By Research Associate Marykate McNeil
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed on July 14, 2015 by Iran and the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) after two years of painstaking negotiations. The agreement aimed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon by committing the country to certain benchmarks in exchange for the Western powers lifting nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Upon verification by the IAEA that Iran complied with the requirements of the agreement, nuclear-related sanctions were lifted by the United Nations in January 2016.
Over the next two years, Iran continued to demonstrate compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. On May 8, 2018, US President Trump announced he was pulling out of the JCPOA. As reasons for pulling out of the deal, President Trump cited Iran’s continued testing of ballistic missiles and unhindered funding of terrorist organizations, even though the JCPOA did not touch upon these issues. To some, Trump’s decision to pull out from the JCPOA, despite Iran’s compliance with it, signaled a new phase in American policy towards Iran – one focused on isolating Iran and possibly even seeking regime change. The addition of hawks such as Mike Pompeo as US Secretary of State, and John Bolton as National Security advisor, have further added to this speculation.
Given the broadening conversation regarding the concept of regime change in Iran, and pursuant to AIC’s mission to further dialogue and understanding between the US and Iran, our media guide series may be a helpful platform on which to elucidate the details and complexities surrounding the concept of regime change in Iran. We hope this guide may help our readers and constituents better understand the issues involved.
What is regime change?
Regime change is the policy of replacing a country’s governing system with another one, deemed more ‘suitable’ to the country effecting the change. Regime change is typically carried out by larger state actors, such as the United States, with the purported goal of protecting the global order and promoting democracy. Three types of countries are the most often candidates for regime change in the view of such state actors: those with aggressive regimes (nationalistic, genocidal, ethnic cleanser, or human rights abuser), weak governments (failed states), and economically weak and isolated countries. If a government pursues unpopular or dangerous foreign policies such as producing weapons of mass destruction or supporting terrorism, large state actors may determine that the global order would be better preserved by attempting to replace the dangerous government with a less threatening one. Weak governments are typically chosen for regime change because they lack the security capabilities needed to prevent terrorist and other criminal activities that are harmful to the large state actors.
For example, Afghanistan offered safe haven to Al Qaeda, allowing them to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks, and the US therefore had an interest in empowering a new government with better security capabilities. Lastly, economically weak states hinder global markets because they lack the infrastructure needed to significantly contribute. Larger states have an interest in replacing these governments with those that are more willing to build ports, roads, a workforce, and all other components needed to build a stronger economy. A better economy not only benefits globalization, but also offers large states new and improved markets in previously poor countries.
Clearly the issue of regime change is rife with complexity. International law does not officially permit one country to dismantle the government of another. However, in practice, regime change is used by large state actors against troublesome countries, both clandestinely and overtly. To provide a better understanding of the typical causes and effects of regime change, a few examples of modern regime change will be discussed below.
Has the United States Ever Previously Attempted Regime Change in Iran?
The US accomplished regime change once before in Iran during a CIA orchestrated coup in 1953. In 1951, democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized Iran’s oil industry to drive out foreign companies and influence. The British had an extremely large oil operation in Iran under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) that accounted for 85% of the fuel for the Royal Navy and added millions to the British economy. When Mossadeq started advancing nationalization, the British saw him as an overwhelming threat to their oil interests in Iran because the AIOC would lose its access. The British decided the only way to neutralize this threat was to remove Mossadeq from power. The British then lobbied the US for help to oust Mossadeq by raising fears that oil nationalization would threaten American interests in other areas of the world, and by stoking fears that the communist Tudeh party in Iran could take over the government from Mossadeq if they did not act quickly.
Declassified CIA documents detail that the coup was organized and executed primarily by CIA agents with assistance from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The plan was to obtain support from the Shah (the Iranian monarch) to secretly remove Mossadeq from power and replace him with Fazlollah Zahedi, who would be more supportive of Western interests. In the months leading up to the coup, the CIA flooded Iran with propaganda insisting that Mossadeq favored the communists, was a threat to Islam, corrupt, all to slander him in order to destabilize his government.
After this coup attempt did not succeed, CIA officers decided to improvise. On August 19, the Tudeh party launched massive demonstrations that were in fact only “partially spontaneous” and were actually led and incited to violence by CIA assets. During the violence, military brigades were ordered by Mossadeq to restore order to Tehran, and once in the city royalist brigades carried out the original coup plans. They occupied government buildings, arrested the chief of staff and ministers, and removed Mossadeq from power. Zahedi was then installed as Prime Minister, and he denationalized the oil industry and allowed the US to arrest Tudeh party members. Although the Shah remained in power before and after the coup, it still constituted regime change because the democratic Mossadeq government was replaced with the authoritarian Zahedi.
