Tehran Takedown: How to Spark an Iranian Revolution
August 2, 2012
The nuclear question is at the center of most countries’ Iran policies. China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all engaged in negotiations to convince Tehran to give up its presumed quest for the bomb. Now, with talks sputtering, Western powers have implemented increasingly tough sanctions, including the European Union’s recent embargo on Iranian oil, in the hope of compelling the regime to reverse course.
Yet history suggests, and even many sanctions advocates agree, that sanctions will not compel Iran’s leaders to scrap their nuclear program. In fact, from Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, hostile countries have rarely changed policy in response to Western embargoes. Some sanctions advocates counter that sanctions did work to get Chile to abandon communism, South Africa to end apartheid, and Libya to give up its nuclear program. But the Chilean and South African governments were not hostile — they were pro-Western, and thus more amenable to the West’s demands. And Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi ended his nuclear pursuit only after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein.
Iran, which is clearly hostile and which watched what just happened to a disarmed Libya, will not back down. Some therefore see sanctions as only a prelude to military action — by Israel, the United States, or both. In other words, current Iran strategy boils down to an eventual choice between appeasement and attack. Neither outcome is attractive. However, if the United States and its allies broadened their perspective and paid attention not merely to Iran’s nuclear program but also to the Islamic Republic’s larger assault on the West, they would see that a third and better option exists: supporting a democratic revolution in Iran.
Obsession with the nuclear question has obscured the fact that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has waged a low-level war on the United States. That war began in earnest in 1983, when, evidence suggests, Iranian-backed operatives bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Such violence continued throughout the 1980s, as Hezbollah, a terrorist organization created by Iran, kidnapped and murdered Americans in Lebanon. In addition to supporting Hezbollah, Iran started funding other terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the last decade, Iranian agents have attacked U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Late last year, the Obama administration revealed that Iranian agents had attempted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States and to blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C.
In short, the nuclear program is not the central issue in Iran policymaking — defending the United States and its allies from Iranian terrorists and their proxies is. To meet that goal, Washington must replace the Islamic Republic’s regime. The theocrats in Tehran call the United States “the great Satan,” and waging war against it is one of the Iranian leadership’s core missions. The Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed that as his goal very soon after the shah was overthrown in 1979. Calls of “Death to America” have been a constant refrain ever since. Regime change cannot be achieved by sanctions and diplomacy alone. And, although war might bring down the regime, it is neither necessary nor desirable. Supporting a domestic revolution is a wiser strategy.
The Iranian regime is not only at war with the United States and its allies; it is also at war with its own people. The regime represses Iranian citizens, restricting their civil liberties and imprisoning, torturing, and killing political opponents. Popular discontent boiled over into open protest after a rigged election in June 2009, as what came to be known as the Green Movement launched an open challenge to the political status quo. The regime brutally suppressed the protests and is keeping the movement’s two leaders, presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with Mr. Mousavi’s wife, under house arrest.
Conventional wisdom describes the Green Movement as a spent force, citing the lack of mass demonstrations over the past year and half. Iranian authorities regularly restrict and censor the Internet and intercept and block cell phone and satellite communications, and they have increased deployments of security forces in cities across the country. In such an atmosphere, skeptics argue, there can be little opposition to speak of, let alone one with the leadership and mass support to challenge the regime.
But this was also the conventional wisdom back in early 2009, and it is as wrong now as it was then. The West was caught unawares by the explosion of popular rage after Mousavi’s election was stolen, and it failed to support the opposition. The regime paid no price for its crackdown.
In fact, despite the government lockdown, dissenters today have continued to strike out against the regime through acts such as the sabotage of oil and natural gas pipelines. The disruption of the natural gas line between Iran and Turkey in late June, which was reported by the state-run Press TV, is only the latest of many such attacks. Last March, opposition activists privately claimed responsibility for attacks on two Revolutionary Guards Corps installations. One was Zarin Dasht, where missile fuel and warheads are manufactured. The other was Natanz, a major uranium enrichment center. The explosion took place deep underground, leading to a shutdown of the entire complex.
Meanwhile, although the Green Movement’s leaders are still under house arrest, they continue to issue statements to their supporters. And according to a recent online government poll, the population is fed up. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they favored giving up the nuclear program in exchange for an end to sanctions. The poll was quickly yanked off the Web site…