Back in 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a book by Kenneth Pollack (subsequently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at Brookings), entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book argued that Saddam Hussein was irrational and undeterrable and that the United States had no choice but to remove him from power. Part of the book’s effectiveness derived from Pollack’s portrayal of himself as a belated convert to preventive war: he had opposed using force in the past, he said, but was now convinced—oh so reluctantly—that no other course was prudent. The book provided intellectual cover for all those liberal hawks who were looking for some way to justify supporting the war, and thus played an important role in a great national disaster.
Last week, CFR president Richard Haass appeared to be channeling his inner Pollack in a Newsweek column calling for regime change in Iran. Describing himself as a “card-carrying realist,” he sounded Pollackian notes of reluctance and resignation. He says that he normally thinks that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” and adds that he previously backed the Obama administration’s decision to try diplomacy first.
But now, he says, he’s “changed his mind.” He’s convinced that Iran is trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (a carefully worded phrase, by the way, as having the capacity to build a nuke is not the same as actually building one and Iran may merely be seeking a latent capacity akin to Japan rather than an actual nuclear arsenal). He also thinks -- from his lofty perch in New York City -- that Iran “may be closer to profound political change than at any other time since the revolution that ousted the Shah thirty years ago.” Although he doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion (which we don’t have the forces for anyway), he wants the U.S. and its allies to be more vocal about Iranian human rights violations and advocates slapping targeted sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, neither senior U.S. officials nor congressmen should have any dealings with the Iranian regime, and we ought to push hard for sanctions on refined petroleum products at the U.N. (where they won’t be approved). Somewhat inconsistently, he thinks “working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,” even though he must know that there’s hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.
While there is no question that Haass’ piece will help fuel America’s sense of self-righteousness -- look, we’re defending freedom! -- the course of action he lays out is foolish. No one in the United States can be confident that Iran is close to “profound political change”; we simply don’t have enough information to know what is happening in Tehran, and authoritarian regimes often hold on to power for decades despite widespread domestic discontent.
Moreover, as I’ve noted before, key members of the current opposition are strongly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, which means that there is little reason to think that Iran will abandon its nuclear program even if there is some sort of regime change. So if that's what's really bugging him -- and it appears to be -- then his prescribed course of action will just reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Acting as Haass prescribes could also weaken the opposition rather than strengthen it, by allowing the regime to discredit their adversaries as foreign puppets. He says the clerics and Revolutionary Guards are doing that already, but why give them more ammunition for the fight?
There are at least three other reasons why Haass’ new position is misguided.
First, after acknowledging that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” he assumes that anything would be preferable to what we have now. Maybe so, but our track record in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere suggests that U.S. meddling often makes things worse. Like the liberal interventionists he has sometimes sparred with in the past, Haass simply cannot imagine leaving well enough alone, and letting Iran’s own people determine their own political future. A hands-off approach is not an endorsement of the clerics or the brutal behavior of the Revolutionary Guards; it is merely recognition that further meddling on our part might be counterproductive.
Second, as Richard Silverstein points out on his blog, Haass’ approach lacks patience. Repairing the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship cannot be accomplished in a month or even a year, and the kind of posturing and pressure that Haass is calling for is more likely to retard progress than advance it. Ordinary Iranians are already convinced that the United States has long interfered in their affairs for various nefarious purposes -- and with some reason -- and putting on the full-court press isn’t going to reduce those concerns. Indeed, it will surely exacerbate them.
Third, a policy of “regime change-lite” puts us one step closer to actual war. Haass is saying in effect that Iran’s government has no legitimacy or standing and that we ought to help bring it down. Attacking Iran is not a practical goal right now, but getting rid of the regime ought to be. So what happens when sanctions and speeches and ostracism don’t work, and Iran continues to develop its enrichment program? Wait another year or two, and Haass will find himself sounding even more like Kenneth Pollack, telling us that he has ever so reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to bomb.
One would hope to see better analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations, especially in light of the fiasco in Iraq. And if it is a harbinger of things to come, look out.
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 10: (AFP OUT) Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass speaks during a taping of a roundtable discussion of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 10, 2006 in Washington, DC. Haass discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group report on the evaluation of the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.