Leverett and Frum discuss the Iranian election and protests. Leverett is making a great deal of sense in the linked clip, especially when the conversation turns to the likely consequences of regime collapse and Iranian strategic interests. Most people seem very keen to think about how regime collapse might lead to good outcomes and work to our benefit, but very few people think about how things could become worse. As the resident pessimist, allow me to offer up some grim, but nonetheless plausible scenarios*. I not only share Leverett’s skepticism about the possibility of benefiting from regime collapse, but I want to go beyond that and consider all the ways that it could be quite harmful to our interests and the region.
What I have seen no one discuss is the potential for separatist groups, particularly Kurdish and Baluchi groups, seizing the opportunity of a distracted or tottering regime to try to hive off autonomous or independent enclaves, potentially encouraging separatists in neighboring states to intervene more directly on their behalf or copy them inside the states where they reside. Pakistani Baluchistan is unstable enough without a successful example of Baluchi separatism being established across the border. Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan could likewise experience greater unrest and violence as Iranian Kurdish militants take advantage of the upheaval. Even if such regions did not entirely break away from Tehran’s control, they could serve as bases for the destabilization of neighboring states, all of which are our allies.
Regime collapse will likely mean the breakdown of state control and general weakening of the Iranian nation-state apparatus, which could conceivably create more poorly-governed or stateless areas. Why we should want more such areas in the vicinity of our two wars is a mystery. Things could get very nasty if outside powers make open displays of support for ethnic separatists, as that could trigger an Iranian nationalist movement that could seek to expel or destroy minority groups perceived to be in league with foreign powers. Religious minorities would also not be likely to fare well in such an environment. The resulting humanitarian disasters that would make us struggle to remember why it was that we wanted the regime to collapse. Have we learned nothing from the refugee and IDP crises created by the war in Iraq? As dreadful as the current regime is, it may serve functions that cannot be readily replaced by a successor. This is why conservatives are normally wary of dramatic political change: even institutions that are corrupt fulfill necessary functions, some of them latent that we do not immediately perceive and do not realize will not be replaced once the institutions weaken or collapse.
One of the reasons why calls for more forceful U.S. pressure are wrong is that the examples cited in such arguments, such as pressuring Marcos to step down in 1986, presuppose U.S. leverage over an ally and client. Analogies to “color” revolutions are wrong because they presuppose some grudging acceptance of democratic norms regarding transparency and fair elections that can be used eventually to drive incumbents from office. Shevardnadze could be forced out as easily as he was because his patrons in Washington were no longer willing to defend him. Without a foreign patron ready to pull the plug, those holding power rarely give it up, which means they will have to be compelled in some way either by members of the military and security services or by direct action of the population. That will mean the dramatic and violent transfer of power, which has its own costs of radicalization and the potential for triggering broader civil strife. The regime that emerges on the other side of the chaos will not necessarily be any less repressive or authoritarian than the one we see now. If we would agree that the revolution replaced a brutal dictatorship with something even worse, we should not assume that whatever replaces the current regime will be an improvement. It would not be hard to imagine a successor to Khamenei or a non-clerical political leadership assuming emergency powers that could lead to the establishment of a military junta or some other form of despotism. It is always possible that there would be no significant improvement in social or political freedoms, but only a great deal of upheaval and suffering between now and then. That is frequently the experience of revolution. For the last twenty years, we have grown accustomed to remarkably peaceful transfers of power as old regimes fall, but we need to remember how exceptional and unusual in modern history this has been.
In any case, the idea that Iranian pursuit of influence in neighboring states would lessen under a different, more democratic regime seems deeply mistaken. Iranian pursuit of influence in what is now Afghanistan predates the revolution–and I mean the constitutional revolution of 1908–and it is difficult to see how any future Iranian regime, regardless of its character, will not be very involved in trying to influence Iraqi politics. As for the pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is worth bearing in mind that Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons during its pre-Musharraf, relatively more democratic phase, and as we all know Khan was feted as a national hero and was extremely popular. Why we think that Iranians would not welcome the acquisition of nuclear weapons with similar enthusiasm is never made clear.
* By “plausible,” I mean scenarios that I think could conceivably happen in the unlikely event that the current regime actually collapses under the pressure of the protests.