Has Obama given up on regime change in Iran?
Beirut - There is a spectre haunting the Middle East, resembling the spectre that Karl Marx spoke of in The Communist Manifesto. But this time, the spectre is not communism, as it was in 1848, but capitalism-led regime change or capitalist globalisation.
From Yemen to Syria, and in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, regime change is taking place at a vigorous pace. It is violently tearing the social and cultural fabric of these countries. But has Iran become isolated from this game, after it signed an interim nuclear framework agreement with the United States?
Or, to put it even more bluntly: Has Washington offered guarantees to Iran that it has truly abandoned its objective of regime change, which the Bush administration pursued forcefully, as evidenced by the National Security Strategy of September 2002 that suggested regime change offered the only guarantee of eliminating potential existential threats? Or, as vice-president Dick Cheney declared, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it?”
In his recent New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman, US President Barack Obama hinted that he was ready to do such a thing. Not only that, but he promised the mullahs of Iran that after the agreement their country “would be an extremely successful regional power… by virtue of its size, resources and its people”.
But along with these guarantees and promises there is a string of clear, decisive conditions connected to “change” in Iran. In the same interview, the president said: “If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wanted to see Iran re-enter the community of nations, then there were going to have to be changes… Iranians have to change their behaviour more broadly… if they want to be part of world economy.”
The term “change” is used more than ten times in the interview and it covers the economy, strategy and regional policies, meaning that the Islamic Republic must change itself instead of having change imposed on it by the outside world through the force of diplomatic isolation, economic strangulation and financial attrition produced by arms races.
The trade-off here is clear: the economy (i.e. incorporating Iran into globalised institutions and markets) in exchange for abandoning its foreign policies (terror and regional destabilisation) and its nuclear policies.
This is the trade-off that Obama wants to see. And it’s the same trade-off that Richard Nixon offered Mao Zedong, when Beijing gave up its revolutionary, communist foreign policy for the dollars of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the bonds of the US Treasury.
Some have called this new policy orientation the “Obama doctrine,” based on the notion of engagement with rogue states such as Cuba, Myanmar and Iran, while preserving the fundamental strategic interests of the United States.
In fact, this principle isn’t new at all and it does not at all mean completely giving up on the goal of regime change; Washington didn’t abandon the goal of changing the regimes of two superpowers, the Soviet Union and China.
Whether the United States by using military force, as in Iraq, or the threat of force, as in Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, or a policy of containment and deterrence, as with Cuba, North Korea and Iran, the strategic goal is the same even though tactics might differ: Force regional rogue states to adhere to the laws and fundamentals of the current world order in politics, economy and security. And this order has a specific name today: capitalist globalisation.
Through the nuclear framework agreement, the “Great Satan” has re-established a foothold in Iran, 35 years after it was kicked out of the country. The United States now intends to achieve in peace what it avoided doing through war: changing the Iranian regime by enticing it to begin changing its behaviour.
We must now wait to see if Iran’s hawks will at the last moment avoid drinking this bitter cup of change or actually imbibe it, as Khomeini did when he agreed to end the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, out of fear that his regime’s economy would collapse. Or, will domestic turbulence ensue and civil war erupt instead?
Whatever option Tehran pursues, one can now see the “Great Satan” with a half-smile on his face as he reads from a book entitled Best Ways to Achieve Regime Change.