How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
A man walks past a banner depicting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (Morteza Nikoubazl/ Courtesy Reuters)
The nuclear question is at the center of most countries' Iran policies. China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all engaged in negotiations to convince Tehran to give up its presumed quest for the bomb. Now, with talks sputtering, Western powers have implemented increasingly tough sanctions, including the European Union's recent embargo on Iranian oil, in the hope of compelling the regime to reverse course.
Yet history suggests, and even many sanctions advocates agree, that sanctions will not compel Iran's leaders to scrap their nuclear program. In fact, from Fidel Castro's Cuba to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, hostile countries have rarely changed policy in response to Western embargoes. Some sanctions advocates counter that sanctions did work to get Chile to abandon communism, South Africa to end apartheid, and Libya to give up its nuclear program. But the Chilean and South African governments were not hostile -- they were pro-Western, and thus more amenable to the West's demands. And Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi ended his nuclear pursuit only after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein.
Iran, which is clearly hostile and which watched what just happened to a disarmed Libya, will not back down. Some therefore see sanctions as only a prelude to military action -- by Israel, the United States, or both. In other words, current Iran strategy boils down to an eventual choice between appeasement and attack. Neither outcome is attractive. However, if the United States and its allies broadened their perspective and paid attention not merely to Iran's nuclear program but also to the Islamic Republic's larger assault on the West, they would see that a third and better option exists: supporting a democratic revolution in Iran.
Obsession with the nuclear question has obscured the fact that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has waged a low-level war on the United States. That war began in earnest in 1983, when, evidence suggests, Iranian-backed operatives bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Such violence continued throughout the 1980s, as Hezbollah, a terrorist organization created by Iran, kidnapped and murdered Americans in Lebanon. In addition to supporting Hezbollah, Iran started funding other terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the last decade, Iranian agents have attacked U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Late last year, the Obama administration revealed that Iranian agents had attempted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States and to blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C.
In short, the nuclear program is not the central issue in Iran policymaking -- defending the United States and its allies from Iranian terrorists and their proxies is. To meet that goal, Washington must replace the Islamic Republic's regime. The theocrats in Tehran call the United States "the great Satan," and waging war against it is one of the Iranian leadership's core missions. The Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed that as his goal very soon after the shah was overthrown in 1979. Calls of "Death to America" have been a constant refrain ever since. Regime change cannot be achieved by sanctions and diplomacy alone. And, although war might bring down the regime, it is neither necessary nor desirable. Supporting a domestic revolution is a wiser strategy.
The Iranian regime is not only at war with the United States and its allies; it is also at war with its own people. The regime represses Iranian citizens, restricting their civil liberties and imprisoning, torturing, and killing political opponents. Popular discontent boiled over into open protest after a rigged election in June 2009, as what came to be known as the Green Movement launched an open challenge to the political status quo. The regime brutally suppressed the protests and is keeping the movement's two leaders, presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with Mr. Mousavi's wife, under house arrest.
Conventional wisdom describes the Green Movement as a spent force, citing the lack of mass demonstrations over the past year and half. Iranian authorities regularly restrict and censor the Internet and intercept and block cell phone and satellite communications, and they have increased deployments of security forces in cities across the country. In such an atmosphere, skeptics argue, there can be little opposition to speak of, let alone one with the leadership and mass support to challenge the regime.
But this was also the conventional wisdom back in early 2009, and it is as wrong now as it was then. The West was caught unawares by the explosion of popular rage after Mousavi's election was stolen, and it failed to support the opposition. The regime paid no price for its crackdown.
In fact, despite the government lockdown, dissenters today have continued to strike out against the regime through acts such as the sabotage of oil and natural gas pipelines. The disruption of the natural gas line between Iran and Turkey in late June, which was reported by the state-run Press TV, is only the latest of many such attacks. Last March, opposition activists privately claimed responsibility for attacks on two Revolutionary Guards Corps installations. One was Zarin Dasht, where missile fuel and warheads are manufactured. The other was Natanz, a major uranium enrichment center. The explosion took place deep underground, leading to a shutdown of the entire complex.
Meanwhile, although the Green Movement's leaders are still under house arrest, they continue to issue statements to their supporters. And according to a recent online government poll, the population is fed up. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they favored giving up the nuclear program in exchange for an end to sanctions. The poll was quickly yanked off the Web site.
For their part, Iranian authorities are worried. In January, Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, admitted that the regime continues to fear the strength of the Green Movement. Regime leaders are at pains to reassure the public that Mousavi and Karroubi are being well treated. If Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wanted to demonstrate the weakness of the opposition, he would have subjected both to the same harsh treatment that has been meted out to many of their followers. But as Saeedi told Fars, the Iranian state news agency, Mousavi and Karroubi have "supporters and followers," as well as "a few [clerics] who continue to back elements within the sedition" -- the term used by the regime to refer to the Green Movement.
The regime's anxiety about the Green Movement also led it to delay all elections in the country for three years. And when it finally held parliamentary elections this past May, it banned scores of candidates from running and deployed thousands of security forces at polling stations to prevent protests. Their fear might also be the reason that Khamenei avoided speaking at the Revolutionary Guards Day festivities in late June, the first time he had done so in over two decades. Similarly, the regime has reduced the number of anti-American protests it stages, perhaps worrying that the reformers would hijack them. When two popular (and apolitical) Iranian artists died this summer -- the actor Iraj Ghaderi and the musician Hassan Kassai -- their funerals were held without fanfare and in the middle of the night. The regime is clearly doing all it can to keep Iranians from gathering in the streets.
