Don’t unlearn the mistakes of Iraq with Iran


Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence came out swinging, pleading for a united U.S.-European front against Iran.

“The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and with the Iranian people, our allies and friends in the region,” he said. “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world the peace, security and freedom they deserve.” In Warsaw two days prior, Pence issued an identical charge and paired it with an accusation that Tehran “openly advocates another Holocaust and seeks the means to achieve it,” a claim Iran promptly rejected.

{mosads}In neither speech did Pence outright call for forcible, U.S.-orchestrated regime change in Iran, but it isn’t difficult to follow his sight line to American airstrikes or even boots marching the same pattern into the ground in Tehran that they once walked in Baghdad — to the déjà vu of 2003 all over again. This would be a grave mistake.

Yes, the prospect of an Iran freed from its present government’s oppression at home and troublemaking abroad is obviously appealing, or at least it should be to anyone of good conscience.

But so was the prospect of an Iraq freed from Saddam Hussein 16 years ago and Americans and Iraqis alike are still suffering the consequences of that fiasco today.

Just as with regime change in Iraq, the U.S. military is capable of ousting the Iranian government, but we will then be left with no realistic and achievable plan to put Iran back together again and avoid an even more radical group coming to power or rising up in perpetual insurgency.

Indeed, “[h]ow engineering regime change in Tehran will benefit the United States is [not] clear,” writes military historian retired Col. Andrew Bacevich at Spectator USA. “This is especially true if taking into account the results of America’s ‘success’ in overthrowing governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya since 9/11,” Bacevich continues. “The facts speak for themselves: When U.S. forces oust an undesirable government in the Islamic world, the inadvertent result is to make things worse. Been there, done that, several times over.” We must not do it again.

Fortunately, the Trump administration does not appear to be actively moving to a war footing with Iran. Pence in Munich and Warsaw did not try to assemble a coalition of the willing. But he did label Tehran the “greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East,” “the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” and an expansionist power trying “recreate the ancient Persian Empire under the modern dictatorship of the ayatollahs.” In Pence’s telling, Iran is the Mideast’s chief agent of chaos and the United States’ greatest failure in the region in recent decades is passivity, a sluggish habit of “wishing away” dangers.

This is a reckless narrative and far from the language of a man pursuing a prudent, restrained strategy for U.S. security and defense. Pence’s remarks seem deliberately ignorant of the high cost and grim consequence of the United States’ post-9/11 foreign policy. They too easily risk repeating the very errors of military intervention, regime change and permanent nation building the Trump administration entered office pledging to avoid.

Rather than again operating on the bankrupt notion we need to — or the naïve assumption that Washington can — use our military to remake a foreign country in its own image from half a world away, we would do well to take a more realistic approach to U.S.-Iran relations.

This begins with setting aside U.S.-managed regime change as a plausible or beneficial policy goal. We can and should cheer any strides the Iranian people make toward free and democratic governance, but we cannot imagine it is within our own government’s competence to fight that battle for them. This has been demonstrated too many times already in the failed regime change projects of the Bush and Obama administrations alike.

Washington cannot transform the Iranian polity by force or fast-forward history through coercion and happily, it does not need to try. The United States is well-protected from Tehran by distance and unparalleled military might — our defense budget alone eclipses Iran’s entire GDP — and Iran’s ambitions are more than balanced by those of other regional powers, including well-armed U.S. partners like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Appropriate engagement with Iran can help “give the Iranian people, the region and the world the peace, security and freedom they deserve,” to borrow Pence’s phrase. It is simply not the sort of engagement he implied. Instead of dangerous bluster which overcommits our resources and limits our strategic options, U.S. interaction with Iran should center on patient diplomacy to advance our interests, including avoiding military confrontation. Re-opening normal channels of communication is a costless way to de-escalate tensions, learn to coexist and make future progress possible.

Diplomacy with Iran will be a messy and halting process. It is necessary nevertheless.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing 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.

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