An Iranian op-ed writer recently urged his country to emulate Israel. Of course the “Zionist regime” is illegitimate, wrote Seyed Ammar Kalantari, but the fact that “this small group of around seven million people who only about 60 years ago moved to this small spot from all sorts of different cultures and nationalities” has managed to survive, despite repeated attacks by Palestinians and various Arab armies, shows it must be doing something right. That something, Kalantari argued, is Israel’s willingness to criticize its leaders.
What makes this remarkable isn’t just that Israel is being touted as a shining example in the very country whose leader regularly pledges to annihilate it as “a cancerous tumor.” It’s that the article appeared on a website closely affiliated with Mohsen Rezaee, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who now serves as secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, a key organ of the regime. It’s one of numerous recent reminders that most Iranians are vastly more open-minded than the thugs who run their country.
Just this week, a leading Iranian opposition cleric publicly urged the regime to “do everything to prevent a Zionist attack on Iran, because if that happens, Iran will be severely damaged, even if the Zionist regime is damaged even more.” The regime “must not act as warmongers,” warned Ayatollah Yousef Sanei: “The country is currently facing a unique situation, and the most important thing to do is to shut the mouth of the Zionist regime with our thoughts, our pens and an effort to take the right actions.” While Sanei didn’t specify said “right actions,” the meaning seems clear: steps to allay international, and especially Israeli, concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
In fact, an online poll published in June found that a decisive majority of Iranians – 63 percent – favor giving up uranium enrichment in exchange for an end to sanctions. And another poll, published in May, found that Iranians are much more supportive of basic liberal values than, say, Egyptians, Jordanians and Moroccans, or even residents of some Asian and eastern European democracies. Fully 94% of respondents, for instance, deemed “freedom to choose” an important value, and 71% deemed tolerance important.
All this shows what an incredible opportunity was wasted when U.S. President Barack Obama failed to support the Green Revolution in 2009, preferring instead to pursue negotiations with the mullahs: In Iran – unlike, say, Egypt – a successful revolution might well have produced a better government rather than a worse one, because most Iranians would genuinely rather build a decent society at home than foment mayhem abroad.
Today, however, this very decency is frequently used as an argument against attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities: An attack, we are told, will cause ordinary Iranians to rally round the mullahs, thereby setting the prospect of regime change back decades.
Personally, I think the data indicates that any such effect would be short-lived. People who value freedom of choice and tolerance aren’t likely to become permanent mullah-lovers, nor will opposition leaders long laud the regime for provoking the very attack they warned against.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an additional argument: the Ugandan precedent. Yoweri Museveni, who became Uganda’s president after Idi Amin’s downfall, told him that Israel’s 1976 Entebbe raid “strengthened Amin’s rivals because it revealed how vulnerable his regime was,” Netanyahu related this month.
There’s no way to know for sure who’s right. But we do know the Green Revolution failed primarily because the regime’s brute-force tactics eventually convinced the demonstrators it was too strong to be toppled. Thus showing that the regime isn’t as powerful as it seems may actually be the very spark needed to finally send the mullahs toppling.