BY RAYMOND TANTER
Since its founding in 2005, the Iran Policy Committee has conducted research on Iranian opposition organizations to find a solution to a policy puzzle: How the United States could avoid the difficult choice between failing diplomacy and problematic military action to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.
An engagement and a regime change policy based on dissidents would solve the puzzle. With the onset of sustained domestic unrest after the June 2009 elections in Iran, other think tanks began to have doubts about engagement and to focus on regime change as a way to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining the bomb.
The IPC studied dissident Iranian groups, including the Iranian parliament in exile -- the National Council of Resistance of Iran in Paris -- and the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, its largest member organization, in Iraq. The regime crackdown after the June elections has fomented a new cohesion among dissidents, as those on the Iranian street are embracing the regime change sentiments of the NCRI and MEK.
Another result of the crackdown on dissidents is the shift in the approach by the Washington think tank community regarding U.S. policy on Iran. In 2009, one would have been hard pressed to find foreign policy experts advocating a U.S. policy of regime change in Iran. Now, in February 2010, many in the think tank community are coming around to that view. There are two variables driving the shift: the vulnerability of the Iranian regime to its domestic opposition and Tehran's refusal to accept Western offers that would halt uranium enrichment.
When President Obama took office, the Iranian regime appeared secure. But perceived stability vanished after the June presidential election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory through blatant fraud. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the following weeks, and demonstrations have persisted despite the regime's brutality. The Feb. 11 commemoration of the 1979 Iranian Revolution is the next occasion for massive demonstrations. Unlike the situation prior to the June election, the regime now faces a permanent opposition movement willing to endure repression to bring down the regime.
Even as demonstrations unfold, the Obama administration reached out to Tehran with an offer that would have required Iran to ship some of its Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) abroad for processing into fuel for use in nuclear reactors. Though Tehran initially agreed, the Iranian regime subsequently backtracked; hence, there is a buzz about crippling sanctions. Then, President Ahmadinejad ordered the authorities to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity, a substantial increase over the 3.5 percent enriched LEU Iran now possesses. The United States and allies may augment and expand targeted sanctions already on the books and so far unsuccessful; and even ``crippling'' sanctions on Iran's gasoline imports are a long shot.
These developments have driven many to suggest that the West abandon engagement and pursue an outright policy of regime change. Others still argue that engagement is the only solution to Iran's nuclear program, and any suggestions of regime change undermine the prospects for reaching a deal.
These represent a false choice; engagement and regime change are not mutually exclusive. Instead, pursuing both simultaneously, as President Reagan did toward the Eastern bloc, would be mutually reinforcing. Concurrent pursuit would maximize chances of stopping Iran short of nuclear weapons capability, without having to make a premature decision to launch risky military strikes.
The highest-profile American defector from ``engagement'' to ``regime change,'' Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a January Newsweek article, ``I've changed my mind. The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a nuclear weapon.''
The regime change option has many advantages, one of which is avoiding the moral abhorrence of failing to take a strong stand in support of the opposition movement now fulminating in Iran. In addition, the more pressure Tehran feels under a U.S. regime change policy, the more likely it would be to pause, or even jettison, its nuclear weapons program.
And if the Iranian regime proves unwilling to give up its nuclear program, instituting a regime change policy now will maximize the chances that the regime does not survive long enough to field a nuclear weapon. Robert Kagan presents the stark choice:
``What is more likely: that Iran's present leadership will agree to give up its nuclear program or that these leaders will be toppled? Odds of regime change are higher than the odds the present regime will ever agree to give up its nuclear program.''
The fiercest American defenders of engagement are Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, who counter the regime change position. The Leveretts' believe that toppling the Iranian regime is a longer shot than Haass suggests, and is not worth the costs inflicted on the diplomatic track. International relations scholar Stephen M. Walt echoes the Leveretts' sentiment that a regime change policy would preclude a diplomatic solution:
Somewhat inconsistently, he [Haass] thinks ``working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,'' even though he must know that there's hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.
Though it makes some sense intuitively, it is mistaken to assume that a policy of regime change would cripple diplomatic efforts. The example of Reagan administration policy toward Warsaw Pact countries is instructive. Not only did Reagan assertively pursue arms control negotiations as well as an overt and covert regime change policy, he did both simultaneously and made progress on both fronts.
Iran Policy Committee research finds that Tehran's crackdown on dissidents is ironically contributing to the forging of a broad coalition between oppositionists, including the NCRI and MEK. That being said, their designation as foreign terrorist organizations acts an obstacle to building a coalition of dissidents. The irony, however, is that members of the MEK are paying a disproportionate price by being singled out for hangings among the thousands of individuals arrested since June.
IPC research also concludes that removal of the terrorist tag from the MEK would buttress both a regime change outcome and diplomatic engagement. Otherwise, engagement is unlikely to succeed. Augmenting engagement and sanctions with support for a unified Iranian opposition movement via a policy of regime change would give the United States the best chance of avoiding the last resort of American or Israeli military action that the engagement and regime change schools are anxious to avoid.
Any other approach might inadvertently lead to accepting the puzzle perplexing U.S. policymakers: an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran.
Raymond Tanter was former member of the senior staff of the National Security Council and personal representative of the secretary of defense to arms control talks in Europe during the Reagan administration. He is now president of the Iran Policy Committee and adjunct professor at Georgetown University.