Giuliani’s Iran regime change plan is strategically dangerous

Giuliani’s Iran regime change plan is strategically dangerous
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On the heels of Trump’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) announcement — removing a roadblock that had prevented military conflict with Iran — it’s important to take a realistic, strategic view of the situation, but that’s not what we’re hearing from voices close to President TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Navajo Nation president on Arizona's new voting restrictions: An 'assault' on our rights The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE. “We have a president who is tough,” former New York City mayor and current personal attorney to the president Rudy Giuliani said Saturday at a conference for expatriate opponents of Iran’s government. “We have a president who is as committed to regime change as we are.”

The manner of the declaration was odd. Why would President Trump have his personal lawyer make a major foreign policy announcement? Where is the secretary of state on this, or the secretary of defense?

It could be that Giuliani is seizing his moment in the limelight to push his own agenda in hopes that, if it gains popular traction, Trump will join the bandwagon. But it is also possible the president wants Giuliani to test the waters — to pitch the idea to the public and gauge the mood of the country without officially embroiling the White House should the reaction be negative.


Either way, the response Trump must hear should be the same: Don’t do this.

While no one of good conscience wants to see the oppression of the Iranian people continue, to pursue U.S.-orchestrated regime change in Iran would be to repeat major foreign policy mistakes — strategic failures of significant consequence — of the last century and to unquestionably violate Trump’s own campaign promises.

The history of U.S.-Iran relations is a cautionary tale. In 1953, as documents declassified last year formally admitted, the CIA worked with British intelligence officials to execute Operation Ajax, a covert coup to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government to maintain Western access to the country’s oil reserves.

In the CIA’s phrasing, the “military coup that overthrew [Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh] and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.”

With Mossadegh’s government toppled, the U.S. and U.K. supported the installation of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who would rule as a pro-Western autocrat. Though their country was modernizing rapidly, the people of Iran understandably did not all share the shah’s sentiments. His unpopular policies — employing torture and secret police, as well as suppression of religious expression — fueled distrust of the United States and, domestically, the reactionary movement that led to the 1979 revolution that installed the Islamic Republic we know today.

In Iran, the “issue is more than academic,” explains Malcolm Byrne, director of the U.S.-Iran Relations Project at the National Security Archive. “Political partisans on all sides, including the Iranian government, regularly invoke the coup to argue whether Iran or foreign powers are primarily responsible for the country's historical trajectory, whether the United States can be trusted to respect Iran's sovereignty, or whether Washington needs to apologize for its prior interference before better relations can occur.”

The United States’ past regime change project in Iran resulted in the end of a comparatively stable and democratic government; set in motion events that would lead to the rise of the repressive regime in Tehran today; and poisoned U.S.-Iran relations for decades. To seek to repeat this history is not toughness. It is madness.

And there is no reason to think U.S.-forced regime change would end better this time around. Washington has a record of failure on this front. Consider the United States’ more recent regime change efforts in Iraq and Libya. The result of each intervention has not been more stability, but less. Both nations have hosted more terrorism than democracy. Regime change in Iraq created the conditions that permitted the rise of the Islamic State; regime change in Libya gave ISIS a failed state to occupy.

Like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the theocracy in Iran is far from ideal from a perspective of human rights and U.S. foreign policy alike. But Iran’s regional power is balanced and contained by U.S. partners and allies, like Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Fears of deleterious Iranian hegemony are wildly overblown: Its population of 80 million makes up less than one-fifth of the Middle East’s 420 million people.

It is an internally heterogeneous Shiite state in a majority-Sunni region with GDP and military spending both dwarfed by that of regional U.S. allies (collectively, but also sometimes individually, as in the case of Saudi Arabia’s $70 billion in annual military spending to Iran’s $15 billion).

Furthermore, a non-ideal situation does not mean external regime change has any realistic chance of producing something better. Iran boasts more than double Iraq's population and more than triple Iraq's area. Its population is better educated and more urban and it outpaces Iraq in economic and technological measures alike. Regime change in Iraq has cost the United States thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, embroiling us in a generational war which has not benefited American security. To attempt regime change in Iran would be costlier still.

It would also violate a major plank of President Trump’s campaign platform. “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” he said in representative comments as president-elect.

For Trump to be “committed to regime change” in Iran, as Giuliani put it, would not merely be to let a campaign promise fall by the wayside; it would be to actively and foolishly break it. Entangling the United States in another dead-end war would be politically disastrous for Trump.

The welcome news for those who wish to see a new government in Tehran without the dangerous plan Giuliani recommends is that U.S. involvement is not necessary for change. Younger generations of Iranians are increasingly friendly to the outside world. They are already challenging their government and as they age into the majority of the Iranian public, significant political change is likely on the horizon without external military meddling.

“The best thing the United States could do to facilitate this development, however, is to let the people of Iran reform their country from within,” writes Ret. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis at The National Interest.

“Americans are famous for our ‘can do’ attitude — remaining passive cuts across our grain — but for a real change in the Iranian government to take place, the pressure must come from within without any ‘help’ from outside interests.” Further regime change and war is not prudent, practical, or necessary for American security or prosperity and it would not enhance the reform efforts of the more liberal elements inside of Iran.

For Trump, that means rejecting pressure from Giuliani and his allies, like National Security Advisor John Bolton. The president last week demonstrated his willingness to rebuke Giuliani when he goes off-message; now he should let the world know he is not, in fact, committed to American-made regime change in Iran.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.