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Clinton Denies Calling for Regime Change in Iran

Secretary of State Clinton is denying what she obviously called for on September 19: regime change in Iran. Her spokesman rejects that this is what she meant, but read her words:

And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state.

That means replacing those in power — in other words, regime change.

She even went so far as to warn the regime of a popular uprising:

When you empower a military as much as they have to rely on them to put down legitimate protests and demonstrations, you create a momentum and unleash forces that you do not know where they will end up.

Clinton was clearly offering moral support for an internally driven regime change, or at least challenges from figures within the regime to restrain Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and their ilk. She stopped a few steps short of actually endorsing the democratic opposition, as the Obama administration still sticks to the flawed but conventional view that doing so de-legitimizes them. “But we also knew that the worst thing for those protesting was for them to be seen as stooges of the United States,” she said. A spokesperson for the Green Movement has asked for more direct moral support and the regime has consistently labeled its opponents as U.S. and Israeli agents without making a dime’s worth of difference, but these facts have yet to shake away this misguided view.

Administration officials are simultaneously warning that the regime is becoming a “military dictatorship,” in what can only be a calculated decision to label it as such. Clinton’s remarks follow her other recent statement that although she has “grave disagreements” with Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution,

the early advocates of it said this would be a republic. It would be an Islamic republic, but it would be a republic. Then we saw a very flawed election and we’ve seen the elected officials turn for their military to enforce power.

Here, Clinton acted upon another calculated decision to criticize the regime as violating the principles of the original Islamic Revolution in order to promote a fissure between the regime and its more conservative opponents who haven’t repudiated the original revolution or openly called for regime change.

The tone of the Obama administration on this issue is different from when it first came into office. President Obama’s first Persian New Year greeting respectfully referred to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” and was conciliatory, without any challenge being made on behalf of the people. The second one devoted four paragraphs to outlining the regime’s abuses and the commonalities between the values of the U.S. and the Iranians fighting for their freedom.

This change reflects the triumph of Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden in the summer of 2009, assisted by pressure from the Republicans. The two pressured President Obama to stop being silent as the Green Revolution grew. President Obama did not hold a single high-level conference call or meeting to discuss a response to the protests as they reached their height. He belatedly responded with a strong statement referencing the videotaped death of Neda Soltan, and Clinton claimed that “behind the scenes, we were doing a lot” to help the protestors. Now, advocates of supporting the opposition appear to have won the debate, with the remaining argument focusing on the limits of that support.

Following Ahmadinejad’s ridiculous accusations of 9/11 being an inside job, President Obama was quick to add that “it stands in contrast with the response of the Iranian people when 9/11 happened, when there were candlelight vigils.” He then went to BBC’s Persian service to directly address the people, saying that when they face their hardships because of international sanctions, “they have to look at the management of their government, both in terms of the economic management but also in terms of them deciding that it’s a higher priority to pursue a covert nuclear program than it is to make sure that their people have opportunity.” An administration official said they will  deliver his interview to the Iranian people through the Internet.

More and more, we’re seeing administration officials readily addressing the concerns of the Iranian people without being prodded. President Obama appears to have finally understood that the internal opposition is the most painful pressure point to press on the regime. The administration appears to be gently egging on regime change in its own restricted way, as that would rid them of a major headache, but that is not the objective of the policy. The administration is still not ready to ditch its goal of making the regime cave to a negotiated settlement, but rather sees limited support for the people as a means to that end.

This is encouraging but it definitely doesn’t go far enough. There isn’t a consistent campaign to make political prisoners famous, or to materially aid the opposition with the non-violent materials they need, or to establish a strike fund, or any other substantive moves, but it’s far better than the U.S. stance last year. And unlike the 2008 presidential campaign, this time around Obama may be forced by his aspiring Republican opponents to clearly declare whose side he is on (as the Iranian protestors have asked him to do) and embrace or reject a policy comprehensively supporting the opposition.

Long-shot potential Republican presidential candidate John Bolton addressed a rally of Iranians in New York City protesting Ahmadinejad on September 23. He and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called on the Obama administration to remove the Mujahideen-e-Khalq from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

The debate over the MEK’s legitimacy and viability as an Iranian opposition group has divided proponents of regime change (I wrote an article laying out each side’s arguments here), but putting that debate aside, the probability is growing that whoever the Republican candidate is will make supporting the opposition the centerpiece of his Iran policy. Newt Gingrich has bluntly called for a policy of regime change, as has Rick Santorum, both likely presidential candidates.

The debate has moved from whether to support the Iranian opposition to what’s the best way of doing so. And that debate sends chills up the spines of the regime.

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