Faster, Please!

How Regime Change Works and Why We Should Pursue It in Iran

There’s a profound disgruntlement in the Force over the impending Iran deal, ranging from the Israelis to the Saudis, and from the French to the Gulfies.  It isn’t just words, apparently — there are rumors suggesting that some of the disgruntled Arabs are arranging to get their own nukes, just as Netanyahu foresaw (or perhaps even knew), and as Kissinger warned (and perhaps knew).

The powers-that-be have bought into the false option of either making a deal or going to a war footing. It was once known as the Sarkozy Option:  Iran with the bomb, or bomb Iran.

It need not be, and everybody knows it.  Deep in the subtexts, and every now and then in public, we hear about the White House’s not-so-secret dream that the Iranian regime will either moderate or fall.  It’s worth recalling that Gorbachev managed both.  First he reformed, via glasnost and perestroika, and then he fell.  There was never a fatal choice between a deal and war.

Indeed, regime change is a constant leitmotif of the world today, having reshaped Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, threatened Syria and Venezuela, aimed at Jordan, and raged across Africa.  Just this past weekend the Wall Street Journal ran a long analysis proclaiming the impending fall of the Chinese Communist state.

Regime change doesn’t just happen, even if we are invariably surprised when a regime falls.  We — including the gurus in the intelligence community — imagine that regimes are stable, despite Machiavelli’s categorical statement that tyranny is the most unstable form of government.  Nor has regime change been driven primarily by economic misery.  The most distressed oppressed societies, such as Cuba or North Korea, aren’t threatened by masses of desperate citizens.  The Soviet Union failed nonstop from Lenin to Gorbachev, but only imploded when the United States actively supported the internal opposition.

At the time of Gorbachev’s defeat, most policy makers believed a version of the Sarkozy option;  hardly anyone took seriously the possibility that such a tyrannical regime could be brought down without massive violence.  Only leaders like Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher could imagine the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  No bombs, no marching armies, just the end of the regime.

In all likelihood, a similar implosion was pending for Iran after the phony presidential elections in the summer of 2009.  But there was a decisive difference:  whereas Reagan and his allies supported the tyrant’s enemies, Obama, dreaming of a grand bargain even before entering the White House, supported the tyrant.  Khamenei’s opponents did not believe they could defeat both the regime and the United States, and the Islamic Republic survived.  On the other hand, in countries where the Obama administration supported regime change — think Tunisia and Egypt — it succeeded.

This suggests that external support, and above all American support, greatly empowers internal opponents and can be decisive if the regime is ready to go.  It turned out that the Soviet Empire was hollow, and thudded onto history’s rubbish heap with very few fireworks.

Is Iran also a hollow regime?  There’s no way to quantify this, and social scientists aren’t much help in answering it.  One needs a good nose to sniff it out.  But one key indicator is counter-intuitive:  vicious crackdowns on the people are a sign of weakness, not strength.  As David Shambaugh, writing about the recently intensified political repression in China, noted:  “A more secure and confident government would not institute such a severe crackdown. It is a symptom of the party leadership’s deep anxiety and insecurity.”  One might say the same about President Rouhani, under whose guidance the tempo of executions, torture and incarceration has dramatically increased.

To be sure, nearly six years have passed since the monster demonstrations that filled the country’s squares and avenues.  Are the Iranian people still of a mind to throw themselves at the throats of Khamenei and Rouhani?  Would American support for regime change be an effective catalyst today, or have they given up on America, at least for the moment?

We don’t know, but Rouhani and Khamenei think they know.  They think they are threatened by their people, and they undoubtedly have better insight into the Iranian political and social cauldron than we do.  The hollowness of the regime is also demonstrated by their fear of bringing formal charges against the leaders of the opposition Green Movement (let alone kill them), who remain popular despite their near-total isolation under house arrest.

All of which supports the case for supporting regime change in Iran.  And there is yet another reason for optimism:  the Soviet Union was challenged by a very small percentage of the Soviet people, whereas there is good reason to believe an overwhelming majority of Iranians loathe the regime.  If we openly supported their cause, they might well pull it off.

It’s a good moment to add this powerful political weapon to our arsenal.  Khamenei is suffering, and good Iranian sources tell me he requires dialysis for kidney crisis, as well as treatment for a failing liver.  This is on top of his generally acknowledged cancer.  There are several would-be successors, from Rouhani to the fanatical cleric Mesbah Yazdi, and even to General Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.  You may have noticed he’s been running a massive PR campaign that befits a strong man.

To call for a democratic consultation of the Iranian people under these circumstances—from a referendum on the theocratic tyranny to the free election of national leaders — could well transform the internal Iranian dynamic.  One thing’s for sure:  it sure beats our current policy of embracing a dying tyrant and turning the Middle East and other sensitive regions over to the Islamic Republic.  The one that constantly intones “death to America.”