"All options are on the table!" This phrase epitomizes strategic ambiguity and should continue to guide U.S. policy toward Iran. But what does the expression mean? Consider the children's game, "Where's Waldo?" Kids search for Waldo's picture hidden among hundreds of others. In this regard, regime change is the missing face in this strategically ambiguous phrase, which implies threat of force, engagement, and sanctions.
Economic sanctions have failed to coerce the Iranian regime from its quest for the bomb. Negotiations with Iran have stalemated; and as the UN nuclear watchdog agency determined, Iran conducts "…activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device..."
Humongous obstacles and risks make it difficult to attack Iran's nuclear facilities successfully.
The United States Air Force no longer controls Iraqi airspace, making it less likely for Washington or Jerusalem to launch airstrikes over a direct central route to Iran, e.g., from bases in Israel. Strikes via a northern (near Syria and Turkey or southern (near or across Jordan and Saudi Arabia) route consumes more fuel, loses the element of surprise, and attracts antiaircraft fire even before reaching Iran. Attacks from carrier-based aircraft in the Gulf or land bases in Afghanistan are also problematic.
Since the Iraq War of 2003-2011, regime change is off the table because it implies external force to change a regime. But tearing a page from the Arab revolt playbook, U.S. options could include regime change from within. Such a policy would require allowing an alliance of oppositionists to coalesce without American interference. Washington hinders coalition formation among Iranian dissidents by placing the main Iranian opposition on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list maintained by the State Department.
Washington designated the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK) as a terrorist organization and continues its listing for mainly diplomatic rather than for counterterrorism reasons. So long as the MeK is on the terrorist list despite absence of terrorism, terrorist activities, as well as lack of capability and intent to commit such actions, the designation is unwarranted. More to the point, the listing is unwise: Placing the MeK on the FTO list jeopardizes the lives of MeK members under siege in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, restrains a coalition from changing the regime from within, and ironically makes use of military action against Iran more likely despite the risks.
About Raymond Tanter Founder of the Iran Policy Committee
Jamie M. Fly Former Director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the National Security Council
Matthew Duss Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress