December 21, 2011 | The Wall Street Journal

Iran and the Myth of the Pro-Regime Backlash

A U.S. military strike is just as likely to accelerate internal regime change as it is to hinder it.
December 21, 2011 | The Wall Street Journal

Iran and the Myth of the Pro-Regime Backlash

A U.S. military strike is just as likely to accelerate internal regime change as it is to hinder it.

Would a U.S. military strike against Iran kill anti-regime sentiment inside the country? That seems to be the conviction of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. In September, discussing domestic opposition to the regime on the Charlie Rose show, Mr. Panetta said that Washington “should try to take every step to try to support their effort but at the same time, we've got to analyze each situation to make sure that we do nothing that creates a backlash or that undermines those efforts.”

Then, in a speech he delivered recently at a conference hosted by the Brookings Institution, Mr. Panetta enumerated the negative consequences of a military strike against Iran, including that “a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah.”

Although Mr. Panetta has repeatedly insisted that “no options are off the table” on Iran's nuclear program, the Obama administration's efforts are more devoted to delaying Iran's efforts until some sort of internal revolution topples the current regime, rather than to destroying Iran's capabilities once and for all. This would be a sensible policy if Iran's internal opposition enjoyed cohesion, if its message were coherent and if it were united in its purpose.

Unfortunately, two and a half years after the Green Movement took to the streets to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fraudulent re-election, the opposition's chances of changing the course of Iranian history are slim. Witness that, almost a year after its leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were put under house arrest, there has hardly been any effort in Iran to support their release.

Therefore, concerns that a military attack might undermine the possibility of an internal revolution are exaggerated. The single piece of evidence usually cited to justify this argument is the nationalistic fervor that convulsed Iran in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of the country in September 1980. The late Iraqi dictator thought, mistakenly, that Arabs living in southern Iran would side with him. They did not.

Instead, the war enabled Iran's fledgling regime to put down any lingering dissent. Ordinary Iranians endured eight gruesome years on account of their nationalism. Even as the southern Arabs failed to rise up, Iranian Kurds, who rebelled in March 1980, did not put their weapons down until they were crushed in 1981. To this day, Kurds have shown little sign of nationalist feeling for Iran.

And even for enthusiasts, Iranian nationalism eventually wore thin. Eight years of hardship and senseless slaughter made Iranians weary of their rulers. Fear of an internal rebellion played a factor in Iran's decision, in 1988, to sign a cease-fire.

The evidence of other authoritarian regimes similarly attests to the fact that a military conflict could sway nationalist sentiment in either direction. With the exception of Gamal Abdel Nasser after the Six Day War, every military defeat in the Arab world was quickly followed by widespread riots, popular rebellions and palace coups.

Argentines toppled their military junta after the country's defeat in the Falklands War against Britain in 1982. As the crisis currently brewing in the southern Atlantic over fishing rights attests, Argentines still, almost 30 years later, view the Falklands as their own. But that did not stop them from toppling their dictators.

In 1999, Serbians endured a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that inflicted much more suffering and damage to ordinary Serbs than the Falklands War did to Argentines. Serbs did not exactly wrap themselves up in NATO flags at the time. They still hold grievances and claims over Kosovo, the territory they lost in that conflict. But 18 months later, Serbs toppled their nationalist strongman, Slobodan Milosevic. Today Serbia, like Argentina, is a democracy.

This brings us back to Iran. Imagine the day after a U.S. attack, when the entire country's military capability has been irreparably downgraded, its naval and air force bases have been turned to rubble, and the ideologically motivated Revolutionary Guards have been decimated and their tools of domestic oppression severely damaged.

Will Iranians look at the weakened regime that so many of them hate and give it another chance, just because they may hate America more than they did before an attack? What about the non-Persian minorities who account for nearly half of the country's population? Iran's Kurds never fully laid down their arms. There is an ongoing insurgency against the regime in Balochistan and mounting unrest in Iranian Azerbaijan. Will these minorities wrap themselves up in the flag of the Islamic Republic?

It is not inconceivable. But it is just as likely that it will go the opposite way. American policy makers should factor in the possibility that a U.S. attack will actually accelerate regime change, not hinder it. And given that it would come on the heels of the destruction of Iran's nuclear military program—an undeniable strategic gain—the Obama administration and its allies should have a second look.

—Mr. Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “The Pasdaran: Inside Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” (FDD Press, 2011).

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