From Realism to Regime Change: Questioning Richard Haass


Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has attracted considerable notice with an opinion piece out now in Newsweek arguing that “the United States, European governments, and others should shift their Iran policy toward increasing the prospects for political change” in the Islamic Republic — in sum, that the United States and its international partners should adopt regime change in Tehran as the explicit goal of their Iran policy.  For someone who has for a long time been identified as a prominent advocate of foreign policy realism, this is a remarkable statement to say the least.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should state up front that both of us have known Richard Haass for many years.  Both of us worked for him during his tenure as the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning.  Moreover, Richard was Flynt’s best man at our wedding seven years ago.  However, it should come as no surprise to our readers when we say that we disagree profoundly with Richard’s Newsweek piece — both in its assessment of Iranian domestic politics and its prescription for America’s Iran policy.

Rather than offer our own detailed rejoinder, we are pleased to present the following post by Henry Precht, published here with his permission.  Henry occupies a unique position in the circle of those concerned about the historical evolution and current trajectory of U.S. policy toward Iran and the Middle East more generally.  Henry was involved with the Middle East for most of his diplomatic career, serving in Tehran (1972-1976) and having charge of the State Department’s Iran desk during the revolution and hostage crisis.  Blamed for the “loss” of Iran, he was blocked from an ambassadorial appointment by the late Senator Jesse Helms.  He is the author of A Diplomat’s Progress: Ten Tales of Diplomatic Adventure in the Middle East.

We are grateful to Henry for letting us publish his analysis of Richard Haass’s Newsweek article.  We will offer our own post shortly looking strategically at what we see as the folly of adopting regime change as the explicit goal of America’s Iran policy.

Flynt and Hillary Leverett

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From Henry Prect:

Realism about American policy towards Iran ought to start with some awareness of the historical context.  Two facts are paramount: First, the Iranian Revolution was, in good part, about gaining independence from foreign powers (i.e., the US and Britain).  When Khamenei & Co. blame outsiders for the recent troubles they are undoubtedly speaking from a sincere (if mistaken) perspective and appealing to a fundamental tenet held by most Iranians (if not by those in exile).  Second, American efforts over the years to influence Iran’s politics have almost always ended unhappily, reinforcing the fear and hatred of the “foreign hand.”  Yes, there have been exceptions: the schools set up by missionaries (which didn’t have a primary political purpose) and the aid programs of the 1950s and 1960s (which did have liberalization in mind).  But the negative moments have been more salient — Mossadeq and subsequent efforts to strengthen the Shah, Nixon/Kissinger excluding the Iranian people from their calculations, the assistance to Iraq during the 8-year war.  Those are the episodes that define America’s role for many Iranians.

Arch realist Richard Haass is convinced the June election was fraudulent, that Iran is determined to build a nuclear weapon and that the regime’s opposition is close to making a second revolution.  More modest realists might ask to see the evidence.  They might inquire about the views of those folks who haven’t marched or gone on strike.  They might speculate whether the Iranian regime is capable of reaching a compromise with its opponents, whether some give and take on both sides will not be necessary if Iran is to enjoy domestic peace.  A modest and historically informed realist might think that one of the factors holding back a significant move towards compromise by the regime could be the feared perception that they were doing the bidding of foreigners or acting under their pressure.

Khamenei’s tentative gestures towards Moussavi should be given a chance to develop a bit, free of outside “help.”  What Iran and the US need, I suggest, is a period of quiet, an absence of threats and artfully designed (and foolish) sanctions.  Let Iran get on with resolving its tough political dilemma alone and uninterrupted.  If Mr. Haass needs an outlet for his new and creative realism, he might look elsewhere in the region for countries which have nukes, oppress people or reject their right to elections, break international law and disregard the views of Washington.  Complex and creative sanctions would not be necessary; imagination could be limited to limiting aid.

Henry Precht, Bethesda, Maryland

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 25 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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