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Iran Sanctions: A Smokescreen for Regime Change

03/03/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his followers in Congress want you to think they're trying to save the world from the threat of Iran's nuclear program. But their alarmist rhetoric and hardline demands are just a cover for their familiar program of trying to "remake" the Middle East.

Their goal isn't a better nuclear deal, it's a better regime in Tehran. Extreme economic sanctions serve that end precisely because they will derail a deal. Just as nothing Saddam Hussein did to comply with weapons inspectors could satisfy the pro-war crowd in 2002-3, so Tehran can do nothing to satisfy the hardliners in 2015. They fear that any agreement limiting its nuclear capabilities will take the steam out of sanctions and give the regime a longer leash on life.

A few members of Congress come right out and admit it. Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, was refreshingly candid at the Heritage Foundation's Conservative Action Summit in January, when he called for "crippling new sanctions" against Iran:

First, the goal of our policy must be clear: regime change in Iran. . . . Second, the United States should cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Conservatives outside of Congress have been drumming up support for regime change for years. Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, speaking to journalists in Israel last month, said of Iran, "When you're dealing with snakes, you're dealing with an entity with which you cannot reason. You can't pet the snake, you can't feed it, you don't try to make friends with it, you don't invite it into your home -- you kill the snake, because the snake will bite you if it has the chance."

Support for regime change is strongest from neoconservatives who brought us the "liberation" of Iraq. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who joined the neoconservative Project for the New American Century to promote regime change in Iraq, says "Instead of focusing on overthrowing Assad or aiding his enemies, we should be vigorously pursuing regime change in Iran. As Alexander Haig once put it, 'go to the source.'"

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a leading neo-conservative think thank funded by billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, wrote in 2012, "If we are going to pursue tougher international sanctions against Iran -- and we should -- the goal should be regime change in Iran, not stopping proliferation. . . . Designing sanctions to make Khamenei relent in his 30-year quest for the bomb is a delusion; sanctions that could contribute to popular unrest and political tumult are not."

Michael Rubin, a neoconservative firebrand at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Commentary magazine, "Simply put, the chief impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East is Iran, and it's long past time the United States begins to realize that there will be no breakthrough on any issue of concern to U.S. national security until the Islamic Republic no longer exists. It should be the policy of the United States to hasten that day."

Rubin argued with much justification that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would rally support for the regime without delaying its military capabilities for more than a few years. That's why Jamie Fly and Gary Schmitt argued in the influential pages of Foreign Affairs that "it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all."

Fly, a former member of George W. Bush's National Security Council, and Schmitt, a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century and secretary of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, argued with the breezy confidence characteristic of their ilk that by targeting "key command and control elements of the Republican Guard and the intelligence ministry, and facilities associated with other key government officials," U.S. forces could "compromise severely the government's ability to control the Iranian population" and open the door to "renewed opposition to Iran's current rulers."

Given the bitter experience of America's many interventions over the past half century, it's hard to take such arguments seriously. The ongoing carnage in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and other theaters is proof that the United States doesn't have a clue how to change regimes for the better. As Robert Wright commented, "You'd think that our eight-year adventure in Iraq would have raised doubts about the extent to which changed regimes will hew to our policy guidelines. There we deposed an authoritarian leader and painstakingly constructed a government, only to see the new regime (a) tell America to get the hell out of the country; and (b) cozy up to an American adversary (Iran!)."

For that matter, you'd think that America's prior history of regime change in Iran itself would give interventionists more pause. The theocratic regime that rules Iran today came to power in part thanks to bitter resentment against the U.S.-British operation to overthrow the country's democratically elected prime minister in 1953, after he nationalized Iran's oil. Following the Islamic revolution in 1979, Washington turned to Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a counterweight to the Khomeini regime, offering military support for Hussein's invasion of Iran and setting the stage for the tragic wars of 1991 and 2003.

President Obama has directly acknowledged that the U.S. role in the 1953 coup contributed to the "difficult history" of mistrust between Iran and the United States. And he addressed Tehran's legitimate fears directly when he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, "We are not seeking regime change (in Iran), and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy."

For the neoconservatives who today have the upper hand in the Republican Party and in Congress, President Obama's attempts at reconciliation with the Axis of Evil are nothing less than a sin. These hawks demand regime change over reconciliation. But if they succeed through extended sanctions in derailing an agreement, the only guaranteed outcome will be conflict and chaos.

A longer version of this article appeared in ConsortiumNews.com.