The Case against Regime Change in Iran

By Nils Hagerdal

The recent assassination of the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, by a U.S. drone attack further increased tensions between the United States and Iran. Political conflicts between the two countries go back to the 1979 Iranian revolution, and despite periods of détente have never quite receded. Some scholars blame the conflict on the nature of the Iranian regime—its Islamic government is a revolutionary regime that takes aggressive and risky gambits to revise the international status quo. A number of U.S. policymakers, such as the recently departed national security adviser, John Bolton, argue that the only effective solution is for the United States and its allies to seek regime change, yielding a pro-Western government in Tehran. But on closer scrutiny, regime change in Iran is unattractive for at least three major reasons: the poor track record of the policy in general, the difficulty of finding suitable candidates to run a different kind of regime, and the simple fact that the central tenets of Iranian foreign policy actually predate the Islamic regime and may well persist even with new leaders and a changed form of government.

First, the United States has a long history of enacting regime change in foreign countries. This policy began with the so-called banana wars when the United States installed friendly dictators across Central America and the Caribbean to facilitate the operations of major U.S. corporations. It escalated during the Cold War with coups, assassinations, and civil wars aimed at overthrowing Communist regimes across the  Global South. More recently, regime change was the central goal of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Yet, as my colleague Ben Denison shows in a recent report, the results have proven highly unsatisfactory to U.S. national interests. After new regimes are installed by the United States, countries tend to become more repressive, more likely to experience civil wars, and less likely to have democratic governance and civil liberties. Anyone advocating for regime change in Iran therefore needs to explain why Iran would be different, and a similar disaster would be unlikely.

Second, if the United States were to pursue regime change in Iran it would open up the question of what group or individual Washington should install to lead the country. Presumably, the ideal candidate would not be particularly religious, would be motivated more by nationalism than religion, and have professional credentials other than theological training (perhaps with military experience). Most importantly, the new leader should enjoy wide popular legitimacy in Iran. One could easily imagine such a candidate—his name was Qassem Soleimani. Ironically, proponents of regime change widely celebrated his recent assassination even though he is exactly the kind of person they would in theory rather have running the country. The United States cannot pursue regime change unless it can identify a realistic alternative to the existing regime.

Third, even if the United States were to install a different regime, there is no guarantee that new leaders would pursue radically different policies. Two of the central tenets of Iranian foreign policy actually predate the Islamic regime. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, aggressively pursued political and military hegemony in the Persian Gulf after the British withdrew in 1971. He seized contested islands like Abu Musa and the Tunbs by military force. The shah also initiated another hallmark of Iranian foreign policy by sponsoring non-state armed groups in foreign countries as a tool of regional leverage, including Kurdish militias in Iraq and Christian militias in Lebanon. Thus, even if the United States by some magic trick could undo the Iranian revolution or otherwise bring back the Pahlavi regime, there is no guarantee that the result would be a major difference in Iranian foreign policy.

With the poor performance of regime change in the past, no obvious choices to lead a new government, and no guarantee that it would pursue a radically different foreign policy, regime change is a bad option. There is simply very little to suggest that such a policy would solve the underlying structural issues generating insecurity in the contemporary Persian Gulf.

Nils Hagerdal is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

Leave a Reply