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Pursuing Regime Change Isn't Dignified or Wise
The most useful thing that the U.S. government could do is to get out of the way of the Iranian people by suspending or lifting as many of the sanctions that throttle them as possible.
Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh are wrong as usual, but in this piece they are also wildly irresponsible:
The Biden administration has now run into this buzzsaw of sexual politics and faith. If the president were wise, he would throw his lot in with Iranian women. Mr. Biden wasn’t going to stop the Iranian bomb in Vienna. Aligning American policy behind the rebels at least gives the administration a chance at regime change [bold mine-DL]. It also gives the White House a chance to restore American dignity.
It is not surprising that pro-regime change zealots see every event as an occasion to agitate for regime change, but they are as deeply mistaken as ever when they insist that pursuing this goal is the appropriate role for the U.S. government. Leave aside the nuclear negotiations for a moment and ask whether it makes any sense for the U.S. to insert itself into these protests. The Iranian government is already casting protesters as agents working on behalf of foreign governments, and Gerecht and Takeyh would like to lend credibility to those accusations.
In many cases like this, the wiser course of action is to refrain from becoming involved so that our government does not exacerbate the protesters’ difficulties and so that it does not create false expectations of more direct intervention down the road. The U.S. should recognize the sharp limits on its influence in a country that our government understands very poorly and where it has not had a diplomatic presence in more than forty years. The U.S. should not seek to exploit popular protests for destructive ends. There is nothing dignified about intruding into another country’s affairs in an attempt to topple its government.
Referring to protesters seeking redress of grievances as “the rebels” is a gift to the Iranian government, which would like nothing more than to dismiss them as “seditionists” and crack down even harder. Perhaps Gerecht and Takeyh understand that they are undermining the protesters by calling them rebels, and perhaps they don’t, but that is what they are doing. Talking about these protests as a means to achieve regime change plays into the hands of the state’s propaganda.
If the U.S. started making policy with an eye towards using Iranian protesters as if they were pawns in a regime change policy, that would be deeply wrong and also likely to blow up in our faces. While the U.S. can and should criticize the Iranian government’s use of violence against protesters, there is very little that our government could do that would be constructive and welcome inside Iran. Trying to hijack an Iranian cause to advance a fanatical interventionist goal is exactly what the U.S. should never do.
The most useful thing that the U.S. government could do is to get out of the way of the Iranian people by suspending or lifting as many of the sanctions that throttle them as possible. In the worst case, tens of millions of ordinary Iranians would be at least slightly better off than they were before, and in the best case that might even lead to some real change for the better. At the very least, the U.S. would not be inflicting as much needless pain on innocent people. Sanctions not only impoverish huge numbers of ordinary people, but in so doing they steal time and energy away from those that might use the lost time and energy to seek improvements in their political system. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj discussed the impact of sanctions on Iranian society in an important thread last week. He made several relevant points about how sanctions impede the ability to protest:
2. The first challenge is diminished capacity to mobilise. Economic precarity makes it harder to sustain protest movements. Many Iranians literally cannot afford to organise and mobilise over weeks and months. Workers are reluctant to strike given the risk of losing their jobs.
3. Even those who retain the economic means to protest lack the tools to organise. Institutionally speaking, sanctions have weakened civil society organisations that help mobilise the middle class. Charities, advocacy groups, legal aid providers are starved of resources.
4. So while economic hardship spurs more protests, particularly given increased mobilisations over economic grievances, the protests that take place tend to be smaller and more fleeting, even those that might pertain to grievances faced by a broad swath of society.
Broad sanctions are a sustained, cruel attack on the people of the targeted country, so if our government wanted to help ordinary Iranians it would put an end to that attack with substantial sanctions relief. Years of economic warfare have empowered hard-liners and tightened the grip of Iran’s authoritarian government, and it would be foolish to think that continuing with more of the same bankrupt pressure tactics will produce any better results.