From the “Iraq Liberation Act” to an “Iran Liberation Act”?

As we noted yesterday, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has attracted considerable attention with an opinion piece in Newsweek entitled “Enough is Enough: Why We Can No Longer Remain on the Sidelines in the Struggle for Regime Change in Iran.”  As we reflected on Richard’s arguments, we recalled another high-profile piece of policy advocacy, in which Richard was centrally involved, that also employed the repeated “usage” of the word “enough” to underscore America’s determination to remove a Middle Eastern leadership deemed too problematic to tolerate any further: “How much longer are we willing to put up with Iraq’s noncompliance before we, as a council, we, as the United Nations, say: ‘Enough. Enough’.”

That quote is from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s now infamous February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations Security Council, making the case for coercive regime change in Iraq.  Richard, who was then serving as Powell’s Director of Policy Planning, had an important role in helping his boss prepare for the presentation.  Powell’s speech to the Security Council did much to facilitate the herd-like rush to support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq — one of the biggest debacles in post-World War II American foreign policy.  Of course, the presentation turned out to have been based on faulty, incorrect, and, in some cases, downright fraudulent intelligence as well as wholly unrealistic assumptions guiding the analysis of that intelligence.  Now, the man who was Powell’s principal policy advisor during the preparation of that speech tells us, regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran, that, once again, “Enough is Enough” — the United States and its international partners should adopt regime change as the explicit objective of their Iran policy.

In his book, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, Richard described his position on the 2003 invasion of Iraq as being only “60/40 against going to war” — even though, before President George W. Bush took office, Richard had been one of the few prominent Republican foreign policy experts arguing against adopting regime change as the objective American policy towards Iraq.  Looking back on his service in the George W. Bush administration, Richard writes, “Had I known then what I know now, that Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, then it would have become a 90/10 decision against the war, and in that circumstance I would have left had the president gone ahead all the same.”

Against that backdrop, what would Richard say about adopting regime change as the goal of American policy toward Iran if he knew that the outcome of the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election was not stolen?  The basis for Richard’s claim that the election had to have been stolen is eerily similar to the arguments in 2002-03 to justify claims that Saddam had to have WMD: “There’s no other explanation for why the [Iranian government] would have reacted in such a heavy handed manner.  If they had the ballots on their side, they could have wrapped themselves in the cloak of democracy. . . .  Why would the regime act with the haste and secrecy and heavy handedness if they didn’t have to?”  (All of us should recall that, in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, advocates of coercive regime change frequently argued that, if Saddam did not have WMD, he would surely come clean and cooperated with international inspectors to resolve the issue.)

What would Richard say about pursuing regime change in Iran if he knew that the Green Movement did not represent a majority of Iranian society?   Richard seems very certain in his judgments about contemporary Iranian politics — a subject about which Henry Precht wisely counseled caution in yesterday’s post  — but presents far less evidence in support of those judgments than Secretary Powell presented to the Security Council in support of his (utterly erroneous) judgments about Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities.

In keeping with his realist credentials, Richard acknowledges in his current Newsweek piece that “the United States must . . . work with undemocratic China to rein in North Korea and with autocratic Russia to reduce each side’s nuclear arsenal.”  Why does the United States not also need to work with the Islamic Republic to put the strategically vital Middle East on a more stable trajectory?  Richard asserts that nuclear diplomacy with Iran is “going nowhere.”  But that is not a reason for pursuing regime change — rather, that is a reason for the Obama Administration to make a serious offer, which it has yet to do.

Beyond the nuclear issue, the Obama Administration has declined to address Tehran’s repeated expressions of interest in a “comprehensive framework” for U.S.-Iranian negotiations.  How does Richard think that the United States will be able to achieve any of its high priority objectives in the Middle East — Arab-Israeli peace, post-conflict stabilization in Iraq and Afghanistan, curbing WMD proliferation, assuring adequate supplies of oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf to international energy markets, etc. — without a more positive and productive relationship with the Islamic Republic?

Richard’s Newsweek article is likely to do real damage to American interests in Iran and the Middle East more broadly.  It is altogether too easy to imagine him being asked to testify to Congress on behalf of a new “Iran Liberation Act.”  This is especially ironic because, in 1998, Richard had the insight and political courage to oppose passage of the Iraq Liberation Act.  But the measures that he now recommends vis-à-vis Iran are strikingly reminiscent of key elements of the Iraq Liberation Act.  That law’s stated purpose was “to establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq.”  It roundly criticized Iraq for having ignored UN Security Council resolutions.  More specifically, the Iraq Liberation Act authorized the president to support Iraqi opposition groups with broadcasting and humanitarian assistance.  (It also authorized the president to provide military training and equipment to Iraqi oppositionists, although Richard does not advocate a similar initiative for Iranian oppositionists in his Newsweek piece.)  While the law explicitly did not grant the president authority to use military force to achieve regime change in Iraq, two months after the Iraq Liberation Act was passed, then President Clinton launched Operation Dessert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against Iraqi targets.  Four years later, President George W. Bush used the Iraq Liberation Act as part of his campaign to lay the groundwork for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Following Richard Haass’s advice today will put the United States on a path toward a similarly misguided and counterproductive policy course.

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 26 January 2010  under a Creative Commons license.

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