Commentary Magazine


Iran

To the Editor:

In their respective articles in the November 2006 Commentary, under the collective title “Getting Serious About Iran,” both Arthur Herman [“A Military Option”] and Amir Taheri [“For Regime Change”] provide a cornucopia of information about the history of the Islamic Republic and its hostility toward the United States. Both understand that there can be no peace with this regime. Mr. Herman advocates military action (primarily against military targets and the oil industry), which he believes would result in regime change, while Mr. Taheri, in pursuit of the same objective, does not talk about military options but about political and diplomatic measures. To their credit, both make the enormously important point that the public debate is hung up on the nuclear question, distorting our strategic thinking.

Serious thinking about Iran must begin with the fact that the mullahs in Tehran have been waging war on us for nearly three decades. The latest fronts in that war are in Somalia, Afghanistan, Israel and the territories, Lebanon, and Iraq. In all of these places, Iran arms, funds, trains, and directs a variety of terror groups, including Sunnis, Shiites, and Marxists. Oddly, Mr. Herman ignores the terror component of Iran’s warfighting practices. He says that Iran wants nuclear weapons to “achieve great-power status,” control the Persian Gulf, and spread “its ideology of global jihad.”But that ideology may well be the whole story: Iran’s leaders talk as if they would welcome the end of the world—to usher in the millennium, under the sway of the long-vanished 12th imam—and to hasten it by using atomic bombs against Israel and mass suicide terrorism against us. That is not the quest for major-power status; it is a chiliastic vision that entails the murder of millions of infidels.

Mr. Herman has a well-conceived plan to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, blocking its ability to control the sea lanes through the vital Hormuz Straits and making it impossible for the mullahs to retaliate. He argues, convincingly, that such a total humiliation of Tehran would have many happy consequences, from the fall of the regime to the fatal weakening of terror proxies like Hizballah and Moqtada al-Sadr. He dismisses the concern, which he mistakenly attributes to me, that decisive American action might “permanently traumatize Iranian national pride and alienate its democrats for generations to come.” In fact, I do think that effective actions against the regime would encourage, rather than dismay, the tens of millions of Iranians who are more or less openly opposed to the mullahcracy.

My objection to such a program is more modest: I do not think it is necessary. I think regime change can be accomplished without resort to bombing, strafing, and invading the country. I agree with Mr. Herman that decisive military action is less likely to damage chances for regime change than our current blithering, which Iranians see either as appeasement or as ineptitude. But vigorous support for the vast forces of democratic revolution is surely better, with military action in reserve for when all else fails. If we could bring down the Soviet empire with the active support of a small fraction of the population, how can anyone be pessimistic about the chances for a similar revolutionary change in Iran, where we probably have 80 percent or more in support?

Aside from a few historical quibbles about Mr. Taheri’s article—Iran attacked American forces in Afghanistan at the same time that it was “helping” us at the diplomatic level—I largely agree with it. Above all, I welcome his Hippocratic advice: do not do anything to damage the vital link between American policy and the Iranian people. Anything that looks like American cooperation with the mullahs must be avoided at all costs; the Iranian people will see it as surrender. In like manner, we should eschew sanctions, which hurt the people without damaging the tyrants.

In the end, though, Mr. Taheri’s essay is a bit light on actual policy prescriptions. I would have welcomed calls for building up strike funds for Iranian workers, for large-scale denunciations of Tehran’s horrific human-rights violations, and a vigorous broadcasting operation instead of the feckless material served up by Voice of America’s Farsi service and Radio Farda. We should inform the Iranians about events inside their country and educate them about the ways and means to carry out a largely peaceful democratic revolution.

Finally, I think Mr. Taheri, like Mr. Herman, too often sounds as if he thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei as traditional geopoliticians rather than millenarian fanatics. When he says that Ahmadinejad wants a mini-conflict with the U.S. in order to “divert attention from the gathering storm inside Iran,” I want to ask: but what if Ahmadinejad wants a full-blown conflict with the U.S. in order to destroy us and our Israeli allies, and usher in the millennium? They say it every day; why not believe them?

Michael Ledeen
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

 

To the Editor:

Iranians are known for their wicked sense of humor, which is often expressed in the form of pithy one-liners directed at authorities of various kinds. A well-known riff in political circles is reserved for the exiled opposition, whose members have been predicting, since the outset of the 1979 revolution, that the Islamic Republic has just “two months”—always delivered with two fingers and a broad smile—before it collapses or somehow morphs into something better.

Amir Taheri’s call for the U.S. to promote regime change brought this quip to mind. His argument is two-pronged: that the government in Tehran is too illegitimate, duplicitous, dangerous, unreasonable, or unworthy to engage with; and that the U.S. can change it by pursuing policies that excite the internal anti-government dynamics. But precisely or even generally how the U.S. can do this he never delineates. For the clueless American policy community, it is apparently sufficient to point out that the Iranian government is appalling, disliked by the majority of the Iranian people, and bursting with internal dissension.

What is conveniently left out is the rest of the story. In fact, elite dissension or competition—dare we call it pluralism?—has been the hallmark of Iran’s peculiar revolution from day one. There has never been a unified revolutionary political party in Iran, despite attempts to forge one. Despite popular dissatisfaction with the regime—which itself may be more about its behavior than its existence—over 50 percent of the population regularly participates in flawed but not totally “cooked” elections. In the election held last December for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, over 60 percent of the electorate voted to deliver a stinging defeat to the supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Taheri fails to confront the reality that a good chunk of the population—at least the 12 percent who voted for Ahmadinejad in the first round of the last presidential election and perhaps many others who voted for other conservative candidates—consists of die-hard supporters of the regime. This segment has benefited from its policies of the past three decades and is probably willing and capable of using violence in the face of a perceived threat. Remember Iraq?

