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Iran Is Not Ours to ‘Steer’

The Edelman/Takeyh article on Iran had so many bad ideas in it that it will take a second post to respond properly to some of the rest. One of the sillier claims that they make is that regime collapse won’t cause Iran to become a failed state because it is a real country, unlike the other countries that the U.S. destabilized and turned into failed states:

But there are significant differences between Iran and those countries. An Iranian state and polity have existed for thousands of years: unlike Iraq and Libya, Iran is not an invention of European postcolonial cartography. What is more, although ethnic tensions do exist in Iran and the regime in Tehran does repress religious minorities, Iranian society is overwhelmingly Shiite and not riven by the ethnic and sectarian divisions that plague Iraq or the tribal factions that make Libya difficult to govern.

Each time that regime changers talk about bringing down a foreign government, they offer these reassurances, and they are consistently proven wrong. Before the invasion of Iraq, supporters of the invasion insisted that religious differences among Iraqis were nothing to worry about. Prior to intervention in Libya, we were told by the interventionists that Libya was not divided like Iraq and there was no need to worry about the country sliding into civil war. Now we’re told that Iran isn’t like either of them because it isn’t an “invention of European postcolonial cartography,” so we shouldn’t worry about civil war there. There is a lot wrong with this assumption. First, countries that have a long history of having their own “state and polity” can and do fall into civil war following the collapse of an earlier regime all the time. It happened in France after the destruction of the monarchy, it happened in Russia after the tsar’s abdication, and of course it happened in China more than once in just the last hundred years. A country can be mostly ethnically homogeneous and united by the same religion and still be rent by other political divisions. It is an analytical error to assume that religious and ethnic divisions drive internal conflicts. These become the rallying points that people use to ensure their own security when political order breaks down. That would look different in a post-regime collapse Iran, but the need for security would be the same.

It is remarkable that there are still people so breathtakingly arrogant after almost twenty years of staggering, costly U.S. failures in multiple countries that they can write this:

The Iranian people want an accountable government and do not share their leaders’ animus toward the West. But things don’t always happen just because they should. To avoid outcomes such as those in Iraq and Libya, a U.S. policy of regime change must include plans for steering a post-theocratic Iran in the right direction, since Washington would share a large degree of responsibility for the outcome.

The U.S. can barely govern itself effectively, but we still have people claiming that our government has the knowledge and ability to “steer” a country on the other side of the world. That would be wrong even if the U.S. were filled with credible, genuine Iran experts, but we actually have very few that know much about the country in depth. The U.S. does not know how to “steer” other countries, and we have no right to try. Our government cannot “steer” Iran in “the right direction,” and Iran is not ours to “steer” in any case. One would think that the experience of repeated humiliations abroad would instill some humility in regime changers, but it never does.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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