​The Debate over Regime Change in Teheran and the Challenge of a Nuclear Iran


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | May 3, 2020

​Photo: Hamed Saber | CC BY 2.0


The question of regime change has accompanied the Islamic Revolution ever since it seized power in Iran back in 1979. This rests on the assessment of many that there is no way to bring about change in the detrimental policies of the regime in Teheran deriving from ideological, religious and revolutionary motivations - short of regime change.


The Coronavirus crisis has dramatically intensified the challenges Iran faces, and exposes its structural weaknesses. Against this backdrop, facing a sense that the regime's stability is more shaky than ever, discussion has been renewed regarding the feasibility of the regime change option.


Prominent researchers, newspapers and periodicals dealing with foreign policy have returned to discuss and debate this question. Conspicuous in this respect, two of the most pronounced supporters of regime change, Takeyh and Edelman, in an extensive article in Foreign Affairs, called on the United States to adopt a proactive policy for toppling the regime in Iran.


The debate between supporters of this policy and those who take exception with it have two sides: On one hand, an intelligence-analysis discourse in essence, focusing on assessing the stability of the Iranian regime—its character and deep internal processes afoot in Iran; and on the other hand a practical policy discussion of the best way to deal with the threats Iran presents.


At the heart of the debate lays judgments about the regime's essence. Supporters of the regime change alternative hold a pessimistic belief that the regime will never give up the revolution and its drive to export it in the region, change its opposition to the United States, or relent on its aspiration for nuclear weapons.


This approach tends to give little weight to the pragmatic nature of the Islamic regime, despite its extremism. The ayatollahs in Teheran give their survivability top priority, and while they have not given up their revolutionary vision, they are willing to compromise on it, even if this is only temporarily under heavy pressure and a credible military threat. Thus, the founder of the revolution Khomeini agreed to limited cooperation even with Israel and the United States ("Iran-Contra Affair") when Iran was immersed in a savage war against a common enemy—Iraq. Khomeini's heir, Khamenei, agreed in 2003 and 2015 to freeze the nuclear program and even to roll it back.


Differences of perspective and assessment are tied to the strength of the opposition to the regime. On one hand, hatred of the repressive regime by the people is evident, along with signs of a breaking point in the 'fear barrier'. This is reflected in the series of protests since the 'green wave' that engulfed the country in 2009, and particularly the petrol riots of November 2019. Observers who support regime change stress the fact that November protesters were comprised primarily of the weaker segments of society who traditionally have constituted the 'backbone' of support for the regime.


On the other hand, others argue that protesters will find it hard to bring about change without mobilizing the middle class to join them. Another problem is the fragmentation in the ranks of the protest movement, which lacks a central leadership to organize its diverse sectors and link their economic protest to a coherent political agenda. The last event where there was such a leadership was the demonstrations in 2009—the most widespread in the history of the Islamic regime (not counting those that brought it to power).This, unlike the petrol riots which were more violent, but relatively limited in scope.


Another aspect of this question is the power of the regime and its hold on the reins of government. The regime enjoys the hardcore support of some 20 percent of the public who are dependent on it. The regime has at its disposal effective control mechanisms, including a firm hold on communication channels and the Internet, and it applies a duel policy for effective repression of oppositionist elements: It allows 'letting off steam', but also knows how to use brutal repressive force when needed, deterring the public.


Another point of disagreement is tied to use of harsh sanctions. There are those who argue that external pressure only unites the Iranian people around the regime and weakens demand for change and reforms under Rouhani's leadership. On the other hand, events in recent years have clearly demonstrated that the rigorous pressure has only intensified internal protest in Iran and strengthened the forces of change (while Rouhani is no longer perceived by the protesters as their advocate).


In the economic plane, there is no disagreement regarding the dramatic deterioration experienced in Iran even prior to the Coronavirus crisis. There are those observers who underscore that the crisis will intensify the economic spiral, and when conditions enable it, the masses will return in force to the streets. Conversely, others point out that the regime and the people are accustomed to life under severe sanctions; that revolutions don't break out under conditions of economic strangulation; and that over time, the economy in a country adjusts to worsening conditions.


Differences of opinion also exist regarding 'the day after' regime change. There are those who warn of a military dictatorship with the Revolutionary Guards taking power, or an extremely nationalist civilian regime that would be no less committed to regional hegemony and nuclearization.


The debate surrounding regime change policy is without a doubt an interesting lesson in the art of interpreting reality and the ability to foresee future developments. Nevertheless, one can ask what could be bad about external pressure that encourages internal forces that can weaken an extremist regime?


The main problem, particularly from an Israeli perspective, is tied to Iran's nuclear program and the immediate need to stop it.


There is a consensus among those whose thinking focuses on regime change that it is impossible to forecast emergence of internal protest processes and their timing. Nonetheless most agree that, if at all, regime change in Iran will take time, apparently a long time, to materialize.


Thus, the regime change alternative does not provide a solution for stopping the Iranian nuclear program, which the regime began to expand again since May 2019. Far worse, it appears that the call to adopt a policy of regime change might obscure an undeclared willingness to avoid the need to immediately address the nuclear problem, since it would in any case be solved when the regime is toppled in the longer run, and (in the subtext) until then, one can contain it.


Striving openly to topple the Iranian regime can be expected to strengthen its determination to gain a nuclear capability as a guarantee of its survival, and further entrench in its refusal to return to negotiations. This might neutralize the leverage the Trump administration has created through unprecedentedly effective sanctions.


In any case, despite the administrations denials that it does not seek to topple the regime, its maximalist demands from Iran (Pompeo's '12 Points') are perceived in Teheran as an expression in practice of a policy of regime change, and only strengthens perceptions among Iran's senior leadership of the total senselessness of a dialogue with the United States.


Under such conditions, the assessment that Iran will stand firm in its refusal to enter negotiations (certainly not before elections in the United States) is the most plausible scenario. At the same time, the country's unprecedented weakness could improve the chances of pressuring Iran to renew talks on amending the dangerous flaws in the nuclear agreement. This will have to involve a number of combined moves: Increasing economic pressure and projecting a credible military threat, while focusing these steps on the nuclear issue; guaranteeing that the United States is not promoting regime change; dropping unrealistic demands and engaging in creative diplomacy. Even if the regime does not abandon its revolutionary objectives, under extreme pressure it could agree to some temporary concessions that could buy time and improve Israel's strategic situation.


On the other hand, a lengthy impasse is liable to narrow Israel's space for maneuverability, leaving Israel alone in the front lines and taking Israel back to the situation where the military option (whose prospects and price are heavy) becomes the only option for stopping Iranian nuclear progress. In any case, under the circumstances that have been created, it is imperative to begin preparation for this option now.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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