Iran: The Case for "Regime Change"

What to do about Iran, especially now that the international community can no longer deny the nuclear ambitions of the theocratic state that has implicitly promised to destroy Israel? It appears that hopes for a self-generated revolution from below against the Islamic Republic have been dashed for now: the regime succeeded in containing massive protests planned for February 11, the anniversary of the 1979 revolution that brought it to power, and is proud of its methods, which included arresting student leaders and family members of prominent activists, "texting" warnings to the cell phones of Iranian activists, and blocking e-mail and multimedia messaging in order to prevent opposition coordination or handheld video of paramilitary abuse leaking to Western media.

. . . Even though Iran is only half Persian in its ethnic makeup, the country has a near continuous history going back millennia; its identity as a unified nation precedes the ethno-nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

What else might be done? Unquestionably, engagement of the kind promised by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign and attempted during the first year of his presidency has failed utterly. Not only did Obama reach out to Tehran in his first interview as president, asking the Iranian leadership to "unclench their fist," but according to Iranian press accounts, he also sent two letters to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, seeking dialogue. In a message sent on Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Obama broke a 30-year diplomatic formula: rather than speak directly to the Iranian people, he elevated the Islamic Republic to be their rightful representative. And he remained shamefully silent as the post-election protests in June 2009 rose to a boiling point. Obama's aides also advised him poorly about the reality of the Islamic Republic: it was embarrassingly naïve for the United States to act on the presumption that Washington's silence would lead Tehran to refrain from accusing the United States and other Western powers had manipulated protesters. The Islamic Republic's leadership has always been xenophobic and has never accepted accountability for its own failings. Conspiratorial thinking runs deep. Take Neda Agha-Soltan, the 16-year-old girl whose murder at the hands of a pro-government gunman was caught on film and became emblematic of the June protests. The state-controlled Iranian press has reported that Neda's murder was actually a British plot, and the Iranian government subsequently demanded that London extradite Neda's true murderers.

The White House no longer has any rational excuse for its failure to perceive the truth about the perspective of an Iranian leadership that sees diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy employed to lull adversaries into complacency. Indeed, while the West may find itself longing for the supposedly reformist views of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 until 2005, his own aides still brag about how they used the so-called Dialogue of Civilizations to advance their nuclear acquisitions. On June 14, 2008, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami's spokesman, counseled sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to accept the Khatami approach: "We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities." What Khatami's apologists do not explain was that he believed he owed his allegiance not to the principles of reform but to velayat-e faqih, or "guardianship of the Jurists," the foundational basis of the Islamic Republic.[1] Khatami's goal was not to move away from the Islamic Republic but rather to preserve it--and the same, by the way, could and should be said of Mir Houssein Mousavi, the candidate who had the election last June stolen from him and in whose name, in part, the "Green" movement arose.

Many Iran-watchers are quick to discount the importance of the regime's core ideas. The anti-sanctions activist Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, argued in his 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance, for example, that the Islamic Republic was a normal state, not beholden to ideology. This is nonsense. While the frightening messianic rhetoric that pours from the mouth of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not be shared by either Iran's educated elite or much of Iran's clergy, those in control of government policy continue to embrace the same brand of Islamic radicalism from which Ahmadinejad's noxious ideas flow. It is certainly true that Iranians are more cosmopolitan than the peoples who surround them. But the professors hanging around the bookshops across from Tehran University, the families shopping in the trendy shops around Vanak Square, and the young people flirting in fast-food joints around Tajrish Square in northern Tehran do not make nuclear policy. Command and control over an Iranian bomb will rest solidly with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the commissars in the Office of the Supreme Leader, and these are the most extreme elements in Iranian society. While journalists write knowingly about reformers, hardliners, and pragmatists in the Iranian cabinet and parliament, the goings-on among factions within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are almost entirely unknown to us--and that is the only factionalism that matters. Simply put, if the Islamic Republic gains nuclear weapons, neither the White House nor the Central Intelligence Agency can have any confidence that the regime's most radical elements will not be in control of them.

