Iran Elections 2013: Regime Change Won't Kill Iran's Nuclear Program

Even as it was harshly repressed, the 2009 Green Movement gave many Americans hope that a friendlier Iran lie within reach and that the people of Iran would soon throw off the yoke of a tyrannical theocracy. With the Iranian government acknowledging that inflation has risen for the sixth consecutive month (now reaching 31% annually), there's been speculation that the tipping point is near for a nation increasingly frustrated with a government that offers little more than political and economic hardship.

Indeed, the prospect of regime change has been seen as something of a silver bullet for U.S.-Iranian relations. If only Iran embraced true democracy, we'd finally be able to bury the hatchet, address the nuclear issue once and for all, and usher in a new age of peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately, along with most quick-and-easy foreign policy solutions, this one may be too good to be true.

The most tangible opportunity for reform in Iran comes from the abovementioned Green Movement. In the nation's 2009 presidential elections, the Greens exhibited an impressive display of strength, with thousands taking to the streets amid accusations of election rigging. But even should the Iranian opposition win in the upcoming elections (by no means a sure thing), there's not much evidence that progress would be with Iran's nuclear program.

First of all, every political hopeful in Iran must be vetted by the Guardian Council, the 12 clerics and jurists who truly hold the power. As questions have been raised as to whether even Ahmadinejad's chosen successor will pass muster, it's safe to say that anyone calling for serious reforms won't be allowed near public office.

At first glance, 2009 reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi offers a breath of fresh air with his calls for increased privatization, civil liberties, and openness to negotiation. But Mousavi fiercely maintains that he "will not accept our country being deprived of the right to [peaceful] nuclear energy." Such an approach, it should be noted, is the official policy of Ahmadinejad's government as well. So, even should the reformers triumph, resolution of the nuclear issue is not a foregone conclusion.

But let's say that, hypothetically speaking, true regime change were to occur in Iran. Democracy is established, elections are held, and a new government is formed. Such a government, it turns out, wouldn't be any more willing to give up the possibility of nuclear power. Eight in ten Iranians support a peaceful nuclear program, although they strongly oppose the development of a nuclear weapon, considering it contrary to their religious beliefs. A majority of the Iranian public harbors deep suspicions about the U.S. government, which isn't particularly surprising in light of past history.

An Iran that fully realizes its regional and economic influence may raise even greater problems, as Stephen Walt points out. Iran is one of the most populous countries in the region, with more citizens than Iraq and Saudi Arabia combined. Despite corruption, sanctions, and poor economic management, Iran has a gross domestic product of $1.007 trillion, ranking 18th in the world. Of other Middle Eastern countries, only Turkey compares. Combine this with a strong sense of Persian and Iranian national pride, and you have the recipe for a significant regional power.

Of course, all of this is speculation. It's quite possible that a new, less antagonistic government would bring with it a breakthrough in negotiations and steadily decrease tensions over the next decade. Despite negative perceptions of the U.S. government, Iranians have very positive views towards the American people, with "a real longing to have better relations." But the bottom line is that we shouldn't expect a magic bullet. As we've seen in recent years, regime change is a very messy and complicated affair. And, if the United States truly wants to build positive relations with the Iranian people, assassinating scientists and dropping bombs may not be the best route to take.