A new strategy is needed to effectuate regime change in Iran. Experience and history discredit the longstanding mix of escalating economic sanctions combined with $75 million publicly appropriated by Congress for regime change proponents.
Success is plausible through one of two means: Either hope for an internal rupture fueled by economic hardship; or, encourage an indigenous revolt with a covert promise of military support. Skeptics of regime change in Iran based on the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are wrong. In contrast to the latter, Iran’s history, culture, and constitutional experience provide fertile soil for a regime change in 2007.
Economic sanctions in the oil and gas industry or otherwise for more than a decade have done nothing to dislodge Iran’s extremist mullahs or moderate their belligerence. They never will. China and Russia will never cooperate. The two are eager to supply Iran with all manner of goods and services irrespective of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, grisly human rights record, support for terrorism via Hezbollah or Hamas, or aggravating Iraq’s sectarian convulsions. Indeed, China and Russia benefit from Iran’s confrontations with the United States.
The publicly appropriated $75 million for regime change proponents is counterproductive. Remember the background. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the most popular leader in Iran’s modern history. Mossadeq was replaced by the much despised Shah Reza Pahlavi. The 1953 overthrow is etched in the memories of Iranians every bit as much as the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor is remembered by Americans.
So any person or group in the Iranian Diaspora or otherwise who openly receives or is suspected of receiving U.S. financial backing are propaganda fodder for the mullahs. Indeed, at present, three Iranian Americans are ridiculously charged with conspiring to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Publicizing the $75 million has unwittingly worked to silence criticism of the mullahs among the Diaspora. Most have many relatives in Iran whom the mullahs would abuse in retaliation for speaking in favor of regime change. The $75 million should have been appropriated in a secret classified annex.
Economic sanctions and overt regime change funding are inherently flawed. But complacency with a flawed strategy is a luxury the United States cannot afford. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are racing forward, and are spurring Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other traditional adversaries of Iran to follow suit.
Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is promoting upheaval in the Middle East and discouraging a peace settlement. Finally, the U.S. quagmire in Iraq is exacerbated by Iran’s supply of weapons to Shi’ites and manipulation of Iraq’s sectarian politics. Regime change in Iran will not come by a velvet revolution in the manner of Czechoslovakia or Ukraine.
One strategy might be styled masterly inactivity. The regime of the mullahs could implode spontaneously. A crack has been accentuated between the extremist supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the one hand, and more moderate former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani on the other hand.
The extremists have initiated a semi-messianic reign of terror against political dissent and moral laxness. Former President Khatami, for example, has been assailed for shaking hands and chatting with an unfamiliar woman. And Iran’s police chief has boasted of detaining more than 150,000 in the annual spring sweep against un-Islamic clothing.
The moderates could seek to rally popular support to topple the extremists by assigning them blame for Iran’s wretched economy: High unemployment, galloping inflation,vanishing foreign investment and gasoline shortages that already have sparked protests.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year, followed by a presidential contest in 2009. But even if the so-called “moderates” dislodged the extremist mullahs, it would be problematic whether they would dismantle Iran’s nuclear program and renounce terrorism and meddling in Iraq.
An alternate strategy pivots on the known popular but cowed revulsion among Iranians of all the mullahs — extremist and moderates alike. The mullahs, however, enjoy apparent fanatical support from an estimated 1 million highly trained and equipped revolutionary guards and their private supporters. They have been employed in the past to brutalize the regime’s opponents, especially students who instinctively resist totalitarian straitjackets.
The Iranian people are unlikely to risk massacres by the revolutionary guards in launching a democratic revolution absent assurances of outside military support if needed. Accordingly, the United States should pledge to respond positively to any military requests made by Iranians in revolt against the mullahs, but forswear any pre-emptive action.
Skeptics errantly insist Iran is no more suited for a democratic revolution than was Iraq or Afghanistan. Iran’s political culture from Cyrus the Great to Prime Minister Mossadeq was more secular than theological. Iran’s 1906 Constitution flourished until 1949, and sported respectable democratic credentials. It was then impaired by the shah through an amendment empowering the monarch to dissolve parliament and to discharge the prime minister. As with the shah’s monarchy, the current dictatorship of the mullahs is an aberration from Iran’s historical march towards secular democracy.
The pivotal questions the United States must confront in refashioning its policy toward Iran are as follows: Is regime change there worth the price of supporting Iran’s would-be indigenous rebels? Is it worth risking American casualties? How threatening to the United States would be a nuclear-armed Iran dominated by extremist mullahs and enthusiastically promoting international terrorism and fomenting strife in Iraq? These questions are yet to be confronted as they should be by the president, Congress and the American people.
Mattie Fein is the founder and president of the Institute for Persian Studies in Washington, D.C.