Everybody, meet John P. Hannah:
John’s illustrious career in public service included a brief period in the Bush State Department as an aide to John Bolton in the Office of Arms Control and International Security (2001), followed by stints as Dick Cheney’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (2001-2005), his Assistant for National Security Affairs (2005-2009). Since leaving government he has been a senior fellow at the neocon Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a contributor at Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and a senior fellow at the ultra neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The point I’m trying to make here is that if you run into John P. Hannah on a clear day, and he tells you that the sky is blue, you better look up just to be sure.
Fortunately, John’s record of advising people who have been flagrantly, hilariously-if-it-weren’t-for-the-body-count wrong about everything over the past 13 years and change hasn’t deprived us of his important voice on serious foreign policy matters. Foreign Policy just gave him a forum (if this is behind a paywall, I apologize; I can’t follow how FP’s paywall works and anyway I have a subscription) in which to opine that this whole “trying to be nice to Iran” stuff is bullshit, man, and it’s time to try something new and different: regime change!
It’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s try the title:
It’s Time to Pursue Regime Change in Iran
It’s “time”? Regime chance has been the unofficially official U.S. policy toward Iran since 1979. That is, unless you think that 35 years of escalating economic sanctions against Iran (violated only when Ronald Reagan needed cash to help to his favorite Central American right wing terror group and couldn’t get Congress to fork it over), a brutal 8 year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in which the U.S. aided and abetted (among other war crimes) the use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians, shooting down an Iranian commercial airplane carrying 290 people, the “Axis of Evil” speech, and the aiding and/or perpetrating of terrorist/cyber-terrorist acts inside Iran were all just things we’ve done to the Iranians out of love.
Just for fun, we should probably also consider our last full-fledged adventure in “regime change” in Tehran, even though it happened in 1953 and thus predates the 1979 revolution, because that really worked out well for everybody in the long run.
What has any of this gotten us? Just as in Cuba, the regime we’d like to see changed (the one whose advent was a direct result of that 1953 coup, ironically enough) is still in place, and despite the 2009 unrest around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election there’s no real chance that it will be toppled anytime soon. Iran’s economy is weak and likely to get much weaker as a result of the oil price crash, but there’s no evidence yet that it’s going to drive some kind of mass revolution. And until the diplomacy that John Hannah dismisses led to the signing of the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013, Iran was probably as close to building a nuclear weapon, if it had wanted to do so, as it has ever been. America’s policy of regime change, as far as Iran is concerned, has been batting .000 for the better part of four decades now. Factor 1953 into the equation, and our efforts to manipulate Iran’s government have actually done far more harm than good.
Anyway, I don’t want to waste a lot of time an article whose basic premise is so fundamentally bullshit, but there are a couple of points worth calling out.
Currently out of favor in many circles, regime change has a proven track record in helping put a number of bad actors out of the nuclear weapons business. In Latin America in the 1980s, the crucial factor that terminated bomb-making programs in Brazil and Argentina was democratization and the transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule. In South Africa, the looming collapse of apartheid provided the government of F.W. de Klerk with the necessary incentive to dismantle the country’s small nuclear arsenal. So, too, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, fledgling new states in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus saw it as in their best interests to rid themselves of large nuclear stockpiles that they’d inherited.
This particular paragraph may be the biggest mess ever put to print. Hannah cites “regime change” as a crucial factor in heading off or ending rogue nuclear weapons programs, then lists lots of examples where the United States played no role at all, let alone the kind of active, even militaristic, role he apparently envisions us taking in the Joyous Liberation of Iran from the Iranians. The democratic transitions in Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa were internal processes, not America-driven schemes. But since he fails to note that inconvenient bit of history, Hannah apparently thinks his readers are dumb enough to believe that it was U.S. action that led to the downfall of military regimes that we helped put in place to begin with, and that our government, which didn’t even acknowledge the international boycott against South Africa until 1986 and helped arrest Nelson Mandela, that was behind the downfall of apartheid. And the whole paragraph rests on the premise that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, an assertion that would be thrown out in a court for assuming facts without evidence.
