Michael Totten has rightly flagged Fareed Zakaria’s argument that Iran can be contained for its flaws. One should add two points to Michael’s argument.
First, regarding the likelihood of a massive upsurge of popular support for the regime if Iran were attacked: whether it is likely or not, it is largely irrelevant, in my view. If a military strike is successful in degrading the nuclear program, one can afford a nationalist backlash.
Second, and more important, Zakaria’s statement that “a massive outpouring of support for the Iranian regime” is likely because this is what “happens routinely when a country is attacked by foreign forces, no matter how unpopular the government” is simply inaccurate.
While Iranians are unlikely to clap while they die under foreign bombardment, there are many precedents of nationalist backlash being short-lived and eventually turning against the regime. One needs only look at Serbia in 1999 and Argentina in 1982. In both instances, an authoritarian government dragged the nation into a war propped up by nationalist revanchism — Kosovo in 1999, the Falklands in 1982. I doubt Serbs loved the 78 days of NATO aerial bombing — they are still bitter today! Similarly, Argentineans by and large still consider the Falklands to be their own. But the military defeat of their authoritarian regimes, far from enhancing those regimes’ popularity, led to their downfall. Both countries have experienced a long season of democracy since then. While differences still exist between London and Buenos Aires, and between Belgrade and NATO, the odious regimes that triggered those wars are gone. And good riddance for their citizens!
To the list of examples, one could add Iraq in 1991. As soon as the guns fell silent, Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south rose up against the hated dictator and his regime. Their failure — thanks to the American decision to stand by and let them be crushed — cemented their distrust for America 12 years later. Regardless, the point is clear: the oppressed subjects of vanquished dictators may not love the foreign victor, but neither will they forgive their oppressors. And a military defeat exposes a despotic regime to its own weakness and vulnerability like nothing else does.
If Iran’s nuclear program were to be successfully targeted by military force, Iranians may not be expected to wrap themselves up in American or Israeli flags, no doubt. But it is questionable whether they will renew their pledge to the Islamic Republic and its murderous ideology.