Every decade produces a word or a phrase that is sure to provoke commotion whenever it is pronounced. You can use it to wake up the bored and the blasé in your audience or toss it like a hand grenade into a curmudgeonly crowd.
Since the overthrow of the Taleban in Kabul and the Baathist in Baghdad the current favorite phrase has been "regime change."
To many, especially in the heteroclite anti-war coalition, regime change produces the same effect that waving a red rag does on a raging bull. The more traditional foreign policy gurus who have not grown beyond the "Treaty of Westphalia" regard the phrase as sacrilegious. The more sophisticated quote Immanuel Kant's Project for Perpetual Peace as authority for their claim that intervening in the internal affairs of any state, no matter how constituted, is an infringement of "the basic principles of international life."
The average citizen has been persuaded that even talking of "regime change" must be regarded as the eighth deadly sin.
With all that in mind you can imagine the flack I attracted when, in a recent column, I suggested that no serious study of the situation with regard to the duel between the Islamic republic of Iran and the United States could exclude "regime change" as an analytical option.
Some saw this as a call for a military invasion of Iran. Others claimed that I was trying to get the US involved in an adventure on spurious grounds.
So, let us start by saying that I was trying to do neither.
I am not calling for military invasion of the Islamic republic by the United States or anybody else.
Now let us go back to the analysis of the situation.
The Middle East today is passing through what historians describe as "disequilibrium". This happens when the status quo is shattered while a new one has not yet been formed.
So, who is going to create a new equilibrium and shape a new status quo in the Greater Middle East?
The Arab states, still recovering from the shock of Iraq, plagued by internecine feuds, and preoccupied with Israel, offer no project.
Turkey, one of the region's leading powers, has turned its face away from it in the hope of joining Europe.
For obvious reasons, Israel is also out of this game.
That leaves only the United States and the Islamic republic to make rival bids for reshaping the region.
The real question, therefore, is simple: Will the new Middle East, which is bound to emerge sooner or later, be an American one, an Iranian one or an Irano-American one?
The United States, at least as long as President George W. Bush is in charge, regards the shaping of a friendly Middle East not only as a good thing in itself but also as vital for American security. The Bush Doctrine is based on the axiom that democracies do not export terrorism or start wars against other democracies. The strategic interests of the US, therefore, dictate that hostile regimes be replaced by friendly ones.
Now let us have a look at the view from Tehran.
The Islamic republic is surrounded by regimes that feel closer to Washington than Tehran, to say the least.
What would happen when, say 10 years from now, the whole of the region is pro-American, included in the mainstream of globalization, and more or less prosperous and more or less democratic? Wouldn't an anti-American, isolated, more or less poverty-stricken, and openly undemocratic Islamic republic look like out of place in this new jigsaw?
One law of history, inasmuch as history does have any laws, is that no nation can play the odd-man out in its region for long. You cannot, for example, have a military regime in France when the whole of Europe lives in democracy.
So, if the US is allowed to create the kind of the Middle East with which it feels comfortable, it is obvious that the Islamic republic, as the odd man out, will feel uncomfortable, not to say threatened.
This is why the Islamic republic is determined not to allow the US to succeed in the region.
In every single country of the region — from Pakistan to Morocco — the US and the Islamic republic are engaged in almost daily political, diplomatic and, at times, even proxy military, combat, with varying degrees of intensity. The Islamic republic is actively engaged in sabotaging US plans for Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and has revived its dormant networks in more than a dozen Arab countries. It has to do so because the emergence of a pro-American Middle East would mean the death of the Khomeinist ideology and its global ambitions.
There are only two ways to end this undeclared war between US and the Islamic republic.
The first is a Yalta-like agreement between Washington and Tehran to divide the Middle East into zones of influence, to set out the rules of the game, and to establish red lines. That would allow a new status quo to be shaped on the basis of a new balance of power. The model for such an arrangement is that of the Cold War between the West and the now defunct USSR that ensured Europe's stability for almost half a century.
But even then there is no guarantee that the two ideological adversaries, the Western democracies on the one hand and the Islamic republic on the other, will not pursue a global, low-intensity conflict just as was the case between the Soviet camp and the West throughout the Cold War.
Another problem, of course, is that the other countries of the region — the Arab states, Pakistan, Turkey, the Caspian Basin nations, and Israel — might not be jubilant about an Irano-American condominium, and may try to undermine it.
The second way to end the undeclared war between the US and the Islamic republic is, you guessed it, regime change.
In theory, this could work either way.
If there were a regime change in Washington that leads to a new policy of leaving the Middle Eat to Iran, the undeclared war would end — at least in the short run. Conversely, regime change in Iran could also do the trick by producing a new regional partner for the United States.
Regime change, therefore, is not a dirty phrase that should be kept out of all analyses. On the contrary it is a useful tool for focusing attention on the realities of a complex situation.
Is regime change possible in either Tehran or Washington?
The answer is: Yes.
One could imagine a new Jimmy Carter in the White House who would decide that it was no business of the United States to reshape the Middle East and that it would be better to allow "the natives" in the region to concoct their own witches' brew.
To achieve regime change in Washington, Tehran should do all it can to discredit the Bush Doctrine and to portray Afghanistan and Iraq not as successes, but as total failures. On that score the Islamic republic has many actual or potential allies inside and outside the US who, for different reasons, want Bush to fail and the US to be humiliated. This is why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has based his foreign policy on a simple stratagem: Waiting Bush out in the hope that his successor will run away from the Middle East.
At the other end of the spectrum, the US, were it to adopt a policy of regime change toward the Islamic republic, something it has not done yet, would find many allies inside and outside Iran.
But even then regime change need not mean military invasion.
The way change happened in Kabul was different from the way it happened in Baghdad. And, were it to happen in Tehran, it would again be different. Nor should we assume that a policy of regime change should be put into immediate effect. For a range of reasons that might not be possible, or even desirable, at this particular moment in time.
The important thing is to realize that the Middle East will not be out of crisis until one side gives in.