In the short term, the coup was a success for the US, as it was able to denationalize Iranian oil, strike a blow to the communists in Iran, and create a close ally in the Shah. However, the long-term effects proved to be disastrous. By 1977, Iranians had grown tired of the Shah and his Westernizing policies. Exiled opposition leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for strikes, boycotts, and overall resistance against the Shah’s regime, which was met with brutal opposition by the government. Uprisings continued to sweep the country, sparking a revolution that carried enough momentum to cause the Shah to flee on January 16, 1979.
Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran two weeks later and headed the new Islamic Republic of Iran, an authoritarian Islamic theocracy. This government was extremely hostile to the West, especially the United States in an effort to reverse the Shah’s foreign policy. Such antipathy was exemplified by the Iran Hostage Crisis. On November 4, 1979 Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days with the full support of Ayatollah Khomeini. Amidst high tensions, President Carter formally severed US diplomatic relations with Iran on April 7, 1980. Tensions between the two countries have since remained high, and a formal diplomatic relationship has not been restored. Due to this violent and tumultuous relationship, the United States views Iran as an aggressive regime, a designation that is often used as a marker for regime change.
Has the United States attempted regime change elsewhere in the Middle East?
The United States carried out regime change when it invaded Iraq in 2003 to oust dictator Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader became President in 1979 and led a brutally repressive regime until he was forced out of power by US forces in 2003. His many crimes include the expulsion of 400,000 Shi’a Muslims from Iraq, the destruction of the city of Dujail killing 140 people, a poison gas attack on Kurds that killed over 5,000 people, and many more fatal attacks against his own citizens. The official reason given by the US government for the invasion was Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorist organizations. We now know this justification to be false as US troops found no evidence of such weapons. Other likely motives for the invasion include US oil interests and deep animosity towards Saddam Hussein since his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. These suspected reasons are textbook examples of why large state actors desire regime change. Saddam Hussein carried out extremely aggressive policies for decades. Thus, the combination of the Iraqi regime being a physical threat to the US and the potential to gain control of Iraqi oil resources, provided ideal ingredients for regime change. It was both militarily and economically lucrative for the US to intervene.
The US launched the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 and had incapacitated the government by April. Saddam Hussein was captured by US forces on December 13, 2003, and would later be executed in 2006. Once the Iraqi government was removed, the challenge for the US became to install a democratic government amid growing violent opposition to the US occupation. US troops faced intense fighting to stabilize Iraq, and were stationed there until 2011, eight years after the initial invasion. The Iraq war cost the US government $1.7 trillion dollars and claimed the lives of 4,500 American soldiers and 134,000 Iraqis. The American losses of this war were widely followed and controversial; indeed they continue to play a role in US politics today. While ultimately a divisive policy in the US and around the world, the goal of regime change in Iraq, including the installation of a Western style democracy, was broadly accomplished.
Regime change in Iraq did come with some unintended consequences. Just three years later any US improvement in Iraq was stymied by the violent extremist group ISIS. In January 2014, ISIS made its first incursion into Iraq when it overtook the city of Fallujah. Then, in June, ISIS captured Mosul, Tikrit, among other Iraqi towns, and declared a caliphate that extended across Syria and Iraq. In a short time, ISIS was able to capture much territory in Iraq and posed a direct threat to the government. Once again the US had to commit resources to Iraq in the form of military equipment, advisors and missions. ISIS was finally routed from Iraq in 2017, however Iraq remains an extremely weak state today with a ranking of 11 on the Funds for Peace fragile states index. Ultimately, US regime change in Iraq did not accomplish the desired security goals.
In 2011 the US again pursued regime change in Libya, with strong UN, NATO, and Arab League support. In February 2011 the Arab Spring spread into Libya and the Libyan people participated in mass protests around the country calling for political reform and later the removal of dictator Muammar Gaddafi who had ruled for forty-two years. NATO used these protests and reports that Gaddafi would soon commit genocide against his people as evidence for military intervention in Libya. On March 17, 2011 the United Nations adopted Resolution 1973 claiming the right to protect the Libyan people from the Gaddafi government. The right to protect (R2P) is a relatively new concept in international relations, which came to prominence after the Cold War. The main tenet is that the world community has a moral obligation to protect people under attack from their government, and thus warrants foreign military intervention into a sovereign nation. Resolution 1973 established a no-fly zone over Libya, and authorized member states to protect Libyan civilians using all means necessary. NATO member states used this resolution to begin an air campaign in Libya on March 19, 2011, first with the intention of protecting civilians, but after mission creep, the goal became regime change.
