The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
“Regime change” is a toxic phrase in Washington. It conjures up images of the Iraq war, with the United States trapped in a quagmire of its own making. That is why those who favor a coercive U.S. approach to Iran are routinely charged with secretly supporting regime change. In response, the accused almost always deny it. They don’t want regime change, they insist: they just want the Islamic Republic’s theocrats to change their behavior.
But no such transformation will ever take place, because the Iranian regime remains a revolutionary movement that will never accommodate the United States. That is why regime change is not a radical or reckless idea but the most pragmatic and effective goal for U.S. policy toward Iran—indeed, it is the only objective that has any chance of meaningfully reducing the Iranian threat.
Backing regime change emphatically does not mean advocating a military invasion of Iran, but it does mean pushing for the United States to use every instrument at its disposal to undermine Iran’s clerical state, including covert assistance to dissidents. The United States cannot overthrow the Islamic Republic, but it can contribute to conditions that would make such a demise possible. The regime is weaker than many Western analysts believe; a campaign of external pressure and internal resistance could conceivably topple it. Recent years have witnessed explosions of broad-based public opposition to the regime. Iranians are hungry for better leadership. The question for Washington should be not whether to embrace regime change but how to help the Iranian people achieve it.
For the past 40 years, almost every U.S. president has tried to reach some kind of accommodation with Iran. Ronald Reagan’s attempt led him to the greatest scandal of his presidency, when he traded arms for Americans held hostage in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah. Bill Clinton unsuccessfully sought to develop a road map for détente with Tehran. George W. Bush came into office displaying moral contempt for the clerical autocracy, only to have his administration spend a considerable amount of time talking to Iran’s leaders about the future of Afghanistan and Iraq. And then came Barack Obama, whose desperation to make a deal with Tehran produced an agreement that granted Iran sanctions relief and paved its path to the bomb.
In 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of that deal and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran that went beyond any that had come before. Trump has repeatedly denounced the regime, and earlier this year, he ordered the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the famed commander of the elite Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But for all this surface antagonism, the internal logic of the Trump administration’s approach resembles that of its predecessors: inflict pain on Iran in order to gain leverage in prospective negotiations. Trump still wants to make a deal—and in fact, he is the first U.S. president to propose meeting with Iranian leaders.
All these administrations have failed to understand that the Iranian regime remains, at heart, a revolutionary organization. Once in power, revolutionaries often yield to the temptations of moderation and pragmatism. The requirements of actually running a government and addressing domestic concerns eventually lead them to adapt to the prevailing international order. But four decades after its birth, the Islamic Republic continues to avoid that fate. Its elites still cling to the revolution’s precepts even when they prove self-defeating. That is because the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did not rely on secular principles; he made religion his governing creed. Khomeini’s ideology rested on a politicized and radicalized version of Shiite Islam, one that often contradicts long-standing traditions of the faith. But for its most dedicated core of supporters, the Iranian theocracy remains an important experiment for realizing God’s will on earth. Led by Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, these true believers retain control of the most powerful branches of Iran’s government and have successfully resisted the reformist efforts of various presidents and parliaments.
For Khomeini and his disciples, the continued vitality of their revolution mandated its relentless export. This was to be a revolution without borders; its appeal would not be limited by cultural differences or diverging national sensibilities within the Muslim world. Khamenei has faithfully carried out that mission, backing proxy militias throughout the Middle East with the goal of advancing Iranian-style Islamism and undermining the U.S.-backed regional security order. In the mullahs’ preferred narrative, the imperialist United States seeks to exploit the region’s resources for the aggrandizement of the industrial West. Achieving that goal requires Washington to subjugate the Muslim world by backing corrupt Arab monarchies and an illegitimate Zionist entity. The Iranian regime sees resisting that American dominance as a divine imperative.
That is why the Islamic Republic will never evolve into a responsible regional stakeholder. It will never permit genuine political contestation or allow an organized opposition to take shape. It will never abandon its nuclear ambitions for the sake of commerce. And it will never recognize any U.S. interests in the Middle East as legitimate. The revolutionaries will never give up their revolution.
Since there is no prospect of a sustainable accommodation with the theocrats, the only U.S. policy that makes sense is to seek regime change—that is, to do everything possible to weaken the government and strengthen those inside Iran who oppose it. The aim should be to help the large number of Iranians who want to restore the original promise of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah—a movement that drew support from a broad base of groups, including liberal and pro-democratic ones, before it was hijacked by Khomeini and his Islamist faction. The United States should be modest about its capabilities and understand that it cannot always shape events. But given the theocracy’s domestic vulnerabilities, Washington can still carve out a considerable role in attenuating the regime’s power. The United States cannot choose the precise mechanics of how the regime might fall or the exact contours of what would replace it. But it can exercise a good deal of influence on both.
