Who’s Afraid of Regime Change in Iran?

Posted by Cutler on May 09, 2006
Iran, Iraq

Who’s Afraid of Regime Change in Iran? The answer might surprise you. Right Zionists (so-called neo-cons) surely favor regime change in Iran. But they also fear regime change that is based on ethnic separatism in Iran–specifically Arab separatism.

In the long term, Right Zionists are less interested in defeating or weakening Iran than they are in strengthening a pro-Western Iran. This is, arguably, a different agenda than that of Right Arabists who object to Shiite regional power. In the Right Zionist strategic worldview, Iran remains Israel’s logical (if not empirical) ally in a region dominated by Arab regimes. The model: flourishing US-Israeli-Iranian relations during the 1970s under the Shah. So, too, Right Arabists objected to this US tilt toward Israel and Iran under Kissinger and Nixon.Today, Right Zionists want to terminate the incumebent clerical regime, but they also want to enhance the regional power of Iran, relative to Arab regional dominance. Right Arabists, meanwhile, are willling to entertain the possibility of some kind of accord with the (weakened) incumbent clerical regime, especially if it prevents Right Zionists from winning US-Israeli-Iranian regional hegemony down the road.

As I have argued in a previous post, the question of Iranian nukes falls into this framework. Right Arabists, like Right Zionists, are hostile to the idea of Iranian nukes. But Right Arabists are hostile to Iranian nukes as such, not simply nuclear weapons in the hands of the current Iranian regime. Right Arabists were hostile to Iranian nukes in the 1970s under the Shah and would likely continue to oppose Iranian nukes long after the fall of the incumbent clerical regime. The issue is regional power. For the same reason–regional power–Right Zionists would welcome the exact opposite: Iranian nukes after the restoration of a pro-western regime in Iran.

Arab separatist rebellion within Iran also falls into this framework. Even though there is very little public chatter about US sponsorship of a separatist rebellion by Iran’s Arab minority, Right Zionists are already busy attacking the idea of regime change in Iran on the basis of Arab separatism.

The central issue here is the Iranian province of Khuzistan. In November 2005, AEI Right Zionist Michael Rubin was suffiently concerned about such plans that he published an “internal briefing” for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that warned against any attempt by the US to undermine the Iranian regime through Arab minority rebellion. The briefing is entitled “Domestic Threats to Iranian Stability: Khuzistan and Baluchistan.”

Khuzistan has a long and rich heritage…Long populated predominantly by Arabs, the region was known throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Arabistan – “land of the Arabs.” The region grew in strategic importance in the twentieth century, especially after the 1908 discovery of oil and the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company the following year…After Reza Khan subdued the province, the Iranian foreign ministry changed the provincial name to Khuzistan. The oil boom and government efforts to dilute the Arab component of the population have caused the relative size of the ethnic Arab population to shrink. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein sought to play the ethnic card. The Iraqi leader portrayed himself as the liberator of the Khuzistani Arabs.

Rubin doesn’t like the idea of the US playing the Arab ethnic card in Iran, even if (or precisely because) it might destabilize Iran. He certainly seems afraid that Right Arabists (so-called “realists”) are toying with the idea, however.

The Iranian regime is unpopular among the majority of its population…[T]he majority of Iran’s youth long for the freedom enjoyed in the West… When the Islamic Republic collapses, a strong unified Iran will be a force for stability and a regional bulwark against the Islamism under which the Iranian people now chafe. Neither Washington nor any other Western democracy should attempt to play the separatist card in Iran. To do so would not only backfire, but would trade ephemeral short-term gain for long-term strategic harm. The realists are wrong.

Why be so picky about the precise method of uprooting the clerical regime? Because Right Zionists like Rubin are playing a long-term, regional balance-of-power game, not merely a short-term militaristic offensive. Right Zionists are battling for Shiite Iraq and Iran, but targeting the Saudis. Hence, Rubin is already anticipating the benefits of a “strong unified Iran” after the counter-revolution. In the short term, Right Zionists can’t live with the incumbent clerical regime; in the long term they can’t live without non-Arab Iran.

The last thing Right Zionists want is to hand an oil-rich, strategic province of Iran to Arab forces–even if it means sacrificing a short-term opportunity to topple the incumbent Shiite revolutionary regime.