By themselves, the strength of the opposition and the regime's fears do not justify Western intervention. After all, several Middle Eastern dictators have fallen of late, only to be replaced by actors more hostile to U.S. interests. And some experts contend that the same could happen in Iran. Mousavi served as prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989 and played a key role in the creation of the Islamic Republic. Many, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have raised the possibility that his accession might not change much. So, before jumping into the fray on behalf of the opposition, the United States and its allies must ask whether the Green Movement would end Iran's support for terrorism against the United States and its allies, stop oppressing its own people, and terminate the country's nuclear weapons program.
Although it is dangerous for opposition leaders to be totally explicit about all such matters, their answers are encouraging. During the 2009 electoral campaign, and on several subsequent occasions, Mousavi promised to end Iranian backing for terrorist organizations -- a promise that resonates with large numbers of Iranian citizens. In February 2011, demonstrators carried banners decrying the regime's support for foreign terrorist groups, with slogans such as "Don't talk to us about the Palestinians, talk about us."
The Green Movement has also pledged to dismantle many oppressive practices of the Islamic Republic. Although the group's leaders claim that they want to restore the values of the 1979 revolution, during the 2009 presidential election, Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, campaigned alongside him and declared her support of women who dispense with wearing the veil. It was a stark act of defiance against a deeply misogynistic regime. Mousavi, meanwhile, has promised tolerance of religious dissenters, the release of all political prisoners, and greater separation of church and state. As the Green leaders wrote to the Obama administration in November 2009, "religion, by the will of the Iranian people of today, has to be separated from the state in order to guarantee unity of Iran."
Even from house arrest, Mousavi has continued to send signals that he would overturn the policies of the current regime. In the past year, he urged Iranians to read two books: News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Right to Heresy, by Stefan Zweig. The first volume, which deals with a wave of kidnappings in Colombia by drug gangs, inspired a popular Iranian Facebook page called "News of a Kidnapping, the status of a president in captivity." The second book addresses a revolt against John Calvin by the sixteenth century cleric Sebastian Castellio, after the torture and execution of the heretic Michael Servetus. It is at once a call for religious toleration and an essay on those thinkers who were crushed during their lifetime, only to emerge triumphant in death. By turning to these texts, Mousavi issued a direct challenge to Khamenei and oriented his movement with Western values.
It is hard to pinpoint the nuclear intentions of the Green Movement's leaders, but there is reason for guarded optimism; they have repeatedly condemned the regime's "adventurism" in foreign affairs, and would certainly seek better relations with the West. As Iranian crude oil production drops, a democratic Iran might opt for nuclear energy, but it seems unlikely that such a government would continue the secret weapons program. And the West, including Israel, would have far less to fear from a free Iran, whatever weapons it might possess, than it does from the current regime.
Given the potential for a successful democratic revolution in Iran -- and the potential for a democratic government to end Iran's war against us -- the question is how the United States and its allies can best support the Green Movement.
Although an Iranian revolution may seem unlikely to the casual observer, the Iranian people can be said to have revolution in their DNA, having carried out three revolutions in the twentieth century. Many skeptics argue that any Western aid to the Green Movement would delegitimize it in such a nationalist country. Yet, during the mass demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, protesters waved signs and banners saying "Obama, where are you?" Moreover, in a carefully unsigned letter to the White House in late 2009, Green Movement leaders responded to an administration query by saying that "it is up to the countries of the free world to make up their mind. Will they... push every decision to the future until it is too late, or will they reward the brave people of Iran and simultaneously advance Western interests and world peace?"
Even so, the West snubbed the uprising, insisting that the Iranian opposition did not want outside help. As far as I know, there is no evidence to suggest that an attempt has been made since then to speak directly with the Green Movement inside the country. (Mousavi has said several times that the Green Movement does not have spokespeople or representatives outside Iran.) Unable or unwilling to engage with the opposition, the West has devoted its energy to the nuclear question alone, pursuing a policy that will produce war or diplomatic and strategic failure.
That is why the time has come for the United States and other Western nations to actively support Iran's democratic dissidents. The same methods that took down the Soviet regime should work: call for the end of the regime, broadcast unbiased news about Iran to the Iranian people, demand the release of political prisoners (naming them whenever possible), help those prisoners communicate with one another, enlist international trade unions to build a strike fund for Iranian workers, and perhaps find ways to provide other kinds of economic and technological support. Meanwhile, the West should continue nuclear negotiations and stick to the sanctions regime, which shows the Iranian people resistance to their oppressive leaders.
Iran's democratic revolutionaries themselves must decide what kind of Western help they most need, and how to use it. But they will be greatly encouraged to see the United States and its allies behind them. There are many good reasons to believe that this strategy can succeed. Not least, the Iranian people have already demonstrated their willingness to confront the regime; the regime's behavior shows its fear of the people. The missing link is a Western decision to embrace and support democratic revolution in Iran -- the country that, after all, initiated the challenge to the region's tyrants three summers ago.