The White House and Congress are trying to legislate policy on Iran. It’s a good idea, since, unless you think press releases and speeches constitute policy, we don’t have one at this potentially world-changing moment. Nor will legislation regarding the JCPOA (aka the Iran Nuclear Deal) give us the sort of policy we need. We need action now, not a law about what we can or cannot do some years from now.
The debate over renewal of sanctions is paradoxically important, but irrelevant to this revolutionary moment. Sanctions are excellent but they are slow — their impact takes time to take effect. Iran’s regime is both challenged in the streets and torn apart by internal strife (see my many essays on “the war of the Persian succession”).
The policy we need, fiercely and fast, is to support the Iranian revolutionaries. There are several ways to do it and we should do them all. They are said to be starving, so airlift food to them. It would be delightfully appropriate to seize some of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s stolen loot, buy food with it, and then deliver it to the revolutionaries via drone or parachute.
Whenever the insurrectionaries are asked what they need, they invariably tell you “communications,” which means they need a way to sabotage the regime’s stranglehold on digital networks. Developing such capacity will not only further regime change in Iran today, it will help us deal with China and Russia as well. It also helps our words of support reach a wider audience inside the country at the same time that it demonstrates our ability to support free speech within the repressive Islamic Republic.
The best way to reach the Iranian people is via our broadcasting networks, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This was an extraordinarily effective instrument in bringing down the failed Soviet system in the Cold War. But over the years, these invaluable tools to expose the failures and evils of dictatorships, and get the dissidents the facts about the situation on the ground throughout the country, have fallen into the wrong hands, and we now need a thorough restaffing. Voice of America’s Farsi service is as often as not anti-American and apologizes for the cruel Khamenei regime. We need more of the sort that so irritated Gorbachev. But there is no sign that such an important move is in the works.
In addition, we must establish a conversation with the revolutionaries. That means that Americans have to meet face to face with Iranian dissidents, just as Americans met with Soviet, Polish and other satellite dissidents in the eighties. A note of caution: we should not send CIA personnel. Many key opposition leaders do not trust the agency, which has a poor track record on Iran. It has rarely foreseen explosive political developments (eg. 2009) and invariably declares that uprisings there are leaderless. They were wrong in 2009, and if I read the American press correctly, they are saying the same wrong thing today. Military intelligence is better, even if Secretary Mattis, like National Security Advisor McMaster and Secretary of State Tillerson, has proven disappointingly risk-averse, timorous even, when it comes to directly challenging the regime and vigorously supporting the freedom fighters.
Back in the Bush days—the W days—I once recommended sending a military officer with lots of medals to talk to the Green leaders. But so far as I know, there has been no communication with the dissidents since the phony 2009 elections.
We need regime change and we need it now. That’s what the president should focus on. And then fight for.