In a recent panel discussion on the future of the anti-regime uprisings in Iran, I was approached by a fellow Iranian, who told me of his participation in an anti-Shah rally. Back then, almost everyone, from President Jimmy Carter to most pundits, discounted the 1978 popular protests as a minor nuisance for the seemingly unshakable shah’s regime, an “island of stability” in the region. Three decades later, he wondered if the same mistake was being made in Washington’s policy-making circles.
The writing is on the wall. The crowds in Iran’s streets are calling for fundamental change. The key chants are: “Down with the principle of velayat-e faqih (absolute clerical rule),” and “Death to Khamenei,” referring to the regime’s number-one mullah.
Today’s internet-savvy younger generation at the forefront of the mass protests in Iran has made it hard to deny the ruling regime’s absence of popularity or legitimacy. Still, Washington’s appreciation of the potential and nature of the movement is bafflingly poor.
The regime-change movement is homegrown, broad-based, and aiming to fulfill the denied aspirations of the usurped 1979 revolution: democracy and popular sovereignty.
Both the opposition and the regime are on irreversible paths, whose collision can only lead to the latter’s downfall. A revolutionary dynamic is now at work; as opposition deepens and spreads, the political fissures at the top will also expand, in turn further emboldening the movement. There is no going back.
The regime has taken to naked violence to counter the protests. When months of torture, rape, and even murder of arrested protesters did not rattle the demonstrators’ resolve, summary trials and death sentences became the order of the day. Two individuals were executed in January, and nine others are on death row, charged with “moharebeh” (waging war against God), most of them for their support of the main opposition People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI). Senior regime officials have called for the quick execution of detainees.
Even so, one protestor described the regime’s recent show of force as “the last gasps of a dying regime in denial.”
Today, many Iran observers — even those who for years lauded the stability of the status-quo in Iran — are recognizing that the uprisings are geared toward regime change. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who previously discarded the notion, wrote in a Newsweek article that “I have changed my mind,” saying the opportunity for regime change must not be missed.
J. Scott Carpenter, a former official at the Department of State — hardly a bastion of regime-change advocates — told a recent hearing in the House that, “A change in regime provides the best safeguard against a nuclear Iran… Engagement as a policy has failed.”
Still, the White House appears behind the curve, not truly grasping the epoch-making dimensions of the realities on the ground. Happily, there are some signs that the administration may be trying to catch up. National Security Advisor James Jones talked about combining the internal dissent with external sanctions. “We support pro-democracy. We know that, internally, there’s a very serious problem. We’re about to add to that regime’s difficulties by engineering, participating in, very tough sanctions which we support, not mild sanctions. These are very tough sanctions. The combination of those things could well trigger regime change. It’s possible.”
Beyond rhetoric, a new US policy must include effective, practical, non-military measures targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is the heart and soul of the regime’s machinery of domestic suppression, worldwide terrorism, and nuclear weapons program. It is the ideological accomplice and military arm of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Washington must also break from past policies cast in the mindset of placating the ruling establishment in the futile hope of moderating its rogue behavior. Among the most outdated and strategically reckless examples is the blacklisting of the PMOI, the opposition’s largest organization and also the group which exposed Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program for the first time.
On February 11, the 31st anniversary of the overthrow of the shah’s regime, Iranians defied the unprecedented clampdown by the Revolutionary Guards. They cried out loud and clear, “Death to Dictatorship,” “Long live a secular, Iranian republic.” Their courageous stand provides a strategic opportunity for President Obama to take concrete measures to show US recognition of the Iranian people’s desire for democratic change. That is the policy declared in the President’s State of the Union address, when he said that “America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.”