The Foreign Policy Initiative hosted a timely program in Washington, D.C., this morning entitled Iran: Prospects for Regime Change. It comes at a time when the Obama administration is inching toward itty-bitty sanctions and has apparently rejected a serious policy of advancing the Green Movement’s efforts at regime change. Reuel Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mohsen Sazegara of the Research Institute for Contemporary Iran had a thoughtful discussion moderated by Bill Kristol.
Several key points emerged from the panel. First, the Green Movement is a work in progress. While we may look toward the end goal of regime change — toppling of the supreme leader — it has, as do most revolutionary movements, intermediary goals, the first of which Khalaji describes as the delegitimatization of the regime — which he contends has been largely successful within Iran, especially among the middle and upper classes in the first year of the Green Movement. He cautions that “the Movement is young,” but it has already expanded geographically beyond Tehran to new social groups and to labor organizations. Those who contend the Movement has failed because the regime is still in place miss the ongoing process of revolutionary movements — delegitimazation to paralysis to regime change.
Second, the greatest hope for the movement is the loss of legitimacy and the isolation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Sazegara explained, loyalty to Khamenei has replaced ideology or constitutional authority as the essence of the regime, casting as “soldiers of the cultural invasion every influential human being” who is not entirely loyal to the supreme leader. As a result, Khamenei is increasingly isolated. Sazegara notes that “every move was wrong” since the June 12 election — fueling opposition and solidarity against a regime increasingly viewed as corrupt and brutal.
Third, the Green Movement is making efforts to reach out to the under class, which remains Ahmadinejad’s base of support. The message will need to tie economic opportunity to political freedom to complete the process of undercutting the regime’s final base of popular support.
Fourth, the Revolutionary Guard, which was previously comprised of those who were ideologically motivated and dedicated to defense of the regime, is increasingly corrupt and needs to be “subsidized.” As the Guard has expanded, the opportunity for factions, rivalries, and divisions has also multiplied.
Finally, the U.S. can play a role. As Sazegara noted, “Every move, even indifference, affects the internal situation in Iran.” Silence in the face of brutality emboldens the regime and demoralizes those seeking to exploit its weaknesses. Efforts to aid the Green Movement’s essential communication tools — internet and satellite TV — can have a meaningful impact. Gerecht summed up that in the 1980s, it was apparent that “the regime was losing legitimacy. That process has only accelerated.” The Green Movement, he explains, “owns the middle and upper classes. The regime can’t replicate itself.” He urged those hoping for regime change to “be more patient. The regime has lost the best and the brightest. It eats its own.”
That the Obama administration has so obviously turned its back on the Green Movement and instead has gone out of its way to confer legitimacy on the brutal regime is a great moral and geopolitical failing. What the panel made clear is that the Obama adminstration is also missing a critical opportunity to assist and accelerate a movement that is steadily undermining the Islamic dictatorship.