Americans Should Learn From History Before Calling for Regime Change in Iran

Protests and calls for reformation of the strict theocratic government have wracked cities across Iran, prompting calls by various pundits for the US to stand with the Iranian people as they struggle to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Ayatollahs. Weekly Standard managing editor Kelly Jane Torrance took to Fox Business to excoriate the world leaders who have remained silent in the face of the clashes. On “Face the Nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham called upon President Trump to stand with the Iranian people and to renegotiate the Iranian nuclear deal.

Iran has long been targeted for regime change by America’s supposed crusaders for justice. President George Bush named Iran as part of “the axis of evil” in 2002. Bush’s former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has often called for the US to carry out regime change in Iran, recently arguing that the US should provide material and financial support to the Iranian opposition, to that end. Bolton epitomizes the usual approach of wanting to charge in and smash the bad guys, before we even know what is really going on. US history is littered with the failures of this approach.

While commentators eager to topple the regime and spread democracy call for the US government to help facilitate the process, the New York Times reports that the protestors currently taking to the streets of Iran differ in both ideology and demographics from previous pro-democracy protests. Writing in the New York Times, Iranian journalist Amir Ahmadi Arian notes that “demands like freedom of speech and the rights of women and religious minorities have, for the most part, been either absent or vaguely implied.” He also notes that the protesters are not from the ranks of the highly educated and the middle-class like they were in the 2009 pro-democracy Green Revolution. Instead, he notes that the protesters come from people who are struggling and are much more concerned with their own personal economic circumstances, rather than abstract rights. Also lending credence to the argument that the current protests differ from the previous ones in 2009 is that fact that former Iranian president and interventionist boogieman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, participated in the unrest and has been arrested for a December 28th speech at an anti-government rally where he attacked the regime. Seeing how the 2009 pro-democracy protests were against his reelection, it certainly seems implausible that any movement that has him on stage will plan on transforming the country into a Western-style democracy, should they succeed.

Unfortunately, wanting the US government to charge headlong into conflicts to defeat evil, without really knowing what is actually going on, has been an American trait since the beginning of the country.

The list of well-intentioned but poorly considered foreign interventions goes on and on.

Think back to Jefferson and Paine urging support for the French Revolution against the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchy, only to recoil in horror at the torrents of bloodshed and upheaval that followed. In the past century, think of the US intervention into the First World War, pushed by, among others, progressive Protestant clergy eager to help “make the world safe for democracy” by fighting “the war to end all wars.” In contrast to the noble sentiments, the war only paved the way for an even more devastating world war 20 years later. The list of well-intentioned but poorly considered foreign interventions goes on and on: Iraq ripped apart by sectarian strife, Libya a failed state with slave markets, and Syria with its raging and bloody civil war with seemingly no end in sight.

As history indicates, Americans have favored crusading forth to attempt to vanquish evil since the founding of the country. However, America also has a solid history of restraining that crusading spirit and fighting against the impulse to march forth from what is supposed to be our shining city on the hill to save the world. Notably, there is George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address in which he urged “harmony” and “liberal intercourse with all nations” and cautioned against entangling alliances and becoming embroiled in foreign affairs.

This sentiment was also channeled by John Quincy Adams in his Independence Day speech of 1821, in which he argued that the US “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Adams instead argued that even though the United States “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Dominion and force exercised abroad inevitably returns home and leads to intrusions on liberties.

For too long has America scorned Adam’s advice, and as he predicted the US has become enamored with imperial power, rather than liberty. It is little wonder that the United States is viewed by a majority around the world as the largest threat to world peace, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. And, as professor Robert Higgs argues in his 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan, such dominion and force exercised abroad inevitably returns home and leads to intrusions on liberties, a point easily understood by those of us living under the all-encompassing eye of the US-surveillance state.

Echoing Adam’s sentiment, Americans hope that the Iranian people are able to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Islamist regime, but it is not our job to win such freedom for them. As our track record indicates, we have too often charged into such endeavors lacking vital knowledge and understanding of the situation and its various nuances, leading to disaster. Let us, instead, attend to the monumental task of improving our own society, so that we may serve as an inspiration and example to the world.

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Zachary Yost is a Free Society Fellow with Young Voices who lives in the Pittsburgh area. Opinions presented here belong solely to the author.

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