Lurking beneath these demands is the threat of regime change. As Pompeo put it: “At the end of the day, the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes I set forward today.” According to The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian and others, “That translates roughly as, ‘Topple your regime, or we’re going to do it for you.’ ”
None of this rhetoric from the administration and its supporters is new. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has said more than once that the three most dangerous threats facing the United States are “Iran, Iran, Iran.” Other administration voices on record as favoring regime change include national security adviser John Bolton, Trump’s new lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
All this has mostly been rhetorical, and has done little to address whom Washington would promote to replace the mullahs. But would a more serious overt or covert effort in Iran bring benefits — such as a friendly Iranian regime — to the United States?
That’s unlikely. As recent U.S. experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show, helping to overthrow a regime doesn’t usually put a compliant, friendly government in the target state. Rather, it can bring a host of problems, including continued conflict, state collapse, and newly empowered hostile groups — whether the effort is open or covert, as U.S. efforts to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have shown.
Indeed, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman recently wrote that U.S. policymakers’ failure to learn from this history is like “watching Wile E. Coyote open a package of dynamite he ordered.”
Why is regime change so hard?
Trying to change a regime is appealing for a powerful country like the U.S. Rather than persuade, cajole, bribe, or threaten recalcitrant foreign powers, Washington imagines being able to deal with leaders who promise to pursue its preferred policies.
The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War
But there’s a catch. Toppling a foreign government is usually the easiest part of a regime change. Getting the desired results afterward is hard.
The fundamental problem, as we argued in a 2016 article, is that foreign-imposed leaders answer to two masters — the intervener that placed them in power, and their own citizens. Interveners typically replace a government to avert or eliminate perceived security threats, hoping to install elites who will implement their preferred policies.
But once in power, newly installed foreign leaders are confronted with the political realities of ruling their countries. Often, they find that keeping their domestic audiences happy brings them into conflict with their foreign backers.
Foreign-imposed leaders thus face a Catch-22. If they placate their foreign patrons, they risk alienating those at home, who may take up arms against them. If they turn against their foreign backers, those patrons may seek to remove them, reigniting conflict between the two states.
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Externally imposed dictators are most vulnerable to this dilemma because they frequently have little support at home and are most dependent on foreign patrons. Promoting democratic regimes, however, is no panacea; democratic transitions engineered by outsiders usually fail.
The result? Regime changes typically do not improve relations between interveners and targets.
Here’s our look at the evidence
To evaluate how changing a regime affects the relationships between the nations involved, we analyzed all successful overt regime changes around the world during the past 200 years, as well as all attempted covert regime changes (successful and failed) by the U.S. during the Cold War.
We found that most types of regime change do not improve the relationship between the two nations. Pairs of countries in which one overthrew the other’s government were just as likely to fight each other in the ensuing 10 years as pairs in which regime change did not happen. That was true even when the intervener tried to promote democracy. If the intervener installed a dictator, the two countries were actually more likely to experience hostilities.
Trying to change a regime covertly, as Trump officials are apparently contemplating, is doubly doomed. Such attempts succeed only one-third of the time, and when they fail, they increase the likelihood of conflict between the intervener and the targeted state.
Our research supports the conclusions of other studies. Researchers have found when a country overthrows another’s government, it increases the likelihood of civil wars and usually doesn’t establish a democracy.
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In short, U.S. troubles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are typical. Regime change often backfires. It does not improve relations. And it triggers civil wars that can draw the intervening nations into costly quagmires.
What does this mean for Iran?
Today, those who think the U.S. should encourage the overthrow of the Iranian government hope that the ayatollahs would be replaced by democracy — and that the Iranian people would choose a more peaceful path. Regime change in Tehran would thus get Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program as well as stop supporting the Syrian regime and militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas that threaten Israel.
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But any Iranian leader is likely to want to pursue these policies, popular among Iranian citizens. A poll last year found that 81 percent of Iranians believed it was “very important for Iran to develop its nuclear program” and 68 percent thought that Iran should “seek to increase the role it plays in the region.”
A regime change that democratizes Iran thus may not significantly change Iranian policies — or end its conflict with Washington.
The United States should know this. As declassified U.S. government documents on Iran make clear, Washington backed a coup in 1953 that replaced Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh with right-wing monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Washington’s role in the coup, as historian Malcolm Byrne explains, “virtually guaranteed that burgeoning hostility toward the shah would also be directed against the United States when the revolutionary Islamic regime came to power in 1979.” That hostility remains to this day, as you can see in Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s tweet last year:
Trying to change Iran’s regime, in other words, may not change its policies — or its attitude toward Washington — any more successfully than it has in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond.
Alexander B. Downes is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and is working on a book about the consequences of regime change.
Lindsey A. O’Rourke is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College, and is the author of the forthcoming book “Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War” (Cornell University Press, 2018).