Plus ça change...

Let’s imagine for a moment that a regime change in Iran did occur. Would everything really be different?

February 15, 2010 22:51
4 minute read.
Iranian opposition supporters living in Greece hol

iran protest greece 311. (photo credit: AP)

It is February 2011. Barack Obama is beginning the third year of his first term as president of the United States. Mir Hossein Mousavi has begun the second year of his first term as president of Iran. American, European and UN negotiators have just concluded their 85th
meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, who is a personal representative of ailing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a senior officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran rejected a proposal offered in the 84th meeting regarding unannounced, unfettered IAEA inspections of all declared nuclear facilities and suspected sites, including 10 sites under construction along the northern coast of the Persian Gulf. The euphoria with which Washington and European capitals welcomed regime change in Iran last year has been replaced by a resumption of Western determination to negotiate a roll-back of Iran’s nuclear weapons programs and its advanced long-range missile delivery systems. Iran continues to reject any efforts by foreign powers to dictate or proscribe its strategic plans for national security and power projection. Who said that negotiating with “Anyone-but-Ahmadinejad” would be easy?

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SOUNDS CRAZY? Not really. The events surrounding the regime’s mishandling of the June 2009 presidential election and the brutal repression that followed revealed a dark picture of Iranian-style democracy. The position of the supreme leader was weaker and the role
of the IRGC stronger than had been assumed. Less hard-line conservatives in the Majlis were locked in a discreet power struggle with harder-line conservatives. Clerics in Qom and mid-level officers in the IRGC and the regular military were rumored to be split over
treatment of students, intellectuals and ordinary citizens caught protesting.

To many outside Iran, the country appeared to be repeating the pattern of escalating violence that presaged the 1979 revolution. Those inside Iran seemed uncertain of the consequences of their actions, but they and those witnessing the street protests posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were convinced that the regime, the clerics and the Islamic Republic would be swept away in a tide of reform. Revolution was not seen as inevitable and change, when it came, would hopefully be clear and contained.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was indeed swept away and limits were placed on the power and tenure of the supreme leader. Yet the Islamic Republic, the clerics and their values survived. For Washington, the changes in leadership and new restraints on power seemed to be a revolution.

Did the smart people in the US government and the think tanks get Iran wrong again? The appearance of change in the country’s leadership was seen as replacing the old recalcitrant, ideologically oriented regime with a more flexible and pragmatic set of leaders who would respond to reason and the exercise of soft power.

Instead the hard-line Ahmadinejad, who was not a cleric, was replaced by a member of the revolutionary circle around the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious and conservative man claiming descent from the family of Prophet Muhammad who had served as prime minister in the 1980s.

The US assumed that a change of regime would mean a change in policies. Washington immediately recognized the legitimacy of the new government and the Islamic Republic but held fast to its demand that Iran roll back its plans for new nuclear power plants and production of highly enriched uranium. It also expected Iran to end its efforts to obstruct resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and end support for extremist proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf. Again, wrong.

National interests do not change when regimes change. The Islamic Republic loves to remind the West, especially Washington, that Iran first planned to become a nuclear power under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was always interested in any weapon he could buy. Those who assume that replacing Ahmadinejad with more reform-minded leaders on the theory of “Anyone-but-Ahmadinejad” will be disappointed.

HOWEVER Ahmadinejad is replaced, Iranian national interests and security strategies will remain the same. Many of those who professed reformist goals under President Mohammad Khatami talked about economic reform and more social freedoms but retained their hard-line views on security policy, export of the revolution and expansion of Iranian power. Two examples suffice: the radical students who seized the American Embassy in Teheran in 1979 but became professed reformists in the 1990s; and Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, Iran’s ambassador to Syria in the 1980s who helped create Hizbullah in Lebanon and encouraged its terrorist operations. He was elected to the Majlis, declared himself a reformist in the 1990s, and wanted the controversial 2009 election re-run.

Plus ça change....

The writer is distinguished research fellow for the Middle East at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington. The opinions expressed here are hers and do not reflect the views of the university, the US government or any government agency. The events described in this piece are the product of her imagination. This article was originally published on and is reprinted with permission.

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