How to Do “Regime Change” Correctly: a Blueprint for the Biden Administration

State portrait of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran.

In my college years, as a member of the Iranian Students Association, one of my political tasks was to dispatch progressive American attorneys to Iran to investigate human rights abuses by the Shah, including torture and murder of political prisoners. These trips and the subsequent reports submitted by the attorneys were often successful in reducing the pain and suffering of prisoners of conscience, since the Shah was cognizant of his image abroad. Afterall, he was a creature of the West and dependent on it. He owed his throne to the 1953 American-British backed coup and was nurtured by the Western imperial powers throughout his reign. But his dependence was also his Achilles’ heel. In a country with a long history of popular sentiment against tyrannical rule, being an appendage of foreign powers could be fatal. And hence we had the late 1970s popular uprising in Iran.

The 1979 Iranian revolution ended the reign of the Shah and his human rights abuses. But the Islamic Republic that emerged was not much better than the Shah in tolerating dissent and respecting civil liberties. However, unlike the Shah the new government was not only independent of the West but was hostile to it. Indeed, soon after the revolution some foreign firms, including American firms, were nationalized in Iran. Then came the attack on the “nest of spies” (the American Embassy) and the detention of its occupants.

What followed was more than four decades of attempts by Western imperial powers, headed by the US, to overthrow the new “regime” in Iran. I put regime in quotation marks since, according to the same imperial powers, any government that is unfriendly to the West is simply a regime and any friendly colonialist or despot, even if it dismembers a journalist, is a government or even a “kingdom.”

Attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic have mostly relied on sanctions, both unilateral and multilateral. But they have also used such methods as murder, assassination, sabotage, invasion of territorial integrity of the country, threats of war, etc.

The reason given for these attempts have varied over the years. Among many, the US has condemned Iran for nationalizing US industries, hostage taking, destabilizing Afghanistan, harboring Al-Qaeda, lacking democracy, being ruled by unelected individuals, violating human rights, developing weapons of mass destruction, wanting to wipe Israel off the map, supporting the Syrian “regime,” threatening its neighbors, developing long-range missiles, supporting Houthi “rebels,” destabilizing the Middle East, etc.

The Carter Administration used the issues of hostage taking and nationalization of US industries as reasons for sanctioning Iran. Interestingly, the issue of violation of human rights, which was continuously used to destabilize the Soviet Union, was hardly ever raised against Iran. Carter and his associates, particularly Zbigniew Brzezinski, came up with the clever idea that a war between Iran and Iraq will be useful in releasing the hostages and, ultimately, overthrowing both the Iranian and Iraqi “regimes.” So, they gave Saddam Hussein the greenlight to go ahead with his invasion of Iran. The eight-year war that ensued killed, by some estimates, a million people.

The Reagan Administration sanctioned Iran and accused it of destabilizing the region. They flirted with Saddam Hussein and closed their eyes to his use of chemical weapons against Iranians and his own Kurdish population. They engaged Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf and even shot down “accidentally” an Iranian civilian airliner with 290 people on board. Yet, they tried to sell arms to Iran with the help of the Israelis in the so-called Iran-Contra scandal. All along they gave false information to both Iraq and Iran to bleed each other to death. Ultimately, they hoped, the two “regimes” would be replaced with US-Israel friendly governments.

The Clinton Administration’s policy toward Iran mostly followed the scripts written by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its think tank affiliate the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). The clever Israeli surrogates came up with three main reasons to sanction Iran: Iran’s support for international terrorism (by which they meant any group hostile to Israel), opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (which was abandoned by Israel and the US), and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (which meant nothing at the time). The administration, with the help of allies of Israel in the US Congress, imposed the toughest sanctions on Iran with the hope of bringing about “regime change.”

The Bush Administration, which was heavily dominated by Israel’s operatives called “neoconservatives,” included Iran in the “axis of evil” and hoped to “rollback” the Islamic Republic once the takeover of Iraq was finished. They threw everything but the kitchen sink at Iran; accusing it of support for “terrorist” groups opposed to Israel, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, destabilizing Afghanistan, harboring Al-Qaeda, lacking democracy, being ruled by unelected individuals, violating human rights, not protecting the rights of women, not being forward-looking and modern, etc. They levied sanctions after sanctions on Iran, including three UN sanctions. They threatened the country with war and, indeed, considered military actions against it at the request of Israel.

