Kennan’s Warning on Ukraine
Ambition, Insecurity, and the Perils of Independence
On September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian, died in police custody after being detained for ostensibly wearing a hijab improperly. Amini was not the first woman to be arrested nor was she the first person killed by the police. Her death, however, ignited a protest movement that gave voice to public anger and frustration that had been building for months. Farmers had been complaining about the lack of water, students about the lack of freedom, teachers about the lack of pay, and retirees about the lack of benefits. In 2020, we argued in Foreign Affairs that Iran’s Islamic Republic was weaker than many Western analysts and policymakers thought. Today’s protests suggest we were right. The Islamic Republic is resilient but not impervious to the social forces at work in Iranian society.
Since its inception more than four decades ago, Iran’s theocratic regime has been rocked by demonstrations. In 1999, students took to the streets to protest the closure of a reformist newspaper. In 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president via a rigged election, sparking the Green Movement, a middle-class revolt calling for clean elections. And in 2017 and 2019, the rising prices of fuel and bread led to revolts among poor Iranians. Previous uprisings were segmented by class. Today, in contrast, Iranians have come together under the banner of “Women, Life, and Liberty.” This is a rebellion for dignity, freedom, and government accountability, similar to the Arab Spring—a series of demonstrations in Arab countries incited by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller. Iranian protesters today are not calling for reform but for the extinction of the Islamic Republic. They want regime change. The United States should help from afar by increasing sanctions and improving communication among the demonstrators.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has dismissed the protests as foreign plots, claiming they were “planned by America and the usurper, fake Zionist regime.” In addition to this institutional gaslighting, the regime’s traditional playbook has been to confront demonstrators with a quick show of force, disable social media platforms to prevent coordination, arrest ringleaders, and then wait for the movement to gradually subside. Despite their reputation for ferocity, the mullahs have been reluctant to use indiscriminate force. They, like all despots, fear that their conscript armies may prove reluctant to shoot fellow compatriots. The sheer persistence of the demonstrations, however, and their spread across the country have confounded the government and withstood its well-honed strategy of dealing with dissent.
There are signs that this movement will prove more durable than those of the past. Iran’s nascent revolt still lacks identifiable leaders and an organized structure. And no revolution can succeed without revolutionaries. But a few months into the protests, groups such as Youth of Tehran have sprung up and successfully called for demonstrations. The opposition has also staged strikes in most of Iran’s provinces: bazaars have closed and businesses have shuttered as a gesture of solidarity with the protesters. As demonstrations continue, security forces will likely grow exhausted. Cracking down on protesters takes a psychological toll.
Iran’s demonstrations have divided the political elite—another important precondition for revolutionary change. Khamenei likely fears that many conservative establishmentarians are beginning to distance themselves from the government. Ali Larijani, a former speaker of the parliament said, “We must provide the public venues for protest and a means of conducting a dialogue.” Mohammad Khatami, a former president, issued a widely read statement praising the protesters’ intent and slogan. Even Islamic Republic, a newspaper founded by Khamenei, rejected the supreme leader’s claim that foreigners were behind the turmoil: “The problems of inflation, unemployment, drought, and destruction of the environment have caused people, ranging from retirees, educators and students, to protest.” Such support from mainstream politicians is unprecendented, indicating that the Islamic Republic’s grip is weakening.
Throughout this crisis, the regime has appeared unsettled. The elderly Khamenei has spent the past few years purging the government of all but sycophants and is now surrounded by mediocrities. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is a laconic apparatchik who lacks the imagination to deal with complicated situations. Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, the head of the judiciary, oscillates between calling for dialogue with the opposition and issuing threats. The vaunted Iranian intelligence services missed the onset of the rebellion and have failed to come to grips with its dimensions. The regime’s strategy of incremental violence has so far caused the death of more than 500 people, enough to generate martyrs but not sufficient to deter the protest movement. The regime’s executions of protesters further alienates its constituents. The Islamic Republic seems to be losing its footing.
As we argued in 2020, the United States should pursue regime change in Iran. Despite an uncertain outcome, it may be the only way to slow Iran’s efforts to gain nuclear weapons, and it would limit, if not eliminate, Iran’s chronic meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors. The mainsprings of political change in Iran remain internal. Nevertheless, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden can take steps to assist, hasten, and perhaps even guide the revolutionary process.
First, the United States should formally declare that it will end negotiations with Iran on a putative return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement that slows Iran’s progress on nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. The United States should also make clear that it will not negotiate with an Iranian government that is repressing the Iranian people and destabilizing its neighbors. Such declarations would rob the regime of its ability to generate hope among the population that sanctions might be lifted under its rule.
Publicly closing the door on negotiations would also free up the Biden administration to fully enforce sanctions already on the books. The United States should target Iranian officials guilty of the most egregious human rights violations, bolstering hope among Iran’s people for government accountability. This should be accompanied by full-throated and ongoing U.S. government statements supporting the protesters and drawing attention to the worst instances of repression.
The mainsprings of political change in Iran remain internal.
The United States should also try to chip away at censorship and promote information sharing among the protesters. Sending Starlink terminals, as suggested by Elon Musk, could help such an effort by enabling the opposition to get around the regime’s censorship and blocks on social media. Other software apps, such as Ushahidi, have been used to monitor elections in sub-Saharan Africa by allowing voters to share images of polling places. Such applications could be repurposed to allow Iranians to share images of acts of protest in different parts of the country, enabling coordination among different groups of protesters and, by forcing the government to overstretch its security forces, making it harder for the regime to quash dissent. The United States should also use popular social media channels, such as Telegram, to provide dissidents with accurate information about what is going on throughout the country, including protests, human rights abuses, and executions. The expansion and creative use of such channels of communication could help new protest leaders emerge and drown out regime propaganda.
In addition, the United States should ramp up broadcasting by the Voice of America’s Persian Service and Radio Farda and fund private television broadcasting by Iranian expats, which could provide additional fuel for the fire raging in the streets of Iranian cities. Currently, the United States is projected to spend less than $30 million in the 2023 fiscal year on broadcasting in Iran. This is an instance in which throwing a small amount of money at the problem could have a disproportionate impact.
According to The New York Times, in December 2022, oil workers and steelworkers stopped working out of sympathy for the protesters in one of Iran’s biggest general strikes in decades. Washington should make every effort to support these actions and help trade-union activists communicate with one another. U.S. aid to the antiauthoritarian Polish Solidarity movement in the late 1980s helped prompt the collapse of the Soviet Union. A parallel effort in Iran today could help stoke a similar breakdown in the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian regime has ruled the country for nearly half a century. In that time, it has been remarkably resilient, defying public demands for greater human rights and modernization. As of now, the protests do not appear to be on the brink of bringing the government down, but revolutions are inherently unpredictable. For the sake of the Iranian public and U.S. security interests in the region, the Biden administration should do all it can to make sure the Iranians putting their lives on the line to foment change are successful in retaking their country.
Why Washington Should Seek Regime Change in Tehran