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Iran Sanctions Won’t Bring About Regime Change

Alireza Nader reviews the calls for regime change in Iran, and he starts with Gerecht and Dubowitz:

Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz have argued that the United States should pursue sanctions that lead to regime change. According to them, through sanctions, “a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn. A democratic Iran might keep the bomb that Khamenei built. But the U.S., Israel, Europe, and probably most of the Arab world would likely live with it without that much fear.”

Gerecht and Dubowitz’s claim that Iran’s neighbors and the West can “live with” a nuclear-armed democratic Iran is a strange one. If the real concern about a future Iranian nuclear arsenal is that it will allow Iran to wield greater regional influence and limit freedom of Israeli and U.S. action, the nature of Iran’s regime doesn’t change any of that. To accept this idea, one has to assume that a democratic Iran will not aspire to greater regional influence, and that it will not be at odds with the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. All of this appears to be based on the belief that a democratic Iran will not be a particularly nationalist Iran and it will be one that doesn’t see itself as one of the natural leading powers in the region. It is possible that a democratic Iran would be able to compete more effectively with other regional states for influence, and it seems likely that a democratic Iran would be more assertive in its support for Shias in Bahrain, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and as a democratic state it would have more international credibility to agitate in support of these populations. This is a bit of a detour from Nader’s argument, but the democracy-as-panacea idea needs to be challenged whenever it crops up.

Nader’s argument is that regime change will not be brought about by sanctions imposed by outside powers:

The United States can no longer effect political change in Iran, as it did with the overthrow of Iran’s popularly elected government in 1953. Sanctions against the central bank, for example, may create widespread economic panic, and shake the population’s trust in the Iranian government. Sanctions could even increase Iranians’ dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs to such an extent that they are more prone to go into the streets in protest. However, Iranians are not going to overthrow their rulers due to economic hardships alone, and certainly not at the behest of the United States.

This is common sense, and I agree that Iranians are not going to respond to economic difficulties created by foreign governments by overthrowing the government that the foreigners want overthrown. When has this ever happened?

The rest of Nader’s argument makes less sense. He acknowledges at the end that sanctions are harmful to Iranians opposed to the regime:

Unfortunately, sanctions could also hurt the same Iranians who are opposed to the government. The Green Movement, supported by Iran’s middle class, will bear the brunt of sanctions [bold mine-DL]. Elements of the Revolutionary Guards, involved in Iran’s illicit trade, may actually benefit from sanctions in the short run. However, no section of Iranian society or the political system is likely to be spared in the long run given the magnitude of sanctions against the central bank. Iran as a whole may suffer, but the effort to contain the Iranian regime will not be cost free for the United States or the Iranian people.

If that is so, why does Nader still say that sanctions “can create the space and time necessary for the United States to forestall Iran’s nuclear weapons program while a better political system emerges in Iran”? If sanctions are likely delaying the emergence of a better political system, and if he believes (correctly) that sanctions will not bring about regime change, their sole purpose is to punish Iran for its nuclear program, which the regime is very unlikely to halt because of international pressure. In short, sanctions will undermine regime opponents, inflict economic suffering on Iranian society as a whole, and fail to bring down the regime, but Nader favors them anyway.

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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