In the October 12 issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria makes a case for containing rather than confronting Iran, partly because he expects “a massive outpouring of support for the Iranian regime” if its nuclear-weapons facilities are attacked by the U.S. or Israel. “This happens routinely when a country is attacked by foreign forces, no matter how unpopular the government,” he writes.
As a precedent, he cites how Russians rallied to Stalin when Germany invaded in 1941. But of course Russians rallied to Stalin. No viable political opposition existed as it does today in Iran, and besides: they were attacked by the Nazis. The Germans weren’t liberators. Russia was not going to be treated better by foreign totalitarians than by its own. Even the U.S. and Britain backed Stalinist Russia under those circumstances.
The people of Afghanistan, on the other hand, were euphoric when NATO demolished the Taliban regime in 2001. The Taliban has since reconstituted itself as a terrorist and insurgent militia, but its approval rating among Afghan civilians is by some reports as miserable as 6 percent. Support for the U.S. and NATO has slipped recently, but it’s still telling that, according to an ABC News poll of public opinion, 58 percent still say the Taliban is the greatest threat to security, while only 8 percent say the same of the United States.
Very few Iraqis outside the relatively small Sunni community threw their support behind Saddam Hussein when President Bill Clinton bombed Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities in 1998 or when President George W. Bush finished off his Baath party regime once and for all in 2003. Meanwhile, the various terrorist and insurgent militias that later rose up were almost exclusively sectarian and Islamist, not Baathist.
Even the Shia of south Lebanon — today’s Hezbollah supporters — initially hailed the Israelis as liberators in 1982 when they invaded to oust Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization from its state-within-a-state along the border and in West Beirut. Only later, when the Israelis did not leave as expected, did the prototype of Hezbollah begin to take shape.
An insurgency would probably break out in Iran, too, if it were invaded and occupied. Not that it matters — no one in the U.S. or Israel is pushing for an invasion and occupation of Iran. Destroying the regime’s nuclear-weapons facilities from the skies wouldn’t require anything like that.
Zakaria quotes Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, who says, “If there were an attack, all of us would have to come out the next day and support the government. It would be the worst scenario for the opposition.”
Some dissidents feel that way; others don’t.
Iranians, writer and dissident Kianoosh Sanjari told me when I met him in Iraq after he was released from the dungeon of Evin Prison, “are praying for an external outside power to do something for them and get rid of the mullahs. Personally, it’s not acceptable for me if the United States crosses the Iranian border. I like the independence of Iran and respect the independence of my country. But my generation doesn’t care about this.”
Hossein Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic’s first “supreme guide,” Ruhollah Khomeini, said “Bring in the 82nd Airborne” to Christopher Hitchens. The younger Khomeini isn’t a rebel in North Tehran’s liberal enclave. He, like his late grandfather, is a cleric. “I think it was the matter-of-factness of the reply that impressed me the most,” Hitchens said about Khomeini’s call for American intervention. “He spoke as if talking of the obvious and the uncontroversial.”
I’m not saying Zakaria and the dissident he quotes are entirely wrong. I, too, know Iranians who hate the regime and say they’ll be furious if any country attacks for any reason. Public opinion in Iran is all over the place, even among those who don’t like the government. Some probably would react the way Zakaria warns, but others would not.
Iran’s proxy militias in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq might ignite wars in three countries if their patron regime comes under attack, and they might cause even more trouble later if Tehran places them under a nuclear umbrella. How, or even whether, to stop Iran from acquiring the world’s worst weapons may be the most momentous decision President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ever make. Every option is terrible.
And thanks to the deadly years-long insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans are more averse to using military force than we were shortly after September 11, 2001. But let’s not learn the wrong lessons from what has happened since then. Middle Eastern countries tend to produce insurgencies against foreign-occupation soldiers, but that’s not at all the same thing as dissidents throwing their support behind a homegrown dictatorship that tortured, raped, and murdered them yesterday.