January 12, 2010
Iran and Its RevolutionsBy K.M.Mehrdad, PhD
In the past weeks, the most sacred symbols of Iran's '79 Revolution -- namely its flag and its founding father, Ayatollah Khomeini -- have come under direct attack. Given that the regime views these acts as warranting death, the demonstrators' ultimate goal can be no less than a regime change.
Since 1979, Iran has endured a brutal theocracy, renowned for corruption, abuse of women and minorities, and second only to China in the number of people it executes. Despite record-high oil revenues, the theocracy has devastated the economy. Iran suffers from severe stagflation, a brain-drain, and under-producing industries. Consequently, a young person's only hope is to escape Iran at the first opportunity, despite lacking savings or a passport (to which few countries issue visas) and carrying currency worth less than one percent of its value in 1979.
As a way out of its desperation, traditional Iranian society now faces some of the world's highest rates of drug abuse and prostitution. Yet the country's resources go to enrich the clerical state, its revolutionary guards, and its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, among others. To add insult to injury, the regime denigrates Iranians' sense of pride in their ancient history by systematically attacking the country's pre-Islamic culture and symbols of nationalism in order to impose its own religious identity.
After decades of enduring this physical and psychological assault, people have poured into the streets to show Iran's true face to the world: non-extremist, tending towards secular government, westward-leaning, focused internally rather than on the conflicts plaguing the Middle East, and longing to rejoin the community of nations.
However, short of a miracle, the Iranians' costly struggle for democracy is not likely to bear fruit. In 1979, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, a feeble monarch who detested confrontation, led Iran. The Shah was besieged by Ayatollah Khomeini -- an implacable, charismatic religious leader who had successfully brought disparate opposition groups under one umbrella. A large number of Iranians studying abroad actively supported Khomeini. Moreover, through his "human rights" policy, President Jimmy Carter had pressured and demoralized the Shah into further passivity, until the Shah finally fled Iran instead of defending his regime.
Indeed, months before the Shah's departure, Washington was in touch with the opposition to facilitate the impending transfer of power. In the end, the demonstrations against the Shah were highly organized and well-directed. Many demonstrators, who missed work or had gone on strike to back the Ayatollah, were financially compensated by Khomeini and his bazaari supporters.
Today, the demonstrators go it alone, and they have no means of defending themselves against the regime's armed thugs. Moussavi, the movement's nominal leader, confirms the clerical establishment rather than denouncing it.
Little support for those who oppose the current government comes from Iranian expatriates, particularly those in academia and related fields. This is because a majority of these expatriates once agitated against the Shah. They find it convenient to indirectly support the current regime rather than call for its ouster (and be reminded of how their own zeal helped put the present regime into power in the first place). Through ties with other academics, these groups work hard to preserve Iran's clerical theocracy.
No support is forthcoming from Washington, either. Not only is tangible aid denied, but U.S.-based human rights groups focusing on Iran are having their funds cut by an administration anxious to placate the regime. Finally, unlike in 1979, the demonstrators face a state that will resort to maximum force to maintain power. The current regime in Iran enjoys strong backing from Russia and China. Unless this status quo is altered, there is little room for optimism.
Yet the situation may not be hopeless. By opening a channel of communication to the demonstrators and providing them moral and material support, the movement may be able to sustain itself, allow for leadership to emerge, and become organized.
Suggesting that any foreign support for the demonstrators will be used as an excuse to discredit and further brutalize the citizens of Iran is an excuse for inaction. In spite of the fact that there has been very little foreign assistance to the demonstrators in Iran, the entire uprising is still being blamed on the West.
Irrespective of international pressure, the Iranian regime will do what it must to preserve itself; the excuses it uses in the process are immaterial.
But with our help, millions of Iranian citizens could rise in protest. Discrediting them would not be easy, at least not for such a regime as this. On the contrary, demonstrations will grow in size when the silent majority becomes convinced that outside support is genuine and will not be withdrawn due to some backdoor agreement with Tehran.
Putting into effect a well-planned and well-executed policy of tightening the economic screws on the regime and preventing it from exporting oil should be the next steps. Simultaneously, there must be a willingness to strongly consider any plan, short of landing troops, which will eliminate the regime's largest and most active nuclear sites. Adopting policies that fall short of these steps is unlikely to exert serious and effective pressure on the regime, much less undermine it.
The fact that the regular army has not yet been deployed against the demonstrators indicates that the Iranian leadership fears that the army might side with the opposition.
Should the beleaguered regime consent to a U.S.-brokered compromise on nuclear issues, its only aim would be to buy time and reconsolidate power. To believe otherwise is extremely naïve. The Islamic Republic views the possession of nuclear weapons as the sole guarantor for its survival and ability to expand regional influence. Under no circumstances will it give up its quest to obtain a nuclear arsenal. It is about time we understood this.
President Obama faces a unique opportunity, where the forces favoring regime change are in alignment. These include a sizable majority of Iranians, as well as the Persian Gulf states and America's Western allies. A regime change in Iran would not only resolve the current nuclear impasse, but it would also deal a blow to extremism worldwide by recasting Iran as a reasonable actor. Unless Iranians are given a chance to select their regime through a legally monitored national referendum, the Middle East will remain in turmoil. Only those supporting the regime would lose from a referendum.
If the world continues to ignore the aspirations for freedom of the people of Iran, there will be grave consequences: the rise of a nuclear Islamic Republic that is more radicalized, repressive, and emboldened by a sense of impunity. A nuclear Iran would likely form an even closer alliance with Moscow, allowing the latter a base in the Gulf of Oman or the Persian Gulf.
Having lost the trust of its own people, Iran will move to compensate for that loss through policies that appeal to the disillusioned and more radical elements in the region. Even greater human rights abuses in Iran, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and continuation of the regime's disruptive presence in Latin America could be some of the side effects.
Resorting to the routine invocation of the specter of neo-con philosophy to prevent any foreign policy action that goes beyond continuous talking will only hasten the advent of an equally (if not more) problematic neo-lib viewpoint. Iraq taught us what not to do; it did not teach us not to do anything. Modern history is replete with examples of great efforts to protect people and nations from inhuman regimes, and accomplishing such goals is never without cost.
In the wake of the Iraq war, however, as in the post-Vietnam era, a sentiment seems to have permeated the establishment and most opinion-makers that contributes to an apparent decision-making paralysis towards exigent foreign policy concerns. This situation is exacerbated by inflated hypothetical writings that constantly trumpet the Islamic Republic's military prowess, while projecting an apocalyptic image of what will happen if any hard action is taken against it. Likewise, regime sympathizers try frightening the U.S. by evoking the bizarre conceit that a worse entity could replace this one.
Those who fear the retaliatory actions of the Islamic Republic, such as its indiscriminately attacking foreign targets, will do well to remember that delaying the inevitable only results in greater costs and losses. More infamous now than ever, the regime is in internal dispute, economically weak, and under siege. The likely outcome of such a backlash would be to further delegitimize it, precipitate even greater unity among its external opponents, erode its internal controls over the nation, and accelerate its collapse. The stakes are too high too allow for inaction, and the opportunities too unique.
Adhering to one-sided and defeatist viewpoints while betting the house on a promissory signature that Tehran will halt uranium enrichment will be a parody of real policy with irreparable consequences.
K. M. Mehrdad, Ph.D. is an academic and author of an upcoming book on policy formulation and execution in Iran.