Today, the Islamic Republic is at an impasse. The regime faces a disaffected populace that is losing its sense of fear and becoming more willing to confront the government’s security services on the streets. No one is sure what a post-theocratic future would look like, but an increasing number of Iranians seem willing to find out. And despite the revolution’s spirit of intransigence, postrevolutionary Iran has not been without its share of reformers. By the early 1990s, an eclectic group of politicians, clerics, and intellectuals sought to reconcile faith and freedom. Recognizing that a rigid definition of religious governance would threaten the entire system, the reformers wanted to create a new national compact that would preserve Iran’s Islamic traditions and also uphold democratic values. The reform movement captured both the presidency and the parliament in the late 1990s but was thwarted by Khamenei and the hard-liners. Still, courageous movement leaders of that era, such as Abdollah Nouri, Mostafa Tajzadeh, and Saeed Hajjarian, continue to struggle within Iran for an accountable government.
Iranians are losing their sense of fear and becoming more willing to confront the government’s security services on the streets.
Their views found potent expression during the so-called Green Movement of 2009, which saw Iranians demonstrating in support of reformist figures running for president that year and demanding good governance and the restoration of Iran’s place in the international community. When it became clear that the regime had rigged the outcome in order to guarantee the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative firebrand, the movement vastly expanded, capturing the national imagination and bringing unprecedented numbers of people into the streets. The regime had to resort to brute force to regain control. Today, more than a decade later, the leading figures of the movement, the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and the dissident cleric Mehdi Karroubi, still languish under house arrest.
The Green Movement may be a distant memory for the Western commentariat, but it haunts the regime. In a speech he gave a few months after the crackdown, Mohammad Ali Jafari, then the head of the IRGC, conceded that the protests had brought the regime “to the border of overthrow.” In 2013, Khamenei told an audience of university students that the Green Movement had posed “a great challenge” and brought the government to “the edge of the cliff.” After the uprising, the regime decided that it could no longer tolerate reformers in its midst. In a remarkable act of self-sabotage, the regime purged itself of some of the country’s most popular politicians.
In the past two years, Iran has been rocked by the most serious demonstrations since the 1979 revolution, outstripping even the Green Movement. Compared with earlier episodes of mass dissent, today’s protests pose a far greater threat to the theocracy, because they represent a revolt of the working classes and the poor, which have accounted for the majority of demonstrators in recent years. During earlier protests, the regime discounted the participation of university students (whom the mullahs saw as the spoiled offspring of the wealthy classes) and middle-class protesters (who the clerics believed were motivated less by ideological opposition than by a desire for Western-style material comforts). But the clerics saw the poor as the regime’s backbone, tied to the theocracy by piety and patronage.
That bond has weakened, however, owing to Iran’s economic collapse. Inflation and unemployment are skyrocketing. Oil exports, which were at 2.5 million barrels a day prior to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018, have now fallen to as little as 248,000 barrels a day. This has forced the regime to cut fuel subsidies, and the loss of oil income has made it hard for the state to meet its pension obligations and maintain its affordable-housing programs. With the welfare state under pressure, appeals for sacrifice from corrupt mullahs ring hollow. “Clerics with capital, give us our money back!” was a popular chant at protests last year.
But working-class and poor demonstrators have gone beyond expressing economic grievances and have embraced political slogans with an alacrity that has shocked the regime. In December 2017, for example, protests engulfed Iran after the prices of basic goods soared. Marchers in major cities openly chanted “Death to Khamenei!” and “The clerics should get lost.” The demonstrations faded after the regime unleashed its security forces. But last November, a sudden increase in fuel prices provoked riots in hundreds of cities; some 1,500 people died at the hands of the police and security forces. This time, the demonstrators did not just call for the death of their leaders; they also decried Iran’s involvement in conflicts elsewhere. (“Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran!” “Leave Syria, think about us!”) Even as the regime condemned American imperialism, Iran’s leaders always assumed that their own imperial projects would burnish their legitimacy. But it appears that many Iranians no longer want to waste their resources on Arab civil wars.
Marchers in major cities openly chanted “Death to Khamenei!” and “The clerics should get lost.”
In January, after the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani, massive crowds of mourners flooded the streets of Iran’s cities, and many believed that the attack had united Iranians behind their regime. Just weeks later, however, the illusion of solidarity was shattered by large-scale popular protests that erupted when the government admitted, after days of official denials, that Iranian air defenses—on high alert for U.S. incursions—had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner departing Tehran’s airport, killing 176 people. Far from rebounding to the mullahs’ advantage, the regime’s latest confrontation with the United States reminded Iranians of the costs of their government’s belligerence.
