Iran is in a deep social and economic crisis. Despite its foreign-policy successes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the Iranian regime has failed its citizens at home. Since December 2017, the people in Iran took to the streets to protest the economic situation, corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in the country. From that time on, the protests have been taking place on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Protesters will be chanting slogans like, “Death to Khamenei,” and, “Let go of the country.” Amid nationwide protests in Iran, the Trump administration on May 8 withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a deal which allegedly prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons in return for easing sanctions on the country. By withdrawing from the deal, the United States reinstituted those sanctions and started what it called “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. While the current economic crisis is largely Iran’s own making, the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration has hugely worsened the situation. Since then, Iranian currency, the rial, has lost more than 70 percent of its value. Inflation skyrocketed over a night. Iranians' purchasing power has hugely diminished. All this increased internal pressure on the Ayatollahs.
Amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, the Trump administration held a conference in Warsaw, Poland. The conference was aimed at “changing Iran’s behavior” in the Middle East, according to Secretary of State Mike Mike Pompeo. Despite American denials, the United States is currently pursuing a “regime change” in Iran, and the Warsaw Summit is part of this policy to build an anti-Iran coalition that consolidates the impression that the world is lining up behind Trump’s hardline approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although the Trump administration was correct to withdraw from the Iran deal and start its “maximum pressure” campaign on the Islamic Republic, which is obviously an aggressive and malign actor in the Middle East, the administration would not be wise to employ a regime change policy in an effort to contain and confront Iran.
Regime Change Dangers
First, peace is too fragile in Iran. If the regime falls, then it is highly likely that Iran, which does not have a strong central government, will potentially have its own civil war. This will further destabilize the Middle East region and would not be in the interest of the United States. Historical records show that when the central government weakens in Iran, then the periphery of the country tries to gain more autonomy and sometimes seeks independence, creating more bloodshed and destabilization in the country. Among others, the Kurds are likely to take up arms in the event of massive disobedience in Iran. The Kurds, led by the founder of Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Qazi Muhammad, established the Mahabad Republic in 1946 with the help of the Soviet Union. They might try to do the same again. The Beluchis, the Iranian Turks, and others will follow the suit, which will make Iran falling into a pure Hobbesian state of anarchy.
The second reason is that if Iran gets destabilized and slides into a civil war, then many Iranians will try to flee the country. Since the European Union will likely be their end destination, the new wave of millions of refugees will knock the doors of the EU via Turkey, which is already burdened by the inflow of millions of Syrian refugees. Considering the rise of far-right and mostly pro-Russian parties throughout Europe, the influx of millions of refugees would certainly face a backlash and empower illiberal parties in Europe. Furthermore, Turkey—a strategically important NATO ally—would be destabilized, too. Turkey currently hosts millions of Syrian refugees. However, the public has been increasingly hostile towards those refugees, which has resulted in the occasional clash between the locals and Syrians. Moreover, Iran prevents Afghan refugees from reaching Europe as well. Therefore, if the country falls, then both Iranians and Afghans will easily reach Europe. Considering the fact that the civil war in Syria with its twenty-six million population shook the EU; a new civil war in Iran with its eighty million population would completely change the political landscape of Europe. In this sense, the destabilization of Iran benefits neither the United States nor its vital allies in Europe.
Third, Iran may turn into a launching pad for radicalized Shias who will blame the West and Sunni Gulf Monarchies for the fall of the Islamic Republic. These radical religious types could seek revenge. That would create another dangerous problem. Iran has the largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles in the Middle East, and those missiles could easily fall into the hands of radicalized Shia militias and terrorists. That would put the United States, Europe and American allies in the Middle East at serious risk. Historical records show that there is a high probability that this could happen. For example, after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the country turned into a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other Salafi terrorists. In fact, it was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to the establishment of the Islamic State in 2006. Thus, the United States should be careful not to make the same mistake in Iran, which may lead to the establishment of the Shia version of the Islamic State in Iran.
Iran remains a malign actor in the Middle East and seeks to damage American interests wherever possible. It should be confronted and contained so that it does not threaten America’s allies. Furthermore, the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to make sure that Iran, one of the main supporters of the Assad regime, does not turn the Levant region into a Shia front that can wage a full-fledged war on Israel and threaten its Jewish population with total annihilation. However, this should be done in a way that does not threaten America’s other allies.
Vugar Bakhshalizada is a political commentator who covers Middle Eastern Affairs at the Jerusalem Post and a student of international relations at ADA University, Azerbaijan.