Funny how things work in the Gulf (and much of the former British Empire). Arabs sit atop Iranian oil and Shiite sit atop Saudi oil.

Right Zionists love separatist rebellion in Iraq; hate it in Iran. Right Arabists favor a strong unified Iraq; hate it in Iran.

In the most audacious version of the Right Zionist fantasy the Shia of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province would secede in the name of a Shia Gulf (Iran, southern Iraq, and the Saudi Eastern Province). In the Khuzistan option (championed by unidentified “realists”) the Gulf Arabs would restore Sunni Arab control of Iraq and help the Arabs of oil-rich Khuzistan secede from Shiite-dominated Iran.

Smells like a regional war at every turn.

NB: there is no necessary or essential symmetry in the binary opposition Arab/Shiite. When ethnic rivalry is the issue, the more appropriate contrasts are between Arab and Persian (and/or Kurd, Turkman, etc.). When religious factionalism is the issue, the more appropriate terms are Sunni/Shiite Muslim.

Most Iraqi Shiites are Arab, not Persian.

In practice, however, Right Zionists seek to exploit something akin to Arab/Shiite rivalry in the Gulf. Hence, the centrality of their reliance on Iraq’s leading Persian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Arab nationalists also seem happy to accept the bait. See, for example, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s recent accusation that Iraqi Shiites are more loyal to Shiite Iran than they are to pan-Arab power. Mubarak’s accusations, notwithstanding, the key obstacle to the full development of Arab/Shiite rivalry is the Arab nationalism of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

7 Comments to Who’s Afraid of Regime Change in Iran?

  • You’re forgetting the Azerbaijanis, who make up almost 25% of Iran’s population in the north. The Arabs in Khuzestan may make a lot of noise, but the country’s Turkic population are a lot more angry, especially since the Azeri language is not taught in any school in Iran (it simply doesn’t exist, according to the regime).

    Also, Arabs from Khuzestan were VERY pro-Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.

  • Agreed on both counts. Rubin makes the point that any attempt to cultivate Arabs from Khuzestan might backfire. It seems to me, however, that his primary fear is not that such a strategy would not work but that it actually might be successful.  I have no independent view of the likelihood of success.  I do, however, find Rubin’s concern very useful for understanding the mind of a Right Zionist.

  • But there is no necessary antithesis between ‘weakening’ and ‘overturning’ any of these régimes, either. Thus the dispute you describe seems to me to be a mere smokescreen for struggles over possession of the ideological driving seats.

  • I agree with Rowan that this is a smokescreen. Its interesting to know that these debates have such a long historical pedigree, and obviously the camps have very real and important ideological support, but they shouldn’t be taken too seriously as having an effect on policy. No people in the Middle East, outside of Israel and Turkey, are ever going to be pro-US or pro-Israel and no US administration could have any illusions about that. All of these debates are just potential sources for rationalising the pursuit of a very different agenda. – ‘Smells like a regional war at every turn’

  • Kieran, the proposition that “No people in the Middle East, outside of Israel and Turkey, are ever going to be pro-US or pro-Israel and no US administration could have any illusions about that. ” contains a damgerous and unwarranted assumption, namely, that there is some inherent relationship between being “pro-US” and being “pro-Israel”. If you could succeed in unthinking that assumption, you might find that there are more potential friends in the Middle East than you imagine.

  • Rowan, I used the word ‘or’, and I think you should do a reality check on the history of US involvement in the region and why the people there might feel aggrieved (like it or not, an important part of this is the US role in facilitating the ongoing occupation of Palestine). I should also clarify that I use the word ‘people’ in the collective sense of a given people, I’m not suggesting that no individual can be pro-US.

  • Professor Cutler’s analysis is a very useful exercise to abstract the mind set of “Right-Zionists”. However, the level of analysis does not end with the religious sect alone. In almost all cases the common nationalist fervors of different ethnic and religious groups play a pivotal role in their desire to remain unified with other ethic groups within the borders of a country; the Utra Shiite Sadrists in Iraq are indeed pan-Arabists, and Azaris in Iran have more in common (culturally, politically and economically) with Persians than with Turks and Azarbayjan (former Soviet Repulic). Many among Iranian Arabs call themselves Ajams. The Iranian Azaris share with other Iranians their hatred of the despotic governments.

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