The government’s legitimacy took another hit with the outbreak of COVID-19. As the novel coronavirus spread, the Islamic Republic not only failed to protect the health and safety of its citizens but actively impeded their ability to protect themselves by withholding information and hiding the extent of the problem—a response that will diminish the regime’s credibility even further and add fuel to the outrage and anger that have been building for years.
Although Iran is brimming with dissidence, no coherent resistance movement has emerged. Washington cannot create one, but by overtly weakening the regime and covertly aiding forces inside Iran that can foment popular demands for change, the United States can help the currently disconnected strands of opposition to consolidate. Washington should seek to further drain Iran’s economy, invite defections from the ranks of the regime’s enforcers, and surreptitiously enable those who dare to challenge the regime. But it cannot go any further than that: regime change itself—that is, the removal and replacement of the theocracy—must be undertaken by the Iranians themselves.
Adopting the goal of regime change will not be terribly costly, but it will require a stepped-up program of covert action to aid those elements within Iranian civil society that are contesting the regime’s legitimacy. Chief among those are professional syndicates, such as labor unions and teachers’ unions, which have gone on strike to protest government policies and actions, and student groups, which have organized protests on college campuses. Purged reformers routinely write open letters protesting the regime’s abuses, and they have continued to do so in the aftermath of the crackdown on demonstrations. Last November, from under house arrest, the Green Movement leader Mousavi published a statement on the website Kaleme.com in which he compared the regime’s conduct to an infamous massacre conducted by the shah’s troops in September 1978. Also in November, the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, whom the regime has tried to silence, denounced the crackdown, writing on Instagram that “no government has the right to resort to force and oppression in confronting protests.” These powerful messages were widely reported by international media outlets and reposted on social media. But it is difficult to assess how many Iranians were aware of them, since the government actively blocks Internet access. That is why it is essential for the United States to supply the regime’s critics and opponents with technology and software that they can use to evade censorship, communicate with one another, and get their messages out.
Such covert technical assistance is critical, but it is not the only way that Washington can help foster opposition. Direct (but secret) financial support must also play a role. Iranian trade unions should be a particular focus of U.S. efforts. During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, strikes carried out by oil and transportation workers were essential to paralyzing the shah’s regime. In recent years, steelworkers, truckers, bus drivers, railway workers, teachers, and sugarcane workers have called strikes to challenge the current regime. By secretly channeling funds to groups that could carry out similar strikes, the United States can further cripple Iran’s economy.
In addition to taking such covert steps, Washington should make adjustments to its public diplomacy regarding Iran. U.S. officials should take every opportunity to highlight the regime’s human rights abuses and to warn that violators—especially those involved in the use of force to repress popular protests—will be held accountable by the international community when there is a new order in Iran. At the same time, Washington should stress that any member of the Iranian regime who wishes to defect will be guaranteed sanctuary in the United States. The CIA should establish a mechanism for contacting and extracting all who wish to leave. Even a small number of defectors can sow distrust in the system, forcing the security services to constantly look for unreliable elements among its ranks and conduct periodic purges. This would hamper operational efficiency by eliminating some cadres on whom the security services rely and creating distrust and suspicion in the state’s apparatus of repression.
Beyond such policies and official rhetoric, the United States must do more to overcome the regime’s propaganda by making accurate information and honest analysis available to the Iranian people. Currently, Washington spends $30 million a year on Farsi-language media outlets run by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, including Radio Farda and Sedaye America, which offer news and entertainment programming via radio, television, and the Internet. According to the agency, this programming reaches nearly a quarter of all Iranian adults. The U.S. government should augment that effort by openly funding radio and television programming created by Iranian exiles living in the United States. And although traditional forms of media are important, the U.S. government could bring even more attention to the regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement by using Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and other social media platforms to highlight specific instances of graft and name the regime insiders responsible for them.
Aiding dissidents inside Iran is only half the battle, however. To weaken the regime’s grip on the country and create an opening for other forces to take power, the United States must also expand the Trump administration’s highly successful campaign of “maximum pressure” against the Iranian economy. Critics of the Trump administration were quick to dismiss the plan, insisting that unilateral sanctions would not do much to strain Iran’s finances. But they overestimated the willingness of foreign corporations to risk their ability to do business in the United States. Even though the governments of their home countries have not sanctioned Iran, firms such as the French energy company Total, the German manufacturing conglomerate Siemens, and the Danish shipping giant Maersk have stayed out of Iran in order to avoid Washington’s sanctions. Going forward, the United States should blacklist Iran’s entire financial sector, pressure the global financial messaging platform SWIFT to expel all remaining Iranian banks from its network, fully enforce all sanctions on Iran’s non-oil exports (including petrochemicals), and require auditors who certify the financial statements of any company doing business with Iran to adopt stiffer due diligence measures.