The Obama Administration was no better than the previous ones when it came to Iran. Actually, it was worse in its first four years. As Barak Obama states in his 2020 book, when he first took office, he thought that the problem with the Iran policy “was that the existing sanctions were too weak to have much of an impact”! He therefore let his WINEP gang devise the policy of “tough diplomacy.” The policy consisted mostly of “crippling,” “paralyzing” or “lethal” sanctions. Among these sanctions was the fourth UN sanctions that the Bush Administration was unable to pass. The sanctions passed against Iran during the first term of the Obama Administration were the harshest since the Clinton era. With the help of Israel, Obama also carried out a campaign of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities and trying to stir up ethnic tensions. Yet, in the end, Obama realized that “regime change” in Iran is not easy and pursuing the policy of tough diplomacy could eventually lead to a war with uncertain outcomes. Hence, in his second term in office, he pushed for a nuclear agreement with Iran known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The agreement only lifted nuclear related sanctions on Iran. All other sanctions remained intact. The JCPOA was opposed by Israel and its many supporters in the US Congress. Hence it was a shaky and unstable agreement.

The farcical Administration of Donald Trump overthrew the JCPOA at the stroke of a pen. The wild and insane gang in the White House, led by craziest Israeli surrogates calling themselves The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, waged a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran with the hope of a “regime change.” This included not only bringing back all the old sanctions but levying new ones. This was sanctioning Iran on steroids. Announcements of sanctions against Iran became almost a weekly event. Sometimes the same individuals and entities that had been sanctioned were sanctioned again. Among those sanctioned were the “supreme leader” of Iran, the foreign minister, and the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The wild beasts in the White House even tried, and failed, to bring back the old UN sanctions using some bizarre and twisted argument. Maximum pressure also meant threatening Iran with military attacks and creating conditions for armed conflict, including flying drones close to, or over, Iran. It also included tanker skirmishes in the Persian Gulf, such as chasing Iranian oil tankers and trying to capture them, as well as assassinating the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and assisting Israelis to murder another Iranian nuclear scientist.

So far none of the attempts by the US to overthrow the Iranian “regime” has worked. One US government after another has come and gone without realizing the dream of overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Why? Because in a country such as Iran, with a long history of nationalism, it is hard to overthrow an independently minded government, however despotic that government might be. It was this sense of nationalism that caused the downfall of the Shah. From the perspectives of many Iranians, if there is a strongman ruling Iran, it should at least not be the US’s strongman. The Islamic Republic understands this reality. That is why maintaining the concept of “enemy” is so important to them. Everything terrible that happens in the country is the fault of the enemy, weather true or not. Yes, much of economic troubles in Iran are the result of sanctions, but not all, as even some politicians in Iran occasionally admit. Mismanagement, corruption, ineptness, ignorance, backwardness, internal feuding, have all contributed, along with brutal sanctions, to the faltering economy.

So, President Biden, here is a simple blueprint for achieving your goals, including a “regime change”: Lift the sanctions. Stop imprisoning Iranians on flimsy charges of violating these sanctions. Stop assassinating Iranians. Stop sabotaging Iranian nuclear and non-nuclear facilities. Stop threatening Iran. Stop sending B52s, warships, and drones to the Persian Gulf. Stop interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. Stop even condemning the Islamic Republic for violating human rights. Afterall, as one of the greatest purveyors of violence around the world, the US is in no position to talk about human rights. Your condemnations ring hollow. In short, leave the Islamic Republic to its own devices!

Also, call off your hound dogs in the Middle East, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and in particular, the Israelis. Tell them that they are on their own. Better yet, let them know that they should reform their own brutal regimes. Tell them that they should not occupy lands that belong to others, or threaten their neighbors, or wage wars, or dismember a journalist.

If you do these, you will have a much better chance of achieving your stated and unstated goals. Without enemies at the gate, the Islamic Republic will have no use for highly enriched uranium or massive amount of low enriched uranium. It will have no use for long range-missiles. It will have no reason to act belligerently in the Persian Gulf. Above all, without enemies, the Islamic Republic will have no one to blame for when it comes to social and economic woes in Iran. It will have to become fully accountable to its own citizens for whatever ill the society faces. It will have to respect civil rights and liberties. Otherwise, it will face the wrath of a population that has always fought against tyrannical rule.

*Sasan Fayazmanesh will be a panelist, along with Richard Falk, in an online discussion of Iran Policy in the Biden Era. Register here.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: