Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, America’s mandarin foreign policy establishment group. He’s served in senior State Department positions under both Presidents Bush. I’d call him a realist centrist with faintly liberal leanings. So imagine my wonder when Rupa Shah sent me a new op-ed he penned for Newsweek calling for regime change in Iran. Not even Henry Kissinger has gotten that far yet for Chrissake!
With all the hype in the article title (Enough Is Enough: Why we can no longer remain on the sidelines in the struggle for regime change in Iran) I was prepared for a really noxious blast, but in actuality Haass’ stance is what I’d call regime change lite. First, he’s not in favor of using violence to change the Iranian regime. So that immediately takes him out of the Ledeen nutcase class of regime change advocates. It seems that what Haass wants is to do everything short of attacking Iran. He believes diplomacy is a dead end and that sanctions would be a useful tool. He also seems to believe that Iran intends to make a nuclear weapon, something with most cautious, deliberate analysts do not concede–yet.
So why is Haass going out on a limb like this? I think it reveals the absolute impotence of the foreign policy establishment in the face of Iran’s impregnable resistance to negotiation and reform. It also reveals an alarming lack of a primary quality that any good diplomat must have: patience. Patience is what the Iran observers I admire most have been counseling for months. Without patience, we are likely to run headlong toward whatever policy option seems to offer some, or any hope of utility. Remember Milton’s excellent saying: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is advice that could serve the U.S. well in the current impasse.
Iran is entirely fragmented. No one knows which side is on the ascent. No one knows whether muscular intervention of the type advocated by Haass will hurt our chosen friends in Iran or hurt them. In fact, any intervention that backfires could hurt them very badly. We should remember how vicious the current regime can be. Do we want to goad them into escalating their campaign against the opposition by turning to arrest, torture or assassination of the senior leaders of the reform movement? In this environment the least wrong move could prove disastrous. The vultures in Teheran are prepared to strike at the least opportunity. Why give them what they yearn for?
That is why I believe that Richard Haass’ advice is altogether misguided. I am in favor of vigorously supporting human rights in Iran. But I am not in favor of doing things that appear as if we are intervening deeply into the domestic political situation there. Regime change lite is a very bad idea.