This is why some analysts advocate military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. Such strikes can delay the program, albeit at high cost in terms of blood and treasure. They would, however, also strengthen the regime, as I believe the Iranian people would rally around the flag. There is precedent for this rallying effect. The Ayatollah Khomeini might never have consolidated the Islamic Revolution in the first place had the Iraqi army not invaded Iran a year after he took office; the war was a godsend to him because it provided a nationalist glue that his pan-Islamist theories could not. The other weakness of air strikes is that if they did not topple the regime, they would delay but not end Iran's nuclear ambitions; after a delay of a few years, the nuclear program would recover.

The key to resolving the problem, therefore, becomes removal of the Iranian regime itself. Is that possible? Yes.

History offers lessons in what not to do. Iranians may dislike their government, but they dislike foreign invaders even more. Even limited U.S. military action would likely strengthen the regime even if the initial effect would be to cause it to teeter. This does not mean that military action might not be necessary; an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons is the worst possible scenario. But we should not count on military action providing a death blow to the regime.

Washington might also be tempted to play the ethnic card by encouraging minority uprisings among the Azeris, Kurds, and Arabs living in Iran. But even though Iran is only half Persian in its ethnic makeup, the country has a near continuous history going back millennia; its identity as a unified nation precedes the ethno-nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, the regime's chief theocrat, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is himself not Persian but Azeri. Indeed, many Iranians feel that their nation is not large and multi-ethnic enough. The Great Powers never formally colonized the country during their governance of the Middle East, but their actions certainly did restrict the growth of the country that came to be known as Iran in the 1930s; Iranians believe that had it not been for British and Russian designs, Iran would be twice its present size. This enduring grievance gives the Islamic regime the convenient ability to recast any support for particular ethnic groups or federalism as a Western plot to dismantle Iran.

The administration should also be wary of the Iranian diaspora, its political leaders, and their capacity to return home and help run the country. Most Iranian political figures who live abroad do so because they already failed either to govern or win change. Not only are Iranian exile groups fractious but they also do not represent Iranian society.[2] More than a fifth of Iranians are under 15. Perhaps three-quarters were born or came of age after 1979. They would have no commonality with Iranians who have lived for more than three decades outside the country's borders. Rather than focus on groups or individuals, the intelligence and policy communities should instead seek to create a template for change, to take advantage of fortuitous events as they occur and help enhance their impact. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, for example, it was far more important that a Chinese student stepped forward to block a row of tanks, and far less important that the CIA knew in advance who that student was.

The U.S. intelligence community has advised Obama that regime change in Iran is risky, and it is. It is not certain that a democratic or even constitutional order would emerge. Three decades of Islamist governance have shaped Iranian political culture, and the all-persuasive influence of the Revolutionary Guards will be hard to shake. Still, the CIA's preference--which is to do nothing and let the chips fall where they may--is poor advice and poorer policy. The Obama administration instead should gear its interventions to maximize the probability of a democratic, constitutional, and nonthreatening Iran. This requires concentrating on measures that would strengthen so-called civil-society efforts and cripple the Revolutionary Guards.