Mr. Taheri also omits the unhappy history of American (and, before it, British) meddling in Iran’s politics. Nor does he discuss the fact that most Iranian citizens today, even the unhappy ones, are skeptical of intrusions into their country’s domestic affairs. If this point is doubted, just ask the State Department about the difficulty it is having in dispersing the $75 million dollars allocated for the “promotion of democracy” inside Iran. (There is, of course, no shortage of takers among the exiles.) To be sure, much of this has to do with the government’s crackdown on the use of foreign funds, but there is also real hesitation on the part of political and civil-society activists on nationalist grounds.

The revolution of 1979 was for most Iranians a double-edged affair, involving aspirations for freedom and national sovereignty. In the words of Behzad Nabavi, a former reformist parliamentarian and cabinet minister whose candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council in the last parliamentary elections: “We still think in traditional ways. . . . If we are forced to choose between freedom and national sovereignty, we choose the latter. We hope we don’t have to choose.” But America’s hostile public stance against the Iranian government has helped create a martial, authoritarian environment, limiting the ability to maneuver (and perhaps even the desire) of many reformers like Nabavi.

Those of us who have called for engagement with Iran since the mid-1990’s, when the Clinton administration chose a policy of containment in response to Tehran’s offer of economic engagement, have argued that internal processes and the give-and-take among elites must be taken seriously, as should the non-radicalism of the majority of the Iranian populace. By engaging Iran, by not allowing the hard-liners to use security as a pretext, the gradual (and, admittedly, slow) process of reform will move Iran in positive directions. There will be setbacks, as was the case during the Khatami era; the existence of hardliners with a muscular social base cannot be wished away. But there is no getting around the need to engage with the internal political process if the objective is to bring about change in behavior, laws, and in the way laws are implemented.

Mr. Taheri and other advocates of regime change will have none of this. For them, nothing short of the purge of the “Khomeinist” winners of the Iranian revolution is sufficient. The only alternative, Mr. Taheri would have us believe, is to acquiesce in Tehran’s demands (whatever they are). That U.S. policy-makers should see only these extremes, and lack confidence in the superpower’s ability to shape the behavior of a mid-size regional power through engagement, is truly stunning. No wonder the hardliners in Tehran are howling. With enemies like Amir Taheri, who needs friends.

Farideh Farhi
University of Hawaii
Manoa, Hawaii

 

Amir Taheri writes:

Michael Ledeen criticizes me for not offering policy suggestions for confronting the Islamic Republic. My purpose, however, was not to draft a policy paper but to argue an intellectual case: the Islamic Republic is genetically programmed to be an enemy of the United States and other democracies. Contrary to some Western statesmen and pundits, it cannot be engaged, let alone appeased; on this, Mr. Ledeen and I are in agreement.

Certainly the Islamic Republic cannot be engaged, as Farideh Farhi imagines, through some “Grand Bargain” diplomacy. This does not mean that no temporary accommodation on specific issues is ever possible. In fact, Farideh Farhi’s attack on me notwithstanding, I explicitly said as much in my article. But acknowledging this would require her to rebut my arguments with credible arguments of her own in favor of the Khomeinist regime.

Her reference to Behzad Nabavi is revealing. Like him, she does not recognize that in a country whose people are not free, the concept of national sovereignty becomes meaningless. Only free people can build and exercise sovereignty. In countries ruled by despotic regimes, as is the case in Iran today, sovereignty is an empty slogan mouthed by those who lack the moral courage to fight for freedom.

Farideh Farhi must also know that, although I believe that the preconditions for regime change are in place, and its prospects favorable, I have never predicted the Khomeinist regime’s early demise. An evil regime’s longevity, however, is no justification for not fighting it, let alone forbecoming its apologist.

 

 

Arthur Herman writes:

The crucial difference between Michael Ledeen and myself seems to be whether we think Iran’s current rulers are more committed to their apocalyptic ideology than to Iranian power and prestige, or even their own self-preservation. I do not doubt for a moment that President Ahmadinejad believes what he says about destroying Israel and precipitating the arrival of the 12th imam and the end of the world. Still, it strikes me that the leading characteristic of Iran’s theocratic rulers is not religious fervor but an instinct for survival (a not uncommon trait among Middle Eastern politicians) and the comprehension that nothing succeeds like success.

Whatever approach the United States adopts toward Iran, the mullahs need to know that we can call their bluff, and that direct, decisive military action against them is not only a feasible option but an attractive one. They have played the great powers against one another and built Iran’s regional influence with great skill. That they have done so mainly with impunity is where the real danger lies. By continuing to proclaim that there are “no good military options” in dealing with Iran, Western opinion-makers only encourage Tehran and its terrorist allies to believe it.

The West has been waiting for a long time for democratic forces to emerge in Iran—so far, I would say, with negligible results. I am glad Mr. Ledeen thinks that military intervention on the scale I have proposed would encourage rather than dismay the mullahs’ opponents. Private reactions to my article from Iranian dissidents confirm that view.

In the long term, a democratic Iran could be a closer and more valuable strategic partner to the United States than Iraq. In the short term, however, we need to concentrate the mullahs’ minds on their own mortality by offering them a stark choice between continued belligerence and their hold on power.

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