The United States must also increase the price that Iran pays for its military adventurism in the region. The strike against Soleimani was an important first step toward directly imposing costs on Iran rather than merely targeting its proxies. Iran’s meddling has already made it vulnerable to blowback in places where its proxies have wreaked havoc. In Iraq in recent months, people have taken to the streets in huge numbers to protest Tehran’s overweening influence. Outrage over Iran’s long reach has also driven recent protests in Lebanon, where many are fed up with Hezbollah, the militia and political group that Iran backs. Washington should capitalize on Tehran’s failing fortunes in the region by aiding the forces that are standing up to Iran—including by providing financial support via covert means, if appropriate—and by using naval and air assets to interdict the flow of Iranian military supplies to the regime’s proxies.
The need to intensify the pressure on Iran should also inform U.S. military strategy and posture in the region. The United States should maintain a small military presence in Syria to observe and obstruct Iranian efforts to convert Syrian territory into a “land bridge” through which to supply its proxies. And Washington should encourage Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to cooperate on developing shared early warning systems and defenses against the cruise missiles and medium-range ballistic missiles that Iran would likely deploy in any conflict with its neighbors. Steps such as these would further weaken the Iranian regime by thwarting its bid for military dominance in the region, neutralizing the value of some Iranian military investments, and imposing additional costs on the country.
There are many objections to a regime-change agenda. One is that U.S. assistance to pro-democracy forces, human rights activists, and regime critics in Iran would discredit them in the eyes of other Iranians. But surely, Iranian dissidents themselves are the best judges of that risk; Washington should identify the most promising recipients of U.S. aid and let them decide for themselves whether to receive it. And it is worth noting that in all the protests that Iran has witnessed in the past decade, the United States has never been the subject of condemnation. Indeed, in 2009, many Green Movement demonstrators called on Obama, in vain, to publicly embrace their cause. Even Trump didn’t become a target of any street protests last year. And some of the most viral Internet content to emerge from those protests were videos showing demonstrators going out of their way to avoid walking on American flags that the authorities had painted on the ground in public spaces in order to force people to disrespect the United States by treading on its flag.
Other skeptics of regime change might object that the Algiers Accords of 1981, which ended the crisis over the U.S. hostages that Iran seized in 1979, obligates Washington to refrain from interfering in Tehran’s internal affairs. The United States should publicly make clear that it no longer believes itself to be bound by that agreement, which was negotiated under duress and which Iran has repeatedly and egregiously violated by abducting and killing U.S. officials, sponsoring proxy attacks on American forces, and supporting terrorist groups.
The era of arms control diplomacy between the United States and Iran has essentially ended.
Some critics might contend that openly pursuing regime change would dash any hope of restricting Iran’s nuclear program through negotiations. But that assumes that there is the possibility of a reliable arms control agreement with the current regime; there is not. The nuclear deal that Iran entered into with the United States and other powers was fatally flawed: it did not proscribe the domestic enrichment of uranium on Iran’s part or the development of advanced centrifuges, and all its most important terms were saddled with sunset clauses. And since the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement, Iran’s leaders have made it clear that they will not negotiate a new deal or extend the expiring restrictions of the existing one.
The truth is that the era of arms control diplomacy between the United States and Iran has essentially ended. Still, to maintain international pressure and congressional support for an aggressive policy, the United States should remain open to negotiations even after it embraces regime change as a goal. For their part, the Iranians might see virtue in engaging in talks with a hawkish administration in the hope that doing so might persuade the administration to abandon regime change as a specific objective.
Another common objection to a U.S. strategy of regime change in Iran is the notion that any government that followed the theocracy would be even worse. Some advocates of this view insist that a successful regime-change policy would lead only to the rise of unsavory leaders from the ranks of the IRGC. In this account, Iran would go from a belligerent theocracy to a fascist military dictatorship. This argument wrongly assumes that the IRGC has carved out an identity for itself separate from the cleric-led regime it serves. In reality, the clerical oligarchs and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards are indivisible. They believe in the same ideology and confront different facets of the same predicament: the mullahs anguish about why young people pay no attention to their revolutionary exhortations; the IRGC’s generals face the daunting task of sending conscripts drawn from the lower classes to their old neighborhoods to beat up and shoot their protesting peers.