A multifaceted approach can work. First, Obama should impose broad sanctions.- Tar-geted sanctions of the sort that have already been attempted--calling for the United Nations to "exercise vigilance" over Iranian banks involved in proliferation and banning travel for Iranians engaged in nuclear trade--are not sufficient. Targeted sanctions may be important symbolically, but few arms dealers or proliferators fear UN chastisement enough to abandon their activities. Broader sanctions will have an impact on the general population. For example, Iranians need gasoline to drive their cars, and many need kerosene to heat their homes, but the Islamic Republic has to import both. Iran is a large country--four times the size of California--and many Iranians would also feel the effect of restrictions against domestic air travel.[3] Thus, restricting gasoline and kerosene importation would sting bitterly and is likely to spark a spirit of resentment among ordinary Iranians at their own government's fecklessness--and thereby help grassroots opposition. Some lobbying groups like the National Iranian American Council argue that broad sanctions will enable the Iranian government to deflect resentment onto foreign powers, but no evidence supports such claims. The Islamic Republic has long tried to blame Western powers for its economic failings, but the Iranian people consistently hold their own government to account. Whenever Iranians have experienced fuel shortages, as in the Kordestan province in February 2005, they have protested publicly against their government and heightened their criticism of regime corruption. In January 2008, fuel shortages led to a 700 percent increase in the price of bread across northern Iran, leading the Revolutionary Guards to deploy into the streets to keep order.

Obama could also paralyze the Islamic Republic's economy by declaring Iran's Central Bank guilty of deceptive financial practices, a power granted him under the Patriot Act. Such a finding would effectively prevent any non-Iranian bank from doing business with the Central Bank, subservient Iranian banks, or the Iranian government. The resulting economic isolation would be near total, and investment in Iran would halt. Although oil companies and European governments oppose sanctions on the grounds that Russia and China would simply fill the investment gaps left behind when Europeans leave Iran, a White House designation against the Iranian Central Bank would bypass this problem, since neither Russian nor Chinese concerns could risk the liability or reputational risk associated with doing business with an Iranian bank designated as a money-laundering concern.

Of course, the Iranian people must be U.S. allies in the fight against the regime, and it is essential that Washington empower them, rather than simply encourage grassroots action. Here, a willingness to fund efforts intended to bolster Iran's nongovernmental, nonreligious "civil society" is crucial. When in 2005 Congress first allocated money for democratization in Iran, Nicholas Burns, then undersecretary of state for policy, explained that the Bush administration was taking a page from the playbooks used in Georgia and the Ukraine, where pro-democracy groups--in part funded by Western sources--led "people-power" revolutions that unseated old-guard dictatorships. But that didn't happen with Iran. By 2007, only $66 million was allotted to the effort by Congress, of which U.S. public diplomacy efforts--funding Voice of America's Persian service and Radio Farda, as well as translating State Department web pages into Farsi--swallowed 80 percent. By November 2006, the State Department had directed less than $10 million to democracy programs because diplomats feared that financial support might do more harm than good.

One senior State Department official explained: "We don't have blinders on. We don't want to hurt the people we are trying to help." Such caution is misguided. While the Islamic Republic has used the existence of the fund to tarnish the reputations of all domestic opposition, the regime's accusations that its opponents are paid by the CIA predate the fund; they were the subject of forced confessions by student activists after a student uprising in 1999. A logical inconsistency also pervades U.S. critics of the funding: the Iranian government accuses those who participate in people-to-people dialogue (like academic exchanges) of similar taint, yet the academic community and Iran lobbyists continue to support these efforts.

The State Department's only concern should be effectiveness. U.S. diplomats should not second-guess Iranian civil-society activists willing to take risks to undermine the autocratic regime under which they would otherwise be condemned to live. That such funding irritates the regime is an indication that it works. The December 2006 arrest of the 66-year-old Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari was not the action of a regime confident of its future. Indeed, overreactions may be all to the good, because they provide opportunities for civil movements to take hold. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was not a single event but rather the result of opposition that led the Shah to overreact. Unrest began after a January 7, 1978, newspaper article accused Ayatollah Khomeini, the leading figure in Shia Islam (then living in exile in Iraq), of homosexuality. Outraged religious students forced their teachers to cancel classes and merchants to shut the Tehran bazaar. Police confronted the protesters, killing five. The shootings began a cycle of protests every 40 days, the end of the traditional period of mourning. When protesters rioted in Tabriz, several more deaths occurred, propelling further cycles of protest that culminated in the Shah's flight. Indeed, U.S. funding would be well spent encouraging protests. At best, the protesters will succeed; at worst, they will precipitate an overreaction that itself will weaken the regime.

