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Regime change: How fear of Iran nukes, and campaign politics, revived the call

A tough-talking debate over pursuing regime change is all the rage again, this time focused on Iran. But proponents say they prefer economic sanctions to military force as the main lever. 

By Staff writer / January 20, 2012

Republican presidential candidates former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shake hands before the start of the South Carolina Republican debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday.

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Washington

Less than a decade after “regime change” became the rallying cry that defined the principal objective of the war in Iraq, the concept is gaining steam once again.

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This time it’s about Iran.

But this time around, proponents of regime change envision not a boots-on-the-ground war but ever-tightening economic sanctions as the preferred means of toppling what many in the US view as an outlaw leadership.

Sanctions, primarily a cut-off of Iran’s oil income, would cause such disarray and social unrest, the thinking goes, that the Iranian people would rise up and do away with the root cause of the Iranian crisis, the country’s leaders.

Others scoff at the idea of an externally induced revolution as wishful thinking, but say the rise of regime change rhetoric reflects the climate of a post-Iraq US election year where everyone wants to sound tough on Iran without endorsing an Iraq-style solution.      

The idea that regime change is the only viable and lasting solution to the challenges posed by Iran – its advancing nuclear program, its sharpened brinkmanship over the Strait of Hormuz, its support for Islamist extremist movements around the world – has received growing attention and support from Republican presidential candidates vying to out-tough one another on Iran policy.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the most vocal proponent of the “It’s the regime, stupid,” position, advocating regime change in foreign-policy debates and elaborating on how he would accomplish the goal: by “cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran and then, frankly, sabotaging the only refinery they have.”

Front-runner Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also wave the regime-change card.

For some experts, Iran must take some responsibility for fomenting the shift in the Iran discussion. “Iran has done its part to encourage the regime-change talk by brandishing the threat to close the Strait of Hormuz,” says Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The Obama administration is also playing a role by using expressions like “tightening the noose” to describe what stronger sanctions are designed to do to Iran, some Iran experts say.

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