A curious trait of America’s neocons is that they never change course or learn from past mistakes. They simply press on for more and more “regime change,” explaining their determination to sink the Iranian nuclear talks to reopen the pathway to more war, as Jonathan Marshall explains.
By Jonathan Marshall
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address Congress on Tuesday to warn of the imminent danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. He’s been sounding the same alarm ever since 1992, contrary to the findings of Israel’s own intelligence community. It’s time to look through the smokescreen of his rhetoric to the real issue.
For Netanyahu and his followers in Congress, the goal isn’t a “better” nuclear deal, it’s a better regime in Tehran. Extreme economic sanctions serve that end precisely because they will derail a deal. Just as nothing Saddam Hussein did to comply with weapons inspectors could satisfy the pro-war crowd in 2002-3, so Tehran can do nothing to satisfy the hardliners in 2015. They fear that any agreement limiting its nuclear capabilities will take the steam out of sanctions and give the regime a longer leash on life.
A few members of Congress come right out and admit it. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, was refreshingly candid at the Heritage Foundation’s Conservative Action Summit in January, when he called for “crippling new sanctions” against Iran:
“First, the goal of our policy must be clear: regime change in Iran. . . . Second, the United States should cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.”
Congress all but officially embedded regime change as a goal of U.S. foreign policy in Public Law 111-195, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. It doesn’t predicate the end of tough sanctions on a verifiable nuclear deal. Rather, it requires the president to certify that the government of Iran has:
(1) released all political prisoners and detainees;
(2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity;
(3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and
(4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary.
As one critic has noted, “Many U.S. allies, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, could not satisfy all these conditions. So even if Tehran were to stop all uranium enrichment and dump all of its centrifuges into the Gulf and shutter its nuclear program entirely, Iran would still continue to be sanctioned by the U.S.”
In the same vein, tough new sanctions legislation, which the Senate Banking Committee approved in January with the support of pro-AIPAC Senate Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, states that the United States should continue to impose sanctions on the Government of Iran as long as it engages in “abuses of human rights” or supports the Assad regime in Syria.
Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, is as dedicated to regime change as any Republican in Congress. Indeed, he is an outspoken defender of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a cult-like anti-regime Iranian exile group that was listed until September 2012 by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
Congress delayed a vote on the sanctions bill late March, ostensibly giving the Obama administration time to reach an iron-clad deal with Iran. But Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, who likened Iran’s leadership to a “pyromaniac psycho,” said, “The notion that the Iran sanctions effort can be stopped was killed by the American people at the ballot box when they elected a Republican Senate. This is going to move forward in the Senate regardless of what the President’s feelings are on it.”
Conservatives outside of Congress have been drumming up support for regime change for years. Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, speaking to journalists in Israel last month, said of Iran, “When you’re dealing with snakes, you’re dealing with an entity with which you cannot reason. You can’t pet the snake, you can’t feed it, you don’t try to make friends with it, you don’t invite it into your home, you kill the snake, because the snake will bite you if it has the chance.”
Support for regime change is strongest from neoconservatives who brought us the “liberation” of Iraq. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who joined the neoconservative Project for the New American Century to promote regime change in Iraq, says “Instead of focusing on overthrowing Assad or aiding his enemies, we should be vigorously pursuing regime change in Iran. As Alexander Haig once put it, ‘go to the source.’”
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a leading neo-conservative think tank funded by billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, wrote in 2012, “if we are going to pursue tougher international sanctions against Iran — and we should — the goal should be regime change in Iran, not stopping proliferation. . . . Designing sanctions to make [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei relent in his 30-year quest for the bomb is a delusion; sanctions that could contribute to popular unrest and political tumult are not.”
John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, titled a recent column,”It’s Time to Pursue Regime Change in Iran.”
Michael Rubin, a neoconservative firebrand at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Commentary magazine, “Simply put, the chief impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East is Iran, and it’s long past time the United States begins to realize that there will be no breakthrough on any issue of concern to U.S. national security until the Islamic Republic no longer exists. It should be the policy of the United States to hasten that day.”
Rubin argued with much justification that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would rally support for the regime without delaying its military capabilities for more than a few years. That’s why Jamie Fly and Gary Schmitt argued in the influential pages of Foreign Affairs that “it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.”
Fly, a former member of George W. Bush’s National Security Council, and Schmitt, a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century and secretary of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, argued with the breezy confidence characteristic of their ilk that by targeting “key command and control elements of the Republican Guard and the intelligence ministry, and facilities associated with other key government officials,” U.S. forces could “compromise severely the government’s ability to control the Iranian population” and open the door to “renewed opposition to Iran’s current rulers.”
Given the bitter experience of America’s many interventions over the past half century, it’s hard to take such arguments seriously. The ongoing carnage in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and other theaters is proof that the United States doesn’t have a clue how to change regimes for the better.
As Robert Wright commented, “You’d think that our eight-year adventure in Iraq would have raised doubts about the extent to which changed regimes will hew to our policy guidelines. There we deposed an authoritarian leader and painstakingly constructed a government, only to see the new regime (a) tell America to get the hell out of the country; and (b) cozy up to an American adversary (Iran!).”
For that matter, you’d think that America’s prior history of regime change in Iran itself would give interventionists more pause. The theocratic regime that rules Iran today came to power in part thanks to bitter resentment against the U.S.-British operation to overthrow the country’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953, after he nationalized Iran’s oil. Following the Islamic revolution in 1979, Washington turned to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a counterweight to the Khomeini regime, offering military support for Hussein’s invasion of Iran and setting the stage for the tragic wars of 1991 and 2003.
President Barack Obama has directly acknowledged that the U.S. role in the 1953 coup contributed to the “difficult history” of mistrust between Iran and the United States. And he addressed Tehran’s legitimate fears directly when he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, “We are not seeking regime change (in Iran), and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.”
For the neoconservatives who today have the upper hand in the Republican Party and in Congress, President Obama’s attempts at reconciliation with the Axis of Evil are nothing less than a sin. These hawks demand regime change over reconciliation. But if they succeed through extended sanctions in derailing an agreement, the only guaranteed outcome will be conflict and chaos.
Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. His last articles for Consortiumnews were “Unjust Aftermath: Post-Noriega Panama”; “The Earlier 9/11 Acts of Terror”; and “America’s Earlier Embrace of Torture”; and “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions.“