OpinionMiddle East

Encouraging the next Iranian revolution

The West should seek to discredit and undermine the Islamic Republic in order to hasten its replacement by a new political order designed and elected by the Iranian people.

Iranian protesters on Keshavrz Boulevard in Tehran on Sept. 20, 2022. Credit: Darafsh via Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian protesters on Keshavrz Boulevard in Tehran on Sept. 20, 2022. Credit: Darafsh via Wikimedia Commons.
David H. Rundell. Credit: Courtesy,
David H. Rundell
David H. Rundell is a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads (2020).
Michael Gfoeller. Credit: Courtesy.
Michael Gfoeller
Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political advisor to the US Central Command and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

As Samuel Johnson noted, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Iran’s nuclear ambitions should have concentrated our minds some time ago. Tehran’s first ever direct attack on Israel makes that imperative even more obvious. Clearly, the United States should rethink its approach to the ayatollahs and come up with a policy that better protects its interests and those of its allies.

For over 40 years the ayatollahs have pursued a clear and consistent set of objectives. They hope to expand Iran’s regional influence, drive the United States out of the Middle East and destroy Israel. The West, on the other hand, has adopted a strikingly inconsistent approach. At various times, the United States has both delivered planeloads of cash to the mullahs and imposed harsh economic sanctions upon them. The Europeans have been reluctant to do anything that might jeopardize their commercial interests in Tehran. There is little point debating the past. The United States must now consider our options: military action, diplomacy or indirect action.

Launching yet another Middle East war is not a good option. The American people have no appetite for invading Iran. Airstrikes on Yemen’s Houthis have shown that short, sharp blows have little deterrent effect. Even a truly massive blow is unlikely to change the policy of an Iranian regime that endured eight devastating years of war with Iraq.

Moreover, the Iranians are not the Houthis. They can bite back. If attacked in a significant way, Iran would almost certainly seek to close the Strait of Hormuz to global shipping. It could unleash Lebanese Hezbollah against Israel or spark a global recession by destroying the oil-producing assets of our Gulf allies. Iranian strikes against American bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates could create a truly regional conflict. The ayatollahs might also destroy the water desalination plants upon which many Arabian Gulf cities depend for survival.

Iran is also one of China’s principal oil suppliers and Russia’s partner in both the OPEC Plus cartel and the war in Ukraine. The reactions of Moscow and Beijing to an attack on Iran remain unpredictable. Perhaps the worst outcome of direct military action against Iran would be its immediate effect of uniting the Iranian people behind a government many of them no longer support.

What about diplomacy? Unfortunately, the aging theocrats and security technocrats who govern Iran are not driven by traditional national interests. For many years the International Atomic Energy Agency has tried without success to verify Iran’s compliance with nuclear safeguard agreements. This agency’s efforts at negotiation failed because Iran’s leaders are motivated by the dynamics of regime survival, radical religious ideology and an increasingly militant strain of Iranian nationalism. Negotiation and compromise with such individuals is no more likely to change their behavior than would a bombing campaign.

We must recognize that Iran remains a revolutionary power determined to disrupt the status quo. Using Shi’ite Islam and proxy armies it seeks to fundamentally alter the security architecture of the Middle East. Conciliatory gestures will not pacify a regime that has made hostility towards the United States its hallmark since 1979. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign legion is named the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, which makes its intended destination rather obvious. In the wake of Iran’s attack on Israel the focus must be on getting rid of the ayatollahs, not appeasing them.

With war and diplomacy off the table, indirect action remains the West’s best available option for reshaping Iran’s foreign policy. Fortunately, the political, economic and social pressures bearing down on the Islamic Republic have made this option increasingly feasible. Serious anti-regime protests have already broken out in 2009, 2017, 2019 and 2022.

The firebrand clerics who led Iran’s 1979 revolution are now old men and a succession struggle is well underway. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is 87. His effort to sideline Ayatollah Khomeini’s son Hassan and advance his own son Mojtaba has caused resentment and division among the clerical and security bureaucracies. Elite cohesion is eroding.

While Iran’s powerful military-security elite remains largely united and well organized, its clerics are not. Thus the current theocracy is likely to be replaced not by a new generation of authoritarian ayatollahs, but by a nationalistic police state founded more on repression than religion. Such a regime is unlikely to assuage the economic and social grievances of a young and increasingly restless population.

Many Iranians already resent their government’s economic mismanagement and social restrictions. An underground opinion poll conducted inside Iran by the Dutch Gamaan Institute in February 2023 found that 81% of the population opposed Iran’s current regime. This opposition was found not only among the ethnic and religious minorities which comprise nearly half of the population, but even among some of the revolution’s most prominent initial backers such as students and bazaar merchants. Such widespread discontent can be encouraged to bring about positive change.

The Iranian economy is fragile and could be made more so. Inflation and unemployment levels remain high. The value of the riyal continues to fall. Protests over deteriorating economic conditions have become common. Yet instead of vigorously seeking to limit the regime’s oil revenue, the West has allowed Iran’s oil exports to nearly double over the past three years. In recent months, both the United States and the European Union have finally enacted new economic sanctions against Iran, but it remains to be seen how aggressively they will be enforced.

Most Iranians are fed up with decades of endemic corruption and authoritarian rule. It makes sense for the West to align with those already trying to bring about democratic change.

In practical terms this means supporting the human rights, worker rights, women’s rights and religious freedom movements now active across Iran. The United States and its allies should reach out to underground trade unions, university students and opposition activists, speak out boldly about human rights violations in Iran and call for the release of all political prisoners. The United States and its allies should support greater freedom for religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims, Baha’is and Zoroastrians who have been systematically persecuted by the Islamic revolutionary government. The United States and its allies should also publicly support greater political and cultural autonomy for Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis and Arabs who have long resented Persian dominance.

The ayatollahs face foreign as well as domestic vulnerabilities, and these too should be exploited. Bear in mind that any victory for Hamas, Hezbollah or the Houthis is a victory for Iran. Without these militias, much of Tehran’s regional influence would collapse. Our pin-prick responses to direct attacks by Iranian proxies in Yemen and Syria have been weak and achieved little. They need to be more robust. Likewise, our current economic policies towards Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza actually support Iran’s allies rather than weaken them. These policies should be revisited. In some cases it may be necessary to replace financial aid with economic sanctions. In short, it must be made clear in every way possible that serving Iran as a proxy comes at a high cost.

Iran has some very hostile neighbors who oppose its imperial ambitions in Southwest Asia. Pakistan and Iran have actually traded blows in recent months. Afghanistan is now ruled by the vehemently anti-Shi’ite Taliban. The Afghan-based Islamic State of Khorasan has claimed credit for terrorist attacks inside Iran. Even in Iraq, there is opposition to excessive Iranian political influence and activities of Iranian-backed militias. Simply allowing these tensions to grow will complicate Tehran’s diplomacy and strain its military resources.

The West has no quarrel with the people of Iran, whose long history and rich culture command respect. The West should encourage the next Iranian revolution not with an invasion but rather through increased economic pressure on Iran, political, economic and military pressure on Iranian proxies, efforts to isolate Iran internationally and support for organic political change from within the country. This will require a coordinated Western campaign of overt and covert political and economic measures.

The West should seek to discredit and undermine the Islamic Republic in order to hasten its replacement by a new political order designed and elected by the Iranian people.

Originally published by The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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