Finally, critics of a policy of regime change sometimes warn that if the Islamic Republic fell, Iran would become a failed state along the lines of Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003 or Libya in the years since the U.S.-led intervention in 2011. But there are significant differences between Iran and those countries. An Iranian state and polity have existed for thousands of years: unlike Iraq and Libya, Iran is not an invention of European postcolonial cartography. What is more, although ethnic tensions do exist in Iran and the regime in Tehran does repress religious minorities, Iranian society is overwhelmingly Shiite and not riven by the ethnic and sectarian divisions that plague Iraq or the tribal factions that make Libya difficult to govern. Finally, even under the theocracy, Iranian civil society has flourished, and it has not been atomized as its counterparts were by the dictators who long ruled Iraq and Libya.
Of course, those characteristics do not guarantee that Iran would develop into a liberal democracy if the theocracy were to fall, and it is impossible to predict with precision what would happen in the event of a revolution. The unrealized hopes of the Arab Spring provide a strong cautionary example. But compared with many Arab countries, Iran has a deep history of vibrant politics, an informed civil society, a lively press, a creative intellectual scene, and a large and literate middle class.
Indeed, the history of Iran since the beginning of the twentieth century is the tale of a long struggle between people seeking freedom from monarchs and mullahs determined to preserve the prerogatives of power. The constitutional revolution of 1905 established the country’s first parliament, and in the years that followed, feisty parliamentarians boldly imposed restraints on monarchs. Reza Shah Pahlavi challenged that system after he came to power, in 1925, and momentarily imposed his will on it. But after his abdication, in 1941, Iran returned to a more pluralistic path, with prime ministers and parliaments that once again mattered. In 1953, Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddeq sparked a crisis by moving to nationalize the oil industry; the coup that removed him from office is often seen as a U.S.-British plot to prevent Iranian autonomy. In fact, Mosaddeq was himself trying to derail Iran’s democratic evolution with his own brand of autocracy, and his overthrow was mostly an Iranian initiative. And then came a quarter of a century of dictatorship under the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was eventually overthrown in 1979 by a populist revolutionary movement that contained many coalitions but whose main aim was to create a representative government that was sensitive to Iran’s traditions.
Now it is the mullahs’ turn. In every decade of its existence, the theocratic regime has faced a rebellion. The liberals were the first to object to the mullahs’ power grab, in the 1980s. University students, always a political vanguard in Iran, gave up on the theocracy with their own uprising in 1999; ten years later, another wave of youthful rebellion hit the regime. And in the past few years, Iranians have once more pushed back. Students, workers, clerics, and merchants are agitating against despotic rule, just as they have for much of the last century. The people protesting in the streets today are the ones who will lead Iran tomorrow, and their struggle is worthy of Washington’s embrace.
The Iranian people want an accountable government and do not share their leaders’ animus toward the West. But things don’t always happen just because they should. To avoid outcomes such as those in Iraq and Libya, a U.S. policy of regime change must include plans for steering a post-theocratic Iran in the right direction, since Washington would share a large degree of responsibility for the outcome. After a collapse of the regime, the United States would have to immediately lift all sanctions and set up an international donors’ conference to inject money into Iran’s economy and bring its oil back to the market. Even if the United States helped get rid of the old regime, it would have influence over a new Iranian government only if Washington were prepared to make a long-term commitment to the rehabilitation of the country. Doing so would require an initial injection of U.S. financial assistance to stabilize the Iranian economy and pave the way for further contributions by others. The U.S. president and congressional leaders would have to make the case to the American public that such aid was critical to regional stability and U.S. national security. And Washington would have to make clear to Iran’s new rulers that any aid would depend on their complete abandonment of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
Governing Iran would be a difficult task for any new leaders. Although there would inevitably be purges in the aftermath of the collapse, Washington would have to press the new rulers of Iran to make room for members of the old elite who wished to be part of the new order. Iran’s nuclear program would leave behind dangerous detritus. Ideally, a robust effort led by the International Atomic Energy Agency would account for all of Iran’s nuclear technology and enriched uranium. But failing that, the U.S. military would need to take unilateral action to remove the more sensitive aspects of the program to prevent them from falling into dangerous hands.
Regime change in Iran would not be pretty. It would not immediately solve all the problems between Washington and Tehran, much less immediately stabilize the Middle East. But the United States should at the very least attempt to empower the Iranian people to get the kind of government they deserve. Otherwise, Washington is doomed to repeat its past mistakes: pretending that it is possible to negotiate with the mullahs and blindly expecting that a theocratic revolutionary movement will somehow produce “moderates” willing to steer the regime away from its recklessness—or naively hoping that a popular revolt will succeed without any support from the outside. That approach has failed for more than 40 years. It’s time to try something different.