Sanctions, regime change take center stage
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - With the United States Senate set to take up major sanctions
legislation against Iran by mid-February, neo-conservative and other hawks are
calling on the administration of President Barack Obama to pursue a more
aggressive course of "regime change" in Tehran.
In recent days, their call was unexpectedly bolstered by a Newsweek column
authored by the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations
(CFR), Richard Haass.
Haass is a long-time protege of realists, such as former national security
adviser Brent Scowcroft and secretary of state Colin Powell, who advocate a
policy of broad engagement with Iran over its nuclear program and other issues.
Citing the unprecedented and persistent unrest generated by the
disputed June elections in Iran, Haass argued, "Iran may be closer to profound
political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30
years ago." He added that "the United States, European governments and others
should shift their Iran policy towards increasing the prospects for [that]
"Even a realist should recognize that it's an opportunity not to be missed," he
Haass' change of heart was quickly seized on by leading neo-conservatives who
have long favored a regime-change policy toward Tehran as the most effective
way to deal with Tehran's controversial nuclear program, which some suspect is
aimed at developing nuclear weapons but which Iran says is solely for peaceful
Writing in the Washington Post Wednesday, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace cited the Haass conversion with enthusiasm,
arguing, "President Obama has a once-in-a-generation opportunity over the next
few months to help make the world a dramatically safer place."
"Given the role that the Islamic theocracy in Tehran has played in leading and
sponsoring anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-Western fanaticism for the
past three decades, the toppling or even substantial reform of that regime
would be second only to the collapse of the Soviet Union in its ideological and
geopolitical ramifications," he wrote.
In his State of the Union address on Wednesday night in Washington, Obama
warned that Iran would suffer consequences as a result of its refusal to
cooperate with the international community on its nuclear program. He said that
Tehran had to "come clean about its nuclear goals". "As Iran's leaders continue
to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face
growing consequences," Obama said.
The renewed push for a "regime change" policy comes as congress moves closer to
enacting sweeping sanctions legislation that many Iran specialists, including
some inside the Obama administration, believe could, if implemented, actually
strengthen the regime in Tehran.
Under heavy pressure from the so-called "Israel lobby", the House of
Representatives last month approved one long-delayed bill that would, among
other things, impose penalties on foreign energy companies that provide
gasoline to Iran or invest more than US$20 million a year in Iran's energy
sector. The vote was 412-12.
Majority leader Harry Reid on Tuesday announced that the senate would take up
its own sanctions legislation by mid-February.
In addition to incorporating the House bill, the senate version would extend
sanctions to businesses that sell Iran technology that can be used to monitor
or disrupt communications among Iranians or between them and the rest of the
world. It would require the administration to freeze the assets of Iranians,
notably officials in Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), allegedly
active in weapons proliferation or terrorism.
While that legislation is also expected to pass by a wide margin, it may be
softened between now and then in negotiations with the administration, which is
insisting that Obama be given maximum discretion in imposing or not imposing
sanctions so as to ensure they do not undermine Washington's efforts at
maintaining a united front on Iran's nuclear program with other key countries,
notably the major European powers, Russia and China.
"I am concerned that this legislation, in the current form, might weaken rather
than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts," wrote Deputy
Secretary of State James Steinberg in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations
committee chair, John Kerry, last month.
The administration's position is also backed by multinational business
associations worried that unilateral sanctions will provoke resentment and
retaliation from third countries whose corporations could be targeted under the
Nine such associations, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National
Association of Manufacturers and the National Foreign Trade Council, warned in
a letter to the White House on Tuesday that "the unilateral, extraterritorial
and overly broad approach of these bills would undercut rather than advance
th[e] critical objective ... of preventing Iran from developing the capability
to produce nuclear weapons."
While corporations appear most concerned about the impact of the proposed
sanctions on their overseas business interests, the administration has
reportedly become increasingly worried that the kinds of broad sanctions
featured in the pending legislation could weaken the opposition movement in
Iran by imposing hardships on average citizens whose response may be to rally
behind the regime.
"Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary
Guards elements, without contributing to the suffering [of Iranians], who
deserve better than what they are currently receiving," said Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton in early January.
Earlier this year, Clinton called for the adoption of "crippling sanctions"
against Iran - including those that are included in the pending legislation -
if it did not curb its nuclear program.
"Up until recently the administration thought of sanctions only in the context
of trying to alter the Iranian government's nuclear calculations," according to
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment.
"I think they're now thinking much harder about what types of measures would be
helpful or hurtful to the cause of democratic reform in Iran. It is not
coincidental that the word 'crippling' has been replaced by the word
'targeted'," he said.
In his op-ed, Haass appears to mostly agree with this approach, opposing
unilateral sanctions - except against the IRGC and its businesses - that could
alienate Washington's international allies or average Iranians. In addition, he
calls for continuing talks on Iran's nuclear program, although he suggests it
should not rise above "working-level negotiations".
And although he calls for "regime change", he does not rule out "full
normalization of relations" with the Islamic Republic, provided that it is
"linked to meaningful reform of Iran's politics and an end to Tehran's support
Haass also urges greater support for the opposition, including funding for a
human-rights documentation center in the US and technical support to facilitate
communications among Iranians and with the outside world, measures that are
currently also being considered by the administration and congress. He stresses
that all support for the opposition should be non-violent.
Kagan, like other neo-conservatives - some of whom have long urged US and
Israeli military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities - has a somewhat
more sweeping view of "regime change" by calling for "a new form of
While he does not explicitly reject continuing negotiations over Tehran's
nuclear program, he argues that the opportunity created by the ongoing
political turmoil should give it a much lower priority.
"Regime change is more important than any deal the Obama administration might
strike with Iran's present government on its nuclear program," according to
Significantly, he also warned against an Israeli attack which, he noted, "would
provide a huge boost to the Tehran regime just when it is on the ropes".
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.