Gaddafi had at that time become increasingly corrupt in his oil dealings, demanding billions in bribed from Western oil companies to maintain their contracts in Libya. NATO powers also still held a deep animosity towards Gaddafi for his role in large scale bombings in Europe, such as the downing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 and the Berlin discotheque bombing in 1986. The antipathy towards Gaddafi and his oil practices, combined with the immediate threat to the Libyan people provided NATO with ample cause for regime change. Gaddafi was killed by NATO backed Libyan forces on October 20, 2011.
When Gaddafi was in power, he committed countless human rights abuses against his political opponents, however Libya was a relatively stable country with a booming oil industry. In 2007, Libya had a fragile states index ranking of 114, not far from the US at 159. Life in Libya was not pleasant, however today life in Libya has grown more dangerous.
After Gaddafi was killed, the UN attempted to replace his regime with a democratic government, however, Libya instead devolved into chaos. The Gaddafi regime was effectively ended, but the new one holds very little power. Presently, the UN backed government is split into two rival factions, the Government of National Accord (GNA), and the House of Representatives backed by the Libyan National Army (LNA). Neither group has control over the country, and both are actively fighting each other. Additionally, militias that formed to take down the Gaddafi government refused to lay down their arms after his death and are fighting each other as well as the various branches of government for control.
To make matters worse, terrorist organizations such as ISIS have taken root and have committed attacks inside Libya. Many African and Middle Eastern refugees are coming through Libya to flee to Europe, due to the geographical proximity of Libya to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. The number of refugees making this journey is immensely high, reaching 182,000 in last year alone. Without a strong central government, Libya lacks the capacity to prevent refugees coming through the country, or to assist them once inside Libya. These refugees are therefore often held in militia-controlled detention centers, in which the refugees are tortured, raped, and beaten. The worst aspect of this crisis is the slave trade. Once the detention centers get too full, the militias auction people off as slaves in public markets for as little as $400. The civilian death toll of all this conflict since 2011 is somewhere in the tens of thousands, as reports vary widely. By replacing the Gaddafi regime, large state actors unintentionally created a larger security risk out of Libya.
Could the removal of the Iranian government give rise to terrorism in Iran?
The removal of government leaders typically has had unintended or unforeseen consequences. It is possible therefore that military intervention in Iran could further destabilize the region. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, a general trend after regime change in the Middle East and Africa has been for terrorist organizations and competing militias to try to fill the power vacuum. We have previously noted this trend in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and it can additionally be identified in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and others. In Libya and Iraq, ISIS was the primary government opposition. It is unlikely in the event of regime change in Iran that ISIS would attempt to gain territory, as it is a Sunni group and Iran is a predominantly Shi’a nation (they would therefore lack the support needed to take power). However, it is likely given the regional trend that in the event of regime change and ensuing power vacuum, a different terrorist organization may attempt to rise to fill the power gap, should there be one with support and financing from civil society. Additionally, terrorism most often flourishes in a divided society, and Iran would no doubt be divided over its future if its government were suddenly and forcibly removed.
A variety of foreign interests – both major powers such as the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, as well as smaller groups or terrorist organizations - would have strong interests in taking power if the Iranian regime were to fall. Such interests are what we currently observe in the entrenched and brutal Syrian civil war. The US, Iran, Russia, and Turkey all are heavily involved in the war, as are ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Al-Nusra. Given the similarities between the Syrian case and the potential similar chaos that could occur in Iran, the Syrianization of Iran cannot be ruled out as a possible outcome if the US were to instigate regime change.
What would regime change in Iran look like?
If President Trump does decide to force regime change in Iran, his plan would likely be to put the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) in power due to influence from his national security team. MEK is an Iranian resistance group in exile that advocates for democratic regime change in Iran, founded in 1965 by students who opposed the Shah. The group has been known to use violence against both Iranians and Americans in the past, and is considered a terrorist organization by Iran and Iraq, and was considered as such by the US until 2012 when the State Department removed MEK from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Even though MEK is no longer formally considered a terrorist group by the US, many still view it as a Marxist-Islamist personality cult around its founder Maryam Rajavi.
When US President Trump was considering who to appoint as his third national security advisor in March 2018, he wanted a candidate who would support him scrapping the JCPOA. His sights landed on John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN who has long advocated for MEK taking power in Iran; indeed, having demonstrated support for the group for over a decade. Since MEK had only been removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012, John Bolton advocated for the group when it was still considered a terrorist organization. By appointing such a hawk on Iran who supports MEK, President Trump signaled to the world that he may be considering regime change in Iran. With Bolton’s long time support of MEK, any US plan for regime change could likely involve elevating MEK to power in Iran either by force or through a propaganda campaign.