Funding would also be well spent in supporting the Islamic Republic's nascent trade-union movement. Under Islamic Republic law, the government must control all unions. Iranian workers' chief grievance, however, is the government, which unilaterally withholds wages, sometimes for months. In December 2005, a Tehran bus driver named Mansour Osanloo called a strike independent of the official union. His colleagues followed him and, over the course of several months, during which the bus drivers faced down regime thugs, suffered imprisonment, and torture, they carved out the Islamic Republic's first independent trade union. Its creation was followed quickly by the establishment of a second independent union in the oil-rich Khuzistan province. Iranian labor activists say that what they need most are strike funds to provide support to workers when they go out. During the 1979 revolution, Iranian unions provided funds that enabled wildcat strikes to spread to key industries such as oil and manufacturing. Investment here, perhaps channeled through nongovernmental organizations, could grease the wheels of regime change.

Protest momentum itself will not be enough to topple the regime. Ultimately, there can be no regime change until the Revolutionary Guard cracks. Dictatorships survive as long as their Praetorian Guards remain loyal. Thus, U.S. regime-change efforts must be directed at fragmenting the Guards. Here, a good-cop, bad-cop strategy is the ticket. Washington should encourage defection, providing relocation and protection for Revolutionary Guardsmen, regime officials, and nuclear scientists. Such defections would demoralize the regime. Simultaneously, the Obama administration should have no qualms about assassinating Revolutionary Guardsmen with American blood on their hands--like the ones engaged in a campaign of murder against U.S. soldiers and civilian officials in Iraq and Afghanistan. Between January and September 2007, for example, U.S. forces in Iraq captured Iranian commandos in Baghdad, Erbil, and Sulaimani who were providing armor-penetrating explosively formed projectiles; those projectiles had been responsible for 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq in the preceding months. In May 2009, border guards intercepted a shipment of anti-tank mines as it crossed the Iranian border with Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Guards leadership coordinated these arms shipments with the mission to kill Americans. There is no reason why the White House should not return the favor, especially when targeted retaliation can undercut the Guard's moral and decimate its leadership. The idea that the administration should determine an entity like the Revolutionary Guards to be terrorists, but then refuse to treat its members as such, is absurd.

Still, more needs to be done than merely neutralize the Revolutionary Guards. Successful protests require independent communications. During recent uprisings, the Iranian government constrained Internet and cell-phone services and increasingly seeks to block satellite television. Iranian passport holders now enjoy visa-free travel to both Turkey and Azerbaijan. If the United States can distribute satellite phones and satellite receivers in these countries--or even ensure that they are available on the open market--it will provide the means by which protest leaders can bypass government restrictions on communications. Conversely, when protests do occur, there is no reason why Iranian security forces should enjoy unmolested communications. U.S. authorities can use technologies in their possession to disrupt security forces' telecommunications and Internet connections, and jam cell-phone and radio communications. Cell-phone-suppression kits in the possession of Iranian civil-society organizations would also help these groups coordinate and, if necessary, overcome security-force quarantine operations. Here there is also precedent, as Cuba jammed Los Angeles--based Persian television broadcasts in 2003 at the Islamic Republic's behest during pro-democracy protests in Tehran. Again, the White House should never hesitate to reciprocate.

The last facet of a successful regime-change strategy in Iran would involve media. President Obama makes headlines when he addresses Iranians, but he does so only on a semiannual basis. Fluent Persian speakers serving in the U.S. government should address the Iranian people and the regime daily to provide a counter-narrative to that advanced by Iran's state-controlled media. Here, it is ironic that John Limbert, a fluent Persian speaker whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed as her lead Iran man, served as an adviser to a group that threatened to sue Voice of America and Radio Free Europe for airing regime opponents on their Persian services. Too often, Voice of America producers seek to prove their independence by broadcasting voices hostile to the United States (hence the reputation of the service under both Clinton and Bush as "Radio Khatami"). It is essential that U.S.-supported Persian-language radio broadcast the truth, but it must also remain on message.

