All of a sudden, it’s OK to talk seriously about regime change in Iran and even elsewhere. It had been a taboo subject since the final years of the G.W. Bush administration, aside from yours truly, a few friends such as Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan, and the Washington Post editors, who remarked in 2011 that “only regime change will stop the Iranian nuclear program.” The latest elected official to join the party is newly elected Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas:
“The goal of our policy must be – regime change in Iran,” Cotton said. “We cannot and will not be safe as long as Islamist despots rule in Iran.
“The policy of the United States should therefore be to support regime opponents and promote a constitutional government at peace with the United States, Israel and the world,” he added.
He’s got it just right: promote regime change in Tehran by supporting the vast political army of Iranian citizens who hate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, including President Hasan Rouhani and other recent idols of the deep-thinking set.
Those of us who worked with anti-Soviet dissidents throughout the Empire know that non-violent regime change can be achieved. When Reagan moved into the White House, hardly anyone believed such a thing was possible. Indeed, lots of politically active men and women–in undoubted good faith–implored us not to “put Gorbachev’s back against a wall” and to “work with him” to achieve detente. Even today, there is passionate unwillingness to credit Reagan’s policies with the fall of the Empire, even though the winners on the ground, from Lech Walesa and Havel to Natan Sharansky and Vladimir Bukovsky, all testified to the electrifying effect Reagan’s words and actions had on regimes and dissidents alike.
It was not all that difficult, and certainly not prohibitively expensive. It didn’t require military action (although the relentless growth of US military power was indubitably important in deterring any Soviet action). It didn’t involve a vast bureaucracy (I would guess that there were maybe 20-30 high-ranking officials involved, including those very important people at the radios). Plus those great foreign leaders, like Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.
The main requirement was the will to bring down that wall. Once the world saw that, it was really no contest.
I think that sort of non-violent regime change is possible in Iran — and elsewhere — today. It’s quite amazing how rapidly the world can be changed for the better once the United States begins to move. Indeed, we’ve seen that in reverse with this president, haven’t we? It works both ways. And the chances for successful regime change in Iran are considerably better than they were in Gorbachev’s Soviet Empire in the ’80s. The percentage of Iranian citizens ready to demonstrate their opposition to Khamenei et. al. is much higher than Soviet citizens back when, and the Iranian regime is considerably weaker. The Soviet Union was a superpower, Iran isn’t. The USSR had nukes and a big army. Not so the Islamic Republic.
Nor is Iran the only candidate for regime change. Venezuela is fully ripe, as the Chavez/Maduro failure becomes more evident and more dramatic every day. We have actually taken a few steps to demonstrate our unhappiness with the Caracas tyranny (as we have with Iran), but the crucial ingredient is lacking: the explicit, forceful and repeated denunciation of Maduro and his henchmen by the American president, secretary of state, and other top officials.
It is discouraging to see that many American pundits and politicos who favor regime change act as if military action is required for success. Senator McCain is particularly egregious on this front, but even those who call for stronger sanctions (which I favor, not because I think economic misery wrecks the regimes–they wreck themselves–but because tough sanctions send a powerful political message to the Iranian and/or Venezuelan people, who are the lethal weapon in this war) often ignore the crucial political dimension.
If misery brought down failed oppressive regimes, then North Korea would be a free country today.
You will say that the Obama administration isn’t going to start denouncing the Iranian or Venezuelan regime, and supporting their domestic opposition. I agree, but hasten to add that life is full of surprises. None of us expected Jimmy Carter to order a massive rebuilding of US military power, which undergirded Reagan’s policies. You never know. In the Obama case, we don’t need a big defense spending increase; all we need is the will to win.
Even if Obama is a lost cause, a lot can be done by an aroused Washington opposition, backed by an aroused citizenry. Not only will this put maximum pressure on the president and his team, it will make it more likely that his successor will be fully committed to the winning strategy…whether or not Iran goes nuclear in the meantime, as Gorbachev’s fall from power amply demonstrates.
Just listen to Senator Cotton, who has fought our enemies on the battlefields of the Middle East, and understands both the urgency of taking the fight to Tehran and the best way to do it.