Regime Change in Iran Should Not Be American Policy | Opinion

The United States is enduring a new economic depression, an ongoing (perhaps worsening) pandemic and internal fissures on a scale not seen in 160 years. From a clear—if still flawed—beacon of hope for the world, America has in the space of a single generation become a land of low growth, debauched inequality and imperial defeat. The prospects for younger generations of Americans are obviously diminished; the country sports second-world infrastructure and Greek levels of debt, and its struggles with health care and internal violence are the subjects of deserved, international ridicule. In a more recent development, the scenes of rank iconoclasm unfolding in its cities—most provocatively, yards from the executive mansion itself—unambiguously show the world a country that is either unappreciative of, or in full revolution against, its own national inheritance.

This is not to say America is finished—far from it—but it does suggest that policymakers who wish to preserve its international primacy should understand they are playing with a weaker hand. Global micromanagement is a luxury we can no longer afford—and there is no clearer instance of overstretch than U.S. policy toward Iran. Thirty years after Francis Fukuyama infamously declared "the end of history," democracy, liberalism and open market capitalism are in retreat, if not actively threatened with extinction.

The evidence is clear that the U.S. should get its own house in order before picking the drapes elsewhere. Consider that the regime in Tehran is a mediocre theocracy in a region of declining national interest; yet to hear it from the State Department, it's the Iranians who constitute this country's preeminent challenge.

This animus is sustained by an obsession among some in America's Deep State—40 years of bad blood has built up since Shah Reza Pahlavi was run of town. He was our man in Tehran, and one has only to listen to media broadcasts from the 1970s to get a sense of how infectious Washington's optimism was for his reign. "Persia is moving up in the world," one newscast proclaimed. "Tehran is a modern city, vividly leaning more West than East. The mini-skirt is here and along with it has come a new freedom of expression."

Of course, we know what happened next. Pahlavi was tossed, dethroned by the hypnotic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the American defense establishment has been smarting ever since. Yet rather than question whether Western meddling in Iranian affairs—the unconditional backing of the authoritarian shah, for instance, or the CIA-sponsored defrocking of nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh—had caused this crisis in the first place, the United States has instead doubled down.

Cribbing a line from Iran's supreme leader, former U.S. officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have called Iran "America's great satan." Writing in Foreign Affairs, the duo point out: "Imagine historians a century from now trying to decide which foreign power the United States feared most in the decades from the late Cold War through 2020. ...[T]hey would see Russia first as an arch-enemy of the United States, then as a friend, and finally as a challenging nuisance. They would see China transform from a sometime partner to a great-power rival. North Korea would appear as a sideshow. Only one country would be depicted as a persistent and implacable foe: Iran."

It hasn't worked out.

A lifetime ago—January—Donald Trump proved himself again more lucky than good, assassinating the regime's second most important figure, Major Qassem Soleimani, with minimal apparent blowback. But Iran was, and is, largely a sideshow. In the same timeline, the administration could have been preparing a more fulsome response to the coming, international COVID-19 breakout, or negotiating a tougher trade deal with the Chinese communists, rather than a vainglorious cave to Beijing to save a stock market that would collapse months later anyway. And there's no guarantee the U.S. is out of the woods, either. As Dexter Filkins reports in The New Yorker, there is evidence that the Iranian regime is contemplating revenge ahead of the 2020 election in order to humiliate the administration. For a government seemingly obsessed with Iran, it could be the killing stroke.

As Americans lose faith in their own government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remains committed to throwing stones from a glass house. In recent remarks, he proclaimed that "the rogue regimes in Caracas and Tehran are unified by their penchant for repressing their people, corruption, self-enrichment and gross mismanagement of their peoples' wealth." He also announced yet another tranche of sanctions against the Iranians (and the Venezuelans). A day later—even as, or perhaps because, the administration he serves looks likely to be gone come January—he imposed more economic penalties, this time on Iran's metal industry.

In its belligerence toward Iran, the United States stands nearly alone on the international stage, yet the administration continues to ceaselessly beat the drum. "We will continue to exert maximum pressure on Iran," Pompeo said, "until the regime decides to start behaving like a normal country." There is certainly a case that the Obama administration was overeager to cut a deal with Tehran's mullahs, and shift American interest in the region toward cold agnosticism (our Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian partners, it should be noted, are hardly without their own flaws). But the zeal with which Trump—whether deliberately or, worse, through sheer disinterest—has overcorrected, from shredding Obama's nuclear deal without a replacement to killing Soleimani, has been a disfiguring development for U.S. foreign policy.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Some saw this coming.

George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower—statesmen who shared the experience of leading the country through pivotal wars, then shepherding its recovery afterward —both dedicated their parting shots in power to the same thing: cautioning against overreach overseas. President Washington said in his Farewell Address that the ideal country would "avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." In his closing salvo, President Eisenhower warned: "Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. ...This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. ...We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

And as a private citizen, former President Harry Truman—the architect of NATO and the CIA—decried the efflorescence of the Deep State he helped found. "I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency—CIA," Truman wrote in a letter to The Washington Post in 1963, during his retirement.

The facts on the ground have certainly changed since the 1790s—or since the mid-20th century. We no longer have a sparsely populated continent left to develop, or an economic position of unrivaled supremacy. But with one of the world's two mega economies, continued natural abundance and a peerless military, all is not lost.

Anchoring the country's international engagement in realism and restraint should therefore be the most important new foreign policy business of the day. From the gratuitous militarization of domestic police to the crimes against American citizens by the National Security Agency reported last decade, it's clear—as journalist Chris Hedges observed of Thucydides' reports from antiquity—that global and domestic developments are closely linked: "the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself."

A shift to a regime change policy on Iran would be imprudent, at best—and a body blow to America's global preeminence, at worst. Consider how far the follies in Iraq and Afghanistan have set back the country. Many, of course, will argue that the Iranian theater is different—and that getting tough won't necessarily result in kinetic war. But it's telling that the same voices advancing those arguments also waved off concerns about our previous Middle East fiascoes.

As a historical analogue, the French Revolution is also back in vogue. And here, too, the United States should work to follow the example of Washington, who maintained a healthy skepticism toward the schemes of France's Jacobins. If tyranny be overthrown—so be it, and quite possibly it's a cause for celebration. But America should be perennially wary of overinvolvement in a country about which it knows little.

Some close to the president have implied that the U.S. already has a de facto policy of regime change for Iran. They might be right. But as our country faces innumerable challenges of much greater seriousness, it would be a grave mistake to commit blood and treasure to such a futile and frivolous cause, no matter how revolting sections of the Iranian leadership may be. To steal a line from Pompeo, whichever party triumphs in November, it's high time America acts like "a normal country" and returns to the negotiating table.

Curt Mills is senior reporter at The American Conservative, covering national security and the 2020 campaign. Mills was a 2018–2019 Robert Novak Fellow.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.