If Congress provided significant financing for Persian-language media and if the Broadcasting Board of Governors came to understand that coordinating themes revolving around regime change is a vital national interest, such media could play a key role in enabling protest. If Iranian security services shut down cell-phone networks and Internet-service providers, over-the-air news reports, which cannot be jammed so easily, would become integral methods of helping to coordinate protests.

In the wake of Khomeini's victory, the doyens of Iranian studies, UCLA's Nikki Keddie and Baruch College's Ervand Abrahamian, penned influential tomes--still used in universities and the Foreign Service Institute--in which they depicted the Islamic Revolution as the natural outgrowth of Iran's political evolution. Generations of students have accepted their assumptions. They were wrong. The Islamic Republic is a historical anomaly, not a stable state. At a closed 2002 meeting, State Department officials discussed polling that showed that almost two-thirds of Iranians had lost faith in their system of government and sought "fundamental change." (Richard Haass, the State Department's policy-planning director at the time, shelved the results; they undercut his desire to engage.) If two-thirds of Iranians chafed at the Islamic Republic then, we can be sure the number is far higher today, with Iran's economy tanking and political discord skyrocketing. Countries are ripe for wholesale change when citizens lose their fear and when time spent in prison becomes a badge of honor rather than a source of shame.

Washington should not remain on the sidelines. Critics may disparage Bush's "Axis of Evil" rhetoric, but the fact remains that the willingness of Iranians to take to the streets is proportional to the willingness of the White House to speak out. Today Iranians chant "Death to Russia," condemning Moscow for its support of their government, and beseech Obama's support in chants such as "Obama, you're either with us or against us." Iranian intellectuals have pointed out rightly that Iranian youth hold signs in English during their protests because they want to appeal to Americans, not because they are proud of their language proficiency. The stakes are as high for Iranians as they are for U.S. national security.

Regime change is the only strategy, short of military strikes, that will deny Iran a nuclear bomb, and it is the only strategy that can end altogether the threat of a nuclear program under the control of radicals in the employ of the Islamic Republic. Military strikes would be effective in the short term, but would come at a tremendous cost in terms of blood, treasure, and blowback. Regime change, in contrast, would have few negatives and, if conducted simultaneously with a campaign to isolate and fracture the Revolutionary Guards, could end with Iran taking its place among nations as a moderate, productive republic, immunized against the virus of Islamist populism, at peace with itself and its neighbors.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Footnotes

  1. For its part, the U.S. Congress should avoid any call to legitimize the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO). While expert at telling officials what they want to hear about intelligence, democracy, and the future of Iran, the group is beyond salvaging in the eyes of the Iranian citizenry. Iranians do not forgive the group's embrace of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and see the MKO similarly to how Americans view John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. While the MKO brags about its intelligence coups, most famously the 2002 revelations of Iran's covert enrichment program, its members are more often wrong than right, and when right, they are frequently passing information provided them by foreign intelligence services that want plausible deniability rather than generating intelligence themselves.

  2. The ironies are not limited to Foggy Bottom. Puneet Talwar, as a staffer working for then Senator Joseph Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Bush administration, sought to stop efforts to monitor the frequency of Voice of America stories sympathetic to the Islamic Republic. He is now a senior Middle East hand on Obama's National Security Council.

  3. While Iranian groups lobby on humanitarian grounds for the Obama administration to waive sanctions on airplane parts, citing the frequent domestic Iranian air crashes, the White House should refuse, especially since the Iranian government cannibalizes civilian planes to outfit military aircraft. Tehran is eight hours by bus from both Tabriz and Isfahan, but just an hour's flight. Iranians, not surprisingly, prefer to take the heavily subsidized one-hour flight. But flying is not a right; it is a luxury.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/mtrommer

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