Earlier this month, Michael Axworthy of Foreign Policy warned the Trump administration that "regime change in Iran would be a disaster for everyone." And on the surface, he's right. Regime change in Iran would be catastrophic for multiple reasons. But the arguments in Mr. Axworthy’s article are marred by statements that are simply incorrect.
Let’s start with the basics: “Iran’s foreign policy is mostly pragmatic and defensive.” “Pragmatic” is a filler word. What foreign policy isn’t thought of as pragmatic by the country using it? Why would a state openly engage in foreign policy that it doesn’t see as a tool to realistically achieving its goals? I could say the same thing about North Korean foreign policy. It’s “pragmatic” in that Kim Jong Un is hellbent on getting an ICBM capable of striking the United States. This would give North Korea a guarantee that its greatest enemy would never dare touch it in a preemptive strike, a la Iraq or Libya.
Let’s move on to the second word, “defensive.” I don’t know about Mr. Axworthy, but “defensive” is not the word I would use to describe funding Al-Qaeda both in Afghanistan and Mali, turning Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon into puppet states, and funding Houthi rebels in Yemen who directly threaten the interests of Saudi Arabia. The list goes on. There is nothing “defensive” about Iran’s foreign policy unless any action taken by a state to protect itself is deemed as such. Per John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, virtually any foreign policy move made by any state, belligerent or benign, could be seen as defensive. Why would Prussia just remain another normal power when it can take from Denmark, Austria, and France, territory that it needs to defend itself? According to Mr. Axworthy, that’s “defensive” too.
After these two points, Mr. Axworthy moves on to defending Iran’s record in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevermind the fact that Iran itself has ties to Al-Qaeda, thus directly interfering with American efforts to build democracies in both countries. How can Mr. Axworthy honestly say that Iran has supported democracies in both states? Sure, you could probably say that about Iraq–if you ignore the fact that Iran has been openly jockeying for influence in the former since the 2003 invasion. To prove this point, one needn’t look further than history: Iraq and Iran, prior to the US invasion, had been at each other’s throats. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein lusted for years after Iran’s oil-rich southwestern province Khuzestan, while Iran’s Supreme Leaders openly proclaimed an Islamic Shia revolution in Iraq to undermine the dictator. Once Iraq was torn asunder, Iran saw its chance and proceeded to push Iraq under its sway, as Mr. Axworthy admits in his eighth paragraph.
At present, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi openly complains about Iran’s influence in his own country. He cites how Iraqi border checkpoints are token, controlled by Iran and used as locations through which Shia militias can pass to get to Syria. Produce in Iraqi supermarkets is Iranian. Iraqi citizens admit that Iran gives Iraq everything, with Iraq giving nothing back because it has nothing to offer. And if Iraqi citizens, like university students, speak up about this injustice, they’re intimidated by thugs from the Iraqi Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. Fighting the Islamic State is not an excuse for colonizing a sovereign state. With the logic presented, I suppose Mr. Axworthy also thinks that the United States helped propagate democracy in Iran, Cuba, and the Philippines once American forces overthrew or colonized each.
Mr. Axworthy goes on to claim that supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad provides stability, and makes the overarching claim that Iran’s foreign policy has been dedicated to maintaining stability in the Middle East. Clearly, he has never read an article by the American Enterprise Institute or Charles Lister. If anything, Assad is the reason for why Syria is so unstable. Ask yourself: why is this civil war taking place? It’s not as if the Syrian people just woke up one day and decided to themselves “Hmm, I feel like starting one of the most brutal conflicts in history, rife with human rights violations and war crimes, one that could very well carry global implications for millions, if not, billions of people, because my coffee was cold today.” Syrians were revolting against many things, but the main one among them was oppression. Assad was a butcher, and the popular will was that he had to go.
If anything, maintaining Assad’s position in Syria will just guarantee more instability. The dictator is bound to step up oppressive measures once he regains a modicum of control over his country. In fact, he already has. Look no further than Sednaya, where reports of mass murder have surfaced. Look no further than Khan Sheikhoun, where Assad’s warplanes rained down sarin gas that killed a hundred people. Look no further than the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which reports that 76 percent of civilian casualties were caused by the Assad regime and its affiliates just in 2016. Assad is a war criminal who is bent on maintaining power at all costs, even if those costs include the wholesale genocide of his people.
Iran, like every other state, is self-interested, and that self-interest means swiping regional hegemony when the opportunity presents itself. For Iran, it has tried to requisition it through feeding crisis, reaping war. The examples of this sordid behavior are endless. Refer to Iran’s agitation for Shiite rebellion in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces. Refer, again, to Iran’s agitation for Shiite rebellion in Iraq. Refer, another time, to Iran’s funding of Al-Qaeda. And refer twice now to Iran’s funding of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The American Enterprise Institute has gone so far as to publish an entire report on how Iran has grown adept at exploiting instability to grow its influence. It doesn’t matter if Iran’s defense spending is three percent of its GDP. It’s doing most of the destabilizing of the Middle East today. Vox substantiates as much.
But sure, maybe you could claim that Iran is dedicated to stability. What regional hegemon wouldn’t be? After all, a “stable” Syria led by Assad would guarantee to Iran a “Shia Crescent,” by which it would have a direct corridor to the Mediterranean. Supply lines would go as far as Lebanon, giving Iran even more license to send weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah. The terrorist group directly threatens Israeli security (something to which Mr. Axworthy also alludes). Is he, then, under the impression that dictatorships like the Soviet Union didn’t want regional stability in the territories that it owned? His own comments suggest otherwise.
Administration officials gunning for yet another escapade into a Middle Eastern country they poorly understand will yield reflective results. The reasons against regime change in Iran are endless, from the complete upending of great power politics in the Middle East to the very likely insurgency that would make any change in the Persian state impossible. But Mr. Axworthy has made an ineffective, and albeit, incorrect first strike.
Photo credit Ali Khamenei, Creative Commons