teaser: Advocates of toppling the mullahs in Iran need a stiff dose of reality.

by Author(s): Ted Galen CarpenterJessica Ashooh

To be sure, hefty doses of state propaganda influence such opinions. Yet even reformers support the program. Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, a liberal Iranian critic, warned Washington not to attack: "We will defend our country till the last drop of blood." Those are the words of a pro-Western, liberal Iranian, so one can only imagine what those less hostile to the current government think.

The nuclear program has come to symbolize Iranian scientific prestige, upon which the nation prides itself in a way somewhat surprising for such a conservative state. For example, Iranian scientists performing stem cell research receive government funding and enjoy one of the most broadly permissive policies in the world, orders of magnitude more so than current American regulations that effectively prohibit federal funding. In terms of the national psyche, this scientific prowess represents Iran's global and regional influence, which most Iranians believe should be robust.

It is apparent that the Iranian nuclear program has come to embody more than the odious regime that stewards it. The broad support renders the question of what to do particularly difficult, as it is almost certain the program will continue with or without Western approval, no matter what regime is in power. Indeed a new, democratic government might find itself under considerable popular pressure to demonstrate nationalist credentials-and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.

True, if a nuclear-armed Iran were democratic, it would significantly ease Washington's concerns that the country might pose an undeterrable threat to America's security. Michael Ledeen told the House International Relations Committee that the nuclear threat "is inseparable from the nature of the regime." If the clerical regime were not in power, there would not be such a "sense of urgency." On another occasion, Ledeen conceded that a democratic Iran might continue a quest for nuclear weapons, but that "a democratic Iran will not be inclined to commit hara-kiri by launching a first strike against Israel, nor will it likely brandish its bombs against the United States." Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, states: "Were Iran ruled by even an imperfect democratic government, we would be much less concerned about its weaponry."

But even a democratic Iran with nukes would undermine another major U.S. policy goal: preventing further nuclear proliferation. There is a very real prospect that if Iran develops a nuclear arsenal, sooner or later other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, would follow suit. And it is unlikely to make much difference to these countries whether a nuclear-capable Iran is democratic or undemocratic. What will matter is that a regional rival has that capability.

The regime change option is a fantasy maintained by those enamored with their own ideology. It has no realistic chance of toppling the Iranian regime or halting nuclear proliferation. On the contrary, it is a dangerous caprice that, if adopted as policy, would be ineffective at best and seriously damaging to American interests at worst. The only way to prevent the nuclearization of any country is through incentives that make non-proliferation more attractive than nuclear weaponry. In the case of Iran, this means addressing the country's security concerns and vibrant nationalism, rather than inflaming them. Such realism, though, means abandoning the illusion that regime change would be an easy and definitive solution.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international issues. Jessica Ashooh is a Marshall Scholar of international relations at Oxford University.

[1] American proponents of regime change were active even before the current nuclear crisis developed; most hawks previously emphasized Tehran's support for terrorist organizations as the principal justification for seeking to oust the government. Of course, calls for regime change have become even more pronounced since Hizballah captured two Israeli soldiers in northern Israel in July 2006.

Essay Types: Essay