The past two weeks have been a big success for the rulers in Tehran, despite what many in the United States and Europe may think. The Obama administration, the Europeans and the media have been obsessively focused on Iranian missile launches and secret enrichment facilities, on Russia's body language, and on the likely success or failure of Thursday's talks in Geneva. What the world has not focused on is the one thing Iran's rulers care about: their own survival.
The regime's overriding goal since the election...has been to buy time and try to reestablish and consolidate control without any foreign interference in its internal affairs. In this Tehran has succeeded admirably.
But it has also had help. The Obama administration has, perhaps unwittingly, been a most cooperative partner. It has refused to make the question of regime survival part of its strategy. Indeed, it doesn't even treat Iran as if it were in the throes of a political crisis. President Obama seems to regard the ongoing turmoil as a distraction from the main business of stopping Iran's nuclear program. And this is exactly what the rulers in Tehran want him to do: focus on the nukes and ignore the regime's instability.
It would be better if the administration focused on the regime's instability and ignored the nukes.
This ought to be the goal of the "crippling" sanctions the Obama administration has threatened. Sanctions will not persuade the present Iranian government to give up its nuclear weapons program. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei see the nuclear program and their own survival as intimately linked. But the right kinds of sanctions could help the Iranian opposition topple these still-vulnerable rulers.
Americans have a fundamental strategic interest in seeing a change of leadership in Iran. There is good reason to believe that a democratic Iran might forgo a nuclear weapon -- just as a democratizing Russia abandoned long-standing Soviet foreign and defense strategies -- or at least be more amenable to serious negotiations. Even if it is not, we have much less to fear from a nuclear weapon in the hands of a democratic Iran integrated into the liberal democratic world than from a weapon in the hands of Ahmadinejad.
So in short, we should ignore the "lesser" goal of persuading Iran to drop it's nuclear ambitions, and pursue regime change instead. This is silly for several reasons. First, Kagan completely ignores the fact that the Iranian regime's crackdown on the opposition movement has made it more difficult for Iran to avoid sanctions aimed at the nuclear program. The reason we've made any progress on that front is largely thanks to the the Iran government's repressive treatment of its own people, as well as revelations that it continues to build secret nuclear facilities (that it argues are for peaceful purposes, to be fair.) Kagan acts as if pursuing sanctions against the nuclear program is completely out of context, when in fact its a direct result of the government's own bad behavior in two regards.
Second, nowhere does Kagan explain exactly how a program of crippling sanctions is supposed to aid the opposition in overthrowing the government. I challenge Kagan to provide one recent example of sanctions fostering regime change. He will struggle to find one. Sanctions were employed against Saddam Hussein for over a decade to no effect. Iran is more complicated politically; the regime itself is divided over the crackdown and it's brutality has yet to match Saddam's in scope or scale. And Kagan is also probably right that the Iranian people are not going to rally around a hated government even in the face of outside condemnation. But again, how does any of that aid the opposition in toppling the regime? In what concrete, specific manner, does a program of damaging Iran's economy aid the opposition politically? Can you imagine a scenario in which Iran's government uses the threat of sanctions and outside influence or intervention to justify even more repression? To make it even more difficult for the people to express their dissent, to oppose the government? I can, because that's what they did after the fraudulent elections. It's what repressive regimes do the world over when faced with threats to their survival, especially when those threats come from outside the country. Foreign enemies are quite useful for propaganda purposes.
And even if the regime were changed, would Iran's nuclear ambitionsm merely evaporate as we hope? This bit about a democratic Iran foregoing nuclear weapons is just plain nonsense. On what basis does Kagan make this absurd claim? On Indian's foregoing of nukes? France's? Our own? Political systems come and go; national interests remain the same. A "democratic" Iran would be regarded with only moderately less suspicion by the Arab world than a dictatorial one is, because Iran's national interests remain the same. The idea that Iran pursues nuclear weapons only because it's dictatorial leaders desire more despotic power, is fallacy of the highest order. Iran's democratic leaders may choose to justify a nuclear weapons program in the same manner that it's present leaders do, and they would not be wrong to do so.
And like Iran's national interests, other things do not change: Kagan is wrong about Iran, has always been wrong about Iran, and if today's column is any evidence, will always be wrong about Iran.