Many respectable experts on Iran, prominent among them Americans, Israelis and Iranians-in-exile, believe they know how to replace the theocratic regime in Tehran with something far more benign and friendly.
“Another $100 million for broadcasting to Iran’s disaffected youth and women will do the trick,” says a veteran Israeli security official who served in pre-revolutionary Iran.
“Half the population are non-Persian minorities — Azeris, Kurds, Baluch, Arabs,” says an American intelligence expert. “We should incite them to rise up against the Persians.”
Once you do the math with these experts, you can only conclude that nearly 100% of Iranians are so unhappy with their nasty rulers that getting rid of the Islamic regime is a slam dunk.
I have been listening to this talk, often from the highest American and Israeli government and security officials, for nearly 30 years. Much of it is based on a persistent belief that the regime brought to power by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 is an aberration, not the “true Iran” we knew back in the Shah’s day, and hence undoubtedly illegitimate in the eyes of most Iranians.
Other advocates of regime change in Tehran base their views on opinion polls of doubtful veracity, the popularity of smuggled American movies and music clips in the salons of north Tehran, or just plain faith in the longing of everyday Iranians to doff their chadors, rebuff their religious police and embrace Western-style freedom and liberty. Wishful thinking plays a role, too: This regime is indeed dangerous, hence it simply must be overthrown, whatever the price.
Like almost any Israeli and Jew, I, too, would like to see the emergence of a more tolerant and friendly regime in Iran. Indeed, I have my own special reasons of late: A few months ago, the regime contrived to manipulate the televised “confessions” of two imprisoned Iranian intellectuals so as to implicate me and the Internet dialogue magazines I co-edit in an alleged American effort to sponsor a Ukrainian-style “orange revolution” in Tehran.
These assertions are ridiculous. Not only do I not advocate changing this regime by force or outside manipulation, I believe it is a totally unrealistic proposition. Moreover, it is harmful to pursue this approach to the Islamic Republic.
True, the Tehran regime actually encourages Western regime-change advocates by its paranoia. A regime that goes to such extreme measures to suppress dissent and concoct virtual subversives must, the outsider reasons, be extremely weak and unstable.
Yet the simplest indication that regime change efforts against Tehran don’t work is the fact that for nearly 30 years they haven’t worked.
Indeed, objectively speaking, the mullahs’ regime has been in far worse straits throughout most of the past three decades than it is today, when it is flooded with petrodollars. Iranians willingly vote in their elections, however unfair and undemocratic they may look to us. They idolize the heroes of the war in the 1980s with Iraq. And when they express dissatisfaction with their abject lack of freedoms, the regime is very skillful at suppressing dissent.
After three decades, you would think that intelligent observers and analysts would get the message: This regime, however odious, is here to stay.
When it comes to Iran, it still makes sense to keep all options on the table — as long as these don’t include regime change. If international sanctions and pressures don’t bring the Iranians to their senses regarding their nuclear plans and if military action, by the United States or Israel, is judged to have a good chance of succeeding, then it cannot be ruled out, as long as we don’t delude ourselves that it will catalyze a revolution in Tehran.
On the contrary, military achievements aside, it is likely to strengthen the regime. That is but one of the reasons why, as the Iraq Study Group report advocated a few months ago, genuine dialogue should be tried first.
Israel should not fear an American-Iranian dialogue. True, Iran poses a far greater threat to Israel than to the United States. And the Islamic Republic not only appears to covet weapons of mass destruction but is actively working with Hamas, Hezbollah and other non-state actors on Israel’s borders that, like Tehran itself, advocate Israel’s destruction.
Nonetheless, if Israeli security officials and decision-makers would abandon their unfounded hope of bringing down the Iranian regime, they could more constructively confront the remaining, more practical, options.
Iran refuses to talk to Israel, but not to the United States. Fears in Israel that Washington might somehow cut a deal with Tehran that compromises Israel’s security — or, for that matter, Saudi Arabia’s security, or Jordan’s — appear to have no foundation.
If Washington does agree to sit down at the negotiating table with Iran, it cannot permit itself to be perceived by Iranians as entering the talks with dirty hands. It cannot appropriate tens of millions of dollars to encourage Iranian civil society efforts, however admirable, that are understood by the regime as subversive, and perhaps here and there encourage dissident Iranian Baluch and Kurds to oppose the regime (while reassuring Iran with a smirk that regime-change is not official American policy), and still expect to engage the Tehran regime in dialogue on a level playing field.
Whether talking to this regime will produce useful results is, of course, not clear. But it is certainly a more pragmatic option once we rid ourselves of the pathetic notion that, with a little push, or even a big push, the regime will collapse.
If and when the theocratic regime in Tehran is replaced, its demise will, like the Khomeini revolution 30 years ago, be the result of domestic developments, not outside intervention. In the meantime, containment will be an easier task if we approach Iran without illusions.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.