You start to suspect that Hannah wrote this piece more to justify his former boss’s idiotic war in Iraq than to stake out any new ground on Iran:
Also rarely acknowledged in polite foreign-policy circles is the success that military action has enjoyed in keeping at bay the nuclear ambitions of some of the world’s worst states. Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor short-circuited Saddam Hussein’s plutonium pathway to a bomb, and 10 years later, the American military’s overwhelming victory in the first Gulf War paved the way for the dismantling of Iraq’s crash program to enrich uranium. And heresy though it may be, I’ll say it anyway: For all the subsequent problems that may have flowed from Operation Iraqi Freedom, the removal of Saddam’s regime put to rest forever the legitimate fear that the “Butcher of Baghdad” would one day find a way of getting his hands on the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Finally, short of an actual military attack, a credible threat to use force laced with the prospect of regime change has also produced important results in denuclearizing rogue states, with Libya being the prime example. Opponents of the Iraq war may hate to admit it, but rest assured that the confluence of a bedraggled Saddam Hussein being pulled out of his spider hole and Moammar Gadhafi’s ultimate decision to pack up his nuclear weapons infrastructure lock, stock, and barrel and ship it off to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee was no mere accident.
Libya wasn’t alone in taking note of America’s crushing 2003 defeat of the Iraqi military. Iran noticed, too.
See? Not only did a war against a country that didn’t have a nuclear weapons program end that country’s non-existent nuclear weapons program (?), it also ended the nuclear weapons programs of two other countries. Sure, the Libyans had probably offered to dismantle their WMD program years before the Iraq War, and sure there’s still no conclusive evidence that Iran ever actually had a nuclear weapons program, but who cares? This is a hell of a story we’re telling.
Hannah then moves on to some standard war mongerish “<insert enemy> only understands force” talk before listing all of the Joint Plan of Action’s supposed failures:
The story of the Iran negotiations since the signing of the JPOA 13 months ago only bears this conclusion out. On the one hand, there has been a growing list of U.S. concessions on a whole host of core issues, including Iran’s right to enrich uranium, its research and development efforts on advanced centrifuges, its work to develop long-range ballistic missiles, and the urgency of coming clean on its past weaponization activities. On the other hand, Iran’s demands have been escalating, including the brazen insistence that, in relatively short order, it be permitted to build an industrial-size centrifuge program that could expand its capacity to enrich uranium by a factor of 10 to 20.
I have yet to see one of these pro-war folks explain what international authority would prohibit Iran from “build[ing] an industrial-size centrifuge program,” which probably has something to do with the fact that there really isn’t one. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is clear that all nations have the right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear power, and it has absolutely nothing to say about uranium enrichment specifically.
Unable to secure a comprehensive agreement, the talks have already been extended twice. Increasingly, it looks as if the United States has maneuvered itself into the untenable position of either being forced to accept a bad deal or continuing to kick the can down the road indefinitely through further extensions of the JPOA that de facto consecrate Iran’s standing as a threshold nuclear weapons state — slowly but surely strengthening its international standing and economy, while maintaining the option to break out or sneak out to a nuclear bomb at a time of its choosing.
What will, in fact, “consecrate Iran’s standing as a threshold nuclear weapons state” is the failure to reach any deal at all. No deal means no inspections, no limits on any element of Iran’s nuclear program, and no leverage to use to try to nudge Iran in a more desirable direction on issues like human rights and support for bad actors like Hezbollah and Hamas. I realize that John Hannah would argue that War Solves Everything, but in fact all a military approach can do is temporarily stifle a nuclear weapons program (which, again, Iran probably doesn’t even have at this point). It can’t extract the scientific and technical knowledge that Iran already possesses around the development of nuclear weapons, it can’t degrade their nuclear infrastructure in any permanent way, and it sure as hell can’t magically lead to regime change. All it can really do is satisfy the urges of American and Israeli hawks to get their war on.