In a recent comment, Arnold Evans posed the following question to us:
“If you could choose between Egypt being ruled by Sadat/Mubarak—the first of which you both have spoken so approvingly of—or by a democratic leader who could well be as hostile to Israel as Ahmadinejad, which would you choose? If you choose Sadat/Mubarak, then is your opposition to attempting regime change in Iran solely on the basis that such a regime change is implausible? If Iran could be destabilized to the point that the US could impose a leader like Sadat or Mubarak is feasible, would you then support that?”
This comment gets to the heart of what U.S. strategy in the Middle East should be. To start with, we don’t think that regime change is a constructive policy tool for the United States. We do not believe that the 1953 coup in Iran served U.S. interests in the long run—Stephen Kinzer’s book, All the Shah’s Men, provides lots of good discussion on this point. We certainly judge the 2003 invasion of Iraq (a war aimed at coercive regime change in Baghdad) to have been a disaster for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally. So, today, we are not inclined to endorse the idea of regime change in either Cairo or Tehran.
And, in this regard, make no mistake—a scenario of genuinely democratic elections in Egypt, which could only be realized through massive external pressure, is a regime change scenario. Egypt’s current political order is not, and never has been organized around the idea of “free and fair” elections. Just as we are not big fans of regime change, we are also not big fans of democracy for democracy’s sake—especially when democracy is imposed on Middle Eastern countries by the West.
The illegitimacy of the Shah’s regime in Iran, which the United States went to such lengths to restore and support, was manifest to the world—in the end, it was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Iranian society. But the fact that the Mubarak government does not hold power on the basis of genuinely competitive elections does not mean that it is illegitimate. If, by some chance, the Egyptian people decide that the Mubarak government is illegitimate, in the same way that Iranians clearly decided this about the Shah, then there will be regime change in Cairo, indigenously achieved. But the United States, for its part, should deal with the political orders prevailing in the Middle East, including the current regime in Egypt—not try to replace them with governments we find ideologically comfortable and strategically accommodating.
On this point, we do not believe that the United States needs regime change in Tehran to improve its relations with Iran. To do that, the United States needs to pursue smart diplomacy with the Islamic Republic’s current political structure—diplomacy, that is, which treats the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate government, seeking to defend and enhance Iran’s legitimate interests. This is something that no U.S. President since 1979—not even Barack Hussein Obama—has tried to do.
We do not think it is correct to say that we have spoken so approvingly of the late Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat. We have pointed out that Sadat collaborated with Nazi Germany against Britain during World War II and actually launched a war against Israel in 1973 that killed thousands of Israelis—something neither President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nor any other Iranian leader has done. It is ironic, to say the least, that Sadat has been granted hero-like status by many in the United States and Israel while Iran’s leaders are falsely vilified as posing an existential threat to Israel and being implacably hostile to the United States. This is a critically important point that many Americans and Israelis need to hear and internalize.
We think that American encouragement of Egypt’s realignment of its relations with the United States during the 1970s—including the Camp David accords—was an example of relatively smart diplomacy. It was, to be sure, incomplete—it needed to be accompanied by a comprehensively structured settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and acceptance of the new political order brought about by the Islamic revolution in Iran. Today, these remain the outstanding and profound political challenges that the United States must meet in the Middle East. America’s failure to meet these challenges not only weakens its own strategic position, but also fundamentally undermines the security of its allies—including Egypt.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett