October 21, 2023 | The Atlantic
Forget the Bomb and Help Iranians Fight Their Regime
All the other options have failed.
October 21, 2023 | The Atlantic
Forget the Bomb and Help Iranians Fight Their Regime
All the other options have failed.
Just three weeks before Hamas’s gruesome attack on southern Israel, the first anniversary of Iran’s “Women, life, freedom” movement quietly passed on September 16. Even in the heat of events in Israel, the women’s uprising was worth a lament: If the theocracy hadn’t subdued it, Iranians might have toppled the Islamic Republic; and among all the other salutary effects, Hamas’s onslaught against Israel could conceivably have been smaller and less ambitious, or might not have happened at all.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Sunni Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is an independent actor but has ties to the Islamic Republic that have grown substantially over the years. Its political head, Ismail Haniyeh, has often visited Tehran and Beirut, where other Hamas officials are in regular contact with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful, operationally savvy proxy. As Iranians in ever larger numbers have rejected the Islamic Revolution and its theocracy, the clerical regime has sought affirmation and legitimacy abroad—an aggressive disposition that isn’t likely to abate until Iranian dissent finally triumphs.
Officially, the Iranian regime characterizes internal protests as foreign-inspired, but most of its insiders actually know that the Islamic Republic’s worst problems are homegrown. They are mournfully aware that Iranians have deeply absorbed secular and democratic values. But despite its frequent expressions, that popular discontent has not yet become a revolutionary challenge to the ruling elite.
A revolution is a rare historical phenomenon that is impossible to predict. Its proximate causes—loss of confidence in institutions, a widespread feeling of unrelenting injustice, economic disparity, for example—can be found in many nations that don’t rebel. A revolution takes place only when a large swath of the public behaves irrationally, in the sense of confronting clearly superior power in ever increasing numbers and regardless of personal cost. Foreign powers cannot instigate a revolution (although Germany might get partial credit for sending Lenin back to Russia); they can, however, advance the hollowing of a despised autocracy. They can, at a minimum, let those who bravely oppose tyranny know that their struggle has the attention of the outside world, which seeks to support their courageous efforts.
Therein lies the principal question for the United States regarding Iran: Does Washington want to try to aid the Iranian people in their long, so far fruitless, quest to curtail tyranny in Tehran—and in doing so, help mitigate the threat that Iran and its proxies pose to regional security?
For decades now, American and European policy toward Iran has focused almost exclusively on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. The diplomatic approach to this problem has now reached a dead end: Because of Hamas’s attack and Iran’s long-standing ties to the group, the White House just froze the $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues that it had recently unfrozen to secure the release of five dual citizens held hostage in Iran. The payment was supposed to be a prelude to future nuclear talks. Refreezing the funds has likely killed the principle—cash for atomic restraint—behind all the diplomacy since 2013, when U.S.-Iranian talks started.
In truth, Iran will almost certainly get the bomb, and sooner rather than later. Neither diplomacy nor military intervention, which the United States and Israel have repeatedly decided against, seems credible. The Islamic Republic is already a threshold nuclear state that can quickly enrich uranium to bomb-grade. And so the best bet for neutralizing the menace of a nuclear-armed, virulently anti-American, expansionist, Islamist regime is regime change—or, if that phrase is too disturbing, a gradual but turbulent evolution from theocracy to democracy.
Democracy isn’t a novel idea in Persia: Its gestation there is older than in many lands where representative government has taken root in what was once considered barren soil. And Iranians have learned painfully why theocracy and monarchy aren’t appealing. Democratic passions helped fuel the revolution in 1979; their continuing vibrancy could end the Islamic Republic that resulted from it. Just look at the way the clerical regime has cracked down on dissent since the 2009 prodemocracy Green Movement pushed the theocracy, to quote Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to “the edge of the abyss.” Recurrent protests have left the ruling clergy and Revolutionary Guard commanders to live in fear of an unexpected spark—rather like the death of the Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini last year—that might turn rational demonstrators into an irrepressible swarm.
America and Europe, which have foreign policies that blend liberalism with realism, are in a bind on Iran. Focused on the nuclear program to the detriment of all other issues, unwilling to use force to secure nonproliferation, unable to abandon the idea that commerce with the Islamic Republic can bring political moderation, uncomfortable with sanctions that hurt the Iranian people, and yet operating with a certain indifference, if not outright hostility, to actions that smell of regime change, the West has become feckless. And the truth about Iran—that it probably isn’t now in a prerevolutionary state, and that the Islamic Republic may perish only through slow rot—reinforces the inclination to do nothing.
Washington needs to step back from the nuclear question and focus instead on human rights and Iranians’ democratic aspirations. As should be painfully obvious to all by now, without political consensus, Washington simply cannot sustain any—let alone an effective—Iran policy. Democrats and Republicans need to figure out how best to aid the Iranian people in throwing off a regime that is a danger to them and to the region.
Developing a new approach will be difficult. Even before the presidency of Barack Obama, differences in sentiment—if not as acutely in approach—toward the Islamic Republic divided Democrats from Republicans. Liberals have tended to feel guilty about America’s past in Iran and often tried to recast U.S.-Iranian troubles since the Islamic Revolution as bridgeable misunderstandings; conservatives, for the most part, don’t negatively view U.S. cooperation with the last shah. If they regret anything, it’s that Jimmy Carter didn’t do enough to save him.
Before the atomic question took center stage, both sides occasionally reached out to Tehran to see if it wanted to improve relations. Republicans did so bizarrely and illegally with Iran-Contra in 1985–86 and hesitantly after the earthquake in Gilan in 1990. Democrats tried more optimistically, such as with Bill Clinton’s “genuine reconciliation” appeal to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in 1998 and Obama’s letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2009.
Before the 2013 interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, the two sides could find common ground in sanctions. The Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, signed by Clinton and largely written by Republican congressional staff, really began the era of more effective economic measures against the theocracy. In his first term, Obama expressed annoyance with bipartisan sanctions measures but nevertheless signed legislation that significantly amped up economic pressure on Tehran.
This strained bipartisanship came utterly apart with the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Obama brought a new approach to the Iran question, in part provoked by the enormous progress the Islamic Republic had achieved in developing a nuclear-weapons infrastructure (an enrichment site buried beneath a mountain was revealed in 2009), and by Obama’s belief that diplomacy, his personal touch, and the removal of punishing sanctions could gain a good-enough nuclear deal and significantly improve U.S.-Iranian relations. The American right’s profound disagreements with him, on a wide variety of issues, crystallized on the Iran question and the JCPOA, which received negligible Republican support. In 2018, President Donald Trump wiped out his predecessor’s most significant foreign-policy achievement by withdrawing the United States from the accord.
Biden administration officials are quick to express their bitterness about Trump’s decision, which undoubtedly has complicated their lives. But assuming that the administration, congressional Democrats, and the liberal intellectual ecosystem have now realized that buying off the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions doesn’t have a promising future, the failure of this initiative may now allow the left and the right to move forward in common cause.
Letting go of nonproliferation is the essential first step. The American right has effectively already done so, because no significant Republican has been willing to argue publicly for military strikes in some time (Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton have come close). Some on the right try to blur their intentions, suggesting that the military option is still viable if a reinvigorated sanctions regime fails. Given how far the Iranian program has advanced, however, the only conceivable remaining red line would be the actual construction of a nuclear device, which is effectively no red line at all: U.S. intelligence had no concurrent, helpfully precise idea when the Soviets, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, South Africans, Israelis, and North Koreans built their nuclear weapons. Unless the CIA gets really lucky, a rare occurrence, the denouement of the clerical regime’s atomic quest will likely be no different.
If Trump triumphs in 2024, common cause regarding the Islamic Republic could be a nonstarter. Would Democrats have the stomach to work with Trump on Iran? And no one knows what Trump would do: He might bomb Iran; he might try to get the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, on the telephone and offer “the deal of the century”; or he might just ignore the Islamic Republic entirely (and offer Saudi Arabia a nuclear program with on-site uranium enrichment). If Trump wins reelection, the clerical regime could well take the opportunity to rapidly test a nuclear device—making regime change, however it arrives, the only possible path to get nukes out of the hands of Iranian Islamists.
As for the Democrats, team Biden has occasionally offered sincere words of support to well-known Iranian dissidents, but much like the Obama administration, it has never allowed regime atrocities—or Tehran’s new alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China—to intrude much into its rhetoric. Even now, regarding Hamas’s deadly onslaught against Israel, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has acknowledged that Iran is “complicit” in aiding Hamas’s growth into a deadly terrorist organization but has been careful to avoid invoking anything closer to a casus belli. Hamas just killed and kidnapped American citizens in Israel, but neither the Biden administration nor the Israeli government wants the war to expand into Lebanon, let alone Iran. The pattern is familiar from the American experience in Iraq: Iran’s allied militias launch devastating attacks, and the targeted nation is too busy putting out the flames to focus on the source of fire.
The administration also suffers from a lingering addiction to nonproliferation, the eternal hope that something down the road will break its way. The rougher the rhetoric against Iran, the more difficult for the theocracy to reciprocate a U.S. entreaty, and the more unpleasant for American politicians and officials to look past the regime’s wickedness toward some new nuclear “understanding.”
No matter what happens in 2024, Iran policy has reached an impasse—one that could allow it to become an exception to partisan politics and a place where Democrats and Republicans could together push harder for human rights and democracy than they push anywhere else in the Middle East. The easiest common ground will surely be sanctions.
Washington is overdue for a serious debate about why it sanctions the Islamic Republic. Sanctions can have a serious impact on a hostile country, but the United States should stop using them as its primary weapon of nuclear deterrence, as though they might stop the Iranian nuclear advance if only they were enforced more effectively, or if we traded them away for Iranian restraint. North Korea is a less scientifically advanced, less economically capable, more isolated country than Iran, and it still got the nuke.
