by Eldar Mamedov
Among regime-change advocates, it´s long been de rigeur to invoke the way the President Ronald Reagan dealt with the Soviet Union as a template for hastening the demise of the Islamic Republic. According to this view, Reagan, armed with moral clarity, almost single-handedly defeated the USSR. If only current Western leaders had Reagan´s valor, “the march of freedom and democracy will leave the Islamic Republic in the ash heap of history like it has left other tyrannies,” to borrow the lines Reagan dedicated to the Communist regimes in his speech in the British parliament in 1982.
Some key members of the Trump administration, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are long-standing advocates of regime change in Iran. Drawing on Reagan´s Cold War legacy, neoconservative pundits supply intellectual ammunition for this policy.
Apart from the obvious incongruence of comparing a nuclear-armed superpower with global ambitions with a second-tier military and relatively isolated regional power, invoking Reagan´s policies as a successful precedent for regime change distorts his actual record and ignores the fact that the demise of the Soviet Union did not remove a security threat to the United States.
True, Reagan used highly confrontational rhetoric against the Soviet Union, depicting it as an “evil empire.” Yet, this did not prevent him from negotiating arms control agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at historical summits in Reykjavik, Geneva, Washington, and Moscow in the 1980s. Both he and his vice president and successor George H.W. Bush were scrupulous in respecting the Soviet leader and the notion of parity between the two nuclear superpowers. Nobody at the time criticized this as a sign of U.S. weakness. To the contrary, diplomacy was seen then as a means of first, not last, resort to preserve peace and security. Both Reagan and Bush took extra care not to humiliate the Soviets and present the outcome of the Cold War as a win for both sides, with no losers. The Cold War ended through mutually negotiated détente not Reagan’s magical powers.
There is nothing of the sort on offer in the current U.S. approach to Iran. The U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo’s 12 conditions amounting to a de facto surrender of Iran, economic warfare, the travel ban against Iranians, and now President Trump’s threat to destroy Iran all render, at this point, any negotiations with the United States unfathomable for Tehran. Ironically, by invoking Regan’s strategy against the Soviets, regime-change promoters undermine their own case: Reagan used diplomacy not because he was “soft” on Soviets but because they represented a real threat to the United States, and one-dimensional policy of pressure would have seriously endangered America’s national security.
In contrast, by discarding diplomacy with Iran, the hawks show that they do not believe their own propaganda about the level of threat posed by that country. When a threat is really serious, the policies tend to be much more prudent than what the United States presently pursues. Witness the diplomatic dances with nuclear-armed North Korea. Calls for regime change reflect an ideological inability to accept the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, not some pressing security concern.
Even supposing that the end of the Soviet Union supplies a valid blueprint for dealing with Iran, the experience of post-Soviet Russia provides a cautionary tale. Regime changers salute the collapse of the USSR as if it were an unmitigated happy end. True, the captive peoples of central and eastern Europe regained their freedom, but Russia itself was never integrated into a new security architecture in Europe. This happened partly because of the mistakes of its own leadership, but partly also because of America’s post-Cold War hubris. The expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders long after the dissolution of the Warsaw bloc, opening the door of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, disregard for Russia’s well founded concerns about the wars in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya: these all provoked Russian backlash, which led ultimately to the illegal annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of the eastern Ukraine. The end of the Cold War thus ushered in not a liberal democratic Russia but a resentful, nationalist, and militarist country that the new U.S. national defense strategy identifies as a bigger threat than international terrorism.
Similarly, regime change in Iran won’t solve anything if Iran’s legitimate security interests are not respected. Whether monarchic or Islamic, Iran cannot tolerate the Persian Gulf region or Afghanistan to be a source of threat. In fact, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policies display more continuity with the ostensibly pro-Western shah regime than is often acknowledged, be it in the overtures to the Lebanese Shiites and Iraqi Kurds, the complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia, or even the tensions with the United States and UK. Any hypothetical post-Islamic Republic regime would be as zealously protective of Iran’s national interest as its predecessors. Attempts to encircle Iran and encroach on what it sees as areas of its vital security interests would only provoke an aggressively nationalist response. Ironically, overthrowing the hated “mullahs” may even make matters worse. A new regime, freed from religious fatwas prohibiting nuclear weapons, may decide that a dash for such weapons may deter outside attack more effectively than diplomacy.
There are two lessons to be learned from Reagan´s experience with the late Soviet Union. First, diplomatic negotiations with an adversary, not “moral clarity,” are essential to any breakthrough. And second, even if an offensive regime is removed, the state remains, and with it, its core national interests. Capable states, such as Russia and Iran, will pursue them no matter their system of governance. Unless those are accommodated, at least to an extent, regional or even global security challenges will not be effectively met. Aside from these considerations, the Soviet-Iran analogy is analytically useless and should be discarded.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.