In a recent speech, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, advanced this hypothesis of MEK regime change in Iran. On June 30, 2018, Giuliani addressed a crowd at a National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) conference in Paris. The NCRI is a coalition controlled by MEK. Giuliani told the crowd “we are now realistically being able to see an end to the regime in Iran.” He continued, “the mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go, and they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.” With a direct nod to the leader of MEK by invoking her name, Giuliani appeared to advocate for a replacement of the current Iranian regime and type of governance in line with the goals of MEK. At this same conference last year in 2017, John Bolton was the keynote speaker, when he told the crowd that the Iranian regime “will not last until its 40 birthday.” Such clear support from trusted advisors may signal that Trump may too want Khamenei out and MEK in.
Could the US still support a natural government change instead of regime change?
President Trump has stifled any hopes of positive regime change in Iran. In the eyes of the US, a positive regime change would constitute a more moderate government coming to power in a natural and gradual process. To accomplish this, the US could publicly support moderate President Rouhani and continue to place pressure on Iran over its human rights abuses and state sponsored terrorism. With enough popular support, over time, Iran could potentially become a nation friendlier to US interests. However, President Trump chose to take a more traditional American approach to Iran: one of fiery rhetoric, distrust, and a lack of diplomacy by pulling out of the JCPOA.
Former US President Obama had taken a step back from such policies with Iran, and instead tried to engage Iran in JCPOA negotiations. Obama also put more trust in the Iranian regime than previous US presidents, believing that Iran could be held by a treaty. The JCPOA indeed began the steps of reestablishing trust between the West and Iran through diplomacy. It would not be a quick process, but over time by supporting moderates and the JCPOA, Iran may have slowly begun to form a more positive view of the US. The two countries may have opened formal diplomatic relations again, and could have begun cooperating on many more issues. This process would be slow and take years, perhaps decades, to regain trust and more moderate policies on both sides. While it is speculation as to what may have happened had such policies been continued, it is possible that with improved relations, the aging Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, might have appointed a moderate successor, ultimately ushering in a moderate and more US-friendly Iranian government.
It would be unfair to criticize President Trump for not establishing better relations with Iran when no other President has been successful. However, it is hard to view Trump’s fiery rhetoric towards Iran as particularly helpful towards such progress. Indeed, combined with his support for MEK, exiting of the JCPOA, and implementation of a travel ban for Iranians - Iran has once again concluded that the US is not to be trusted. Furthermore, a new generation of Iranians is coming of age to see US-Iran relations deteriorate, caused by US actions. Many experts therefore believe that US policy has only resulted in entrenching hardliners in their positions for years to come.
How Would Other Countries in the Region React to Regime Change in Iran?
Even if the US did accomplish regime change in Iran and install a government with which it was allied, it would be unlikely that regional powers would full-heartedly welcome the change. Saudi Arabia would not be pleased because Iran is its regional rival, and the two have been locked in a struggle for hegemony for decades. If the US supported Iran as well, Saudi Arabia would lose its current edge on the Iranian regime. Additionally, the US would likely not support Saudi Arabia in its proxy wars against Iran if it was backing both sides. This could, for example, mean that Saudi Arabia would have to accede to a Houthi government in Yemen.
If the US did accomplish a regime change that empowered a more agreeable regime, Israel would mostly hail such progress. For Israel, it would mean the end to a threatening regime that has repeatedly denied Israel’s right to exist, as well as reduced funding for Hamas. Both of these factors indicate Israel would be happy with a pro-US, and by extension pro-Israel, Iranian regime. However, Israel might come to resent the US having two strong Muslim allies in the region. Israel could see this as a threat to its standing in the region, given that it sees itself as alone in the region surrounded by Muslim powers.
Overall, however, Israel would likely welcome a change in Iranian government. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently advocated for protest against the current Iranian regime. After Iran’s simultaneous upset of Portugal in the 2018 World Cup and protests at home over a worsening Iranian economy, Netanyahu released a video on Twitter praising the Iranian team saying “the Iranian team just did the impossible... to the Iranian people I say: You showed courage on the playing field, and today you showed the same courage in the streets of Iran.” The Prime Minister here applauding those who confronted the Iranian government over worsening economic conditions. Such praise signals that Netanyahu would like to see more of this “courage” against the Iranian regime, perhaps even developing to regime change.