Shifting the rhetorical focus of U.S. sanctions away from the nuclear question, and toward human rights and democratic freedoms, is both the morally and the geopolitically responsible thing to do. Such a move certainly will not meet with objections from the Iranian people. In the nationwide demonstrations in Iran in the years 2017–18 and 2019–20, which had economic catalysts, protesters had the opportunity to express disapproval of the American-led sanctions regime. Condemning Trump then was a global passion. And yet virtually no one in Iran—outside of the regime—publicly criticized the United States, its sanctions, or Trump. Given the vividness and spleen of Persian social media, we would’ve seen it.
Terrorist sanctions ought, of course, to remain: If the clerical regime is targeting Iranian Americans, Iranian dissidents in the U.S., and former senior U.S. officials for kidnapping or assassination, Washington should mount a tidal wave of sanctions. Nor should a bipartisan consensus against Iran for its aid to Hamas be hard to come by.
Shifting the primary purpose of sanctions will perforce improve the way Washington talks about Iran. If Washington had an Iran czar at State and an Iran chief at the National Security Council, both spending a lot of time on Iranian oppression and dissent; and if the president, vice president, speaker of the House, and the Senate majority leader all used the bully pulpit, including regular meetings and official dinners with Iranian exiles who have traction in their homeland, Washington would give Iranians greater reason to hope and might even galvanize dissent. Czech President Václav Havel offered Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a new, free home in Prague when Washington didn’t want to foot the bill in Munich for a reason. He knew from his own prison experience how decisive it was to hear voices of freedom when an autocracy drives one to despair.
Case in point: The clerical regime has tried repeatedly to eliminate the irrepressible dissident and women’s-rights advocate Masih Alinejad, now a resident in the United States. Khamenei, who rails against the toxicity of Westernization, is trying to kill her for cause. Women may well be the Achilles’ heel of the Islamic Republic, which is why Khamenei wants Alinejad dead.
In the absence of a bipartisan commitment to aiding Iranian dissent, the U.S. government has offered Alinejad little more than photo ops with the national security adviser and the secretary of state. Senior U.S. officials and their staff ought to give much more time and rhetorical support to Alinejad’s cause: They should speak about the Iranian regime’s abuse of women’s rights in interviews with the Persian services of Voice of America and Radio Liberty, and in regular speeches in English, too. The voice of the U.S. government echoes overseas, especially in Iran, where a deeply conspiratorial regime magnifies everything American officials say.
Washington should also bring exiled Iranian dissidents together to amplify their demands. In so doing, the U.S. government should not try to create an Iranian government in exile, or to elevate one dissident over another. Like most exile diasporas, Iran’s is diverse and can be bitterly fractious. Washington should strive merely to give Iranian dissidents a platform from which to speak, a venue for meeting, the opportunity to focus their discussions, and the security and travel expenses to make such gatherings possible. Expatriate discussions of the regime’s many crimes, injustices, and fundamental incompetence tend to drive the theocracy nuts. Washington should stoke that anxiety. Dissidents associated with the Iranian left used to keep their distance from the U.S. government; given the regime’s crimes, most no longer do.
A bipartisan human-rights-first policy might even consider cautiously using the CIA. Iranian dissidents and their families who have been battered to their breaking point, who can no longer operate inside the country without facing certain death, could benefit from exfiltration. Unlike most dissidents, who can do more inside a country than out, their contribution could continue if they and their immediate families survived. The Directorate of Operations, an impatient institution that is disinclined to engage in covert action, could nevertheless probably figure out how to do this. It could learn from the Israelis, who have demonstrated repeatedly that the Islamic Republic’s borders are operationally porous. Langley has far greater resources than the Mossad; it just needs volition, which comes only from a bipartisan coalition directing the DO, through the White House and the congressional intelligence oversight committees, to do what’s necessary.
Nothing more complicated or provocative for the CIA should be considered. The age of large-scale covert action is probably over. Perhaps if China drives American unity, and Tehran’s alliances with Beijing and Moscow become even more galling, then the ghosts of the 1953 CIA-backed coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh, which usually intrudes into how the left views CIA actions in Iran, might fade. But the overriding operational issues for outsiders thinking about agency activities should always be capacity and competence. If any CIA action is worthwhile, saving those who could die is a good place to start. If Langley can handle this, then a bipartisan consensus might develop behind more ambitious projects.
A lot of Iranian dissidents today appear to be in a funk. A year ago they hoped that the clerical regime might finally be cracking. But the theocracy once again proved its resilience. Enough young and middle-aged men, through faith, fear of failure, or personal reward, are willing to do terrible things in the regime’s security services to allow the theocracy to survive. But Iranian dissidents, as well as U.S. intelligence analysts and diplomats, who have a hard time seeing change over the horizon, should remain aware that revolutions can, in fact, come on quickly. In 1974, the writer Frances FitzGerald wrote a brilliant essay in Harper’s called “Giving the Shah Everything He Wants.” In it she foresaw many of the issues that drove the shah down in 1978 and 1979. Clerical Iran isn’t as hollow as the Pahlavi state was at the end, but popular anger and the loss of regime esprit are profound and growing. As Americans and Europeans should know from their own tumultuous histories, unexpected events do happen. What seems permanent can become perishable.