June 24, 2003
Regime Change in Iran?
ongoing protests beginning with students and expanding (although
it's difficult for an outsider, even one who follows news reports,
to know exactly how much) to other sectors of society have created
a great deal of hope among those – surely most decent people around
the world – who would like to see the repressive regime of the Islamist
mullahs ended or significantly changed. For better or worse, however,
the fluid situation has created a certain temptation in the Bush
administration and among some of the more enthusiastic would-be
serial regime-changers inside the Beltway to try to take credit
and/or control of the budding rebellion.
an aggressively proactive stance on the part of the U.S. government
is more likely to make things in Iran worse rather than better.
It might even stifle or short-circuit what seems to be an ongoing
process that seems likely to bring significant change to the repressive
Iranian regime some time in the foreseeable future, if not necessarily
as quickly as some of us might like.
not difficult to understand the enthusiasm of some in the administration
to want to be on the right side of history regarding Iran – even
as one is naturally a bit suspicious of those in and out of the
administration who see regime-change in Iran as another feather
in the nouveau American empire's cap. But I suggest that those in
the government with a sincere interest in seeing at least some liberalization
and perhaps even an end to the fundamentalist regime would do well
to seal their lips for a few months at least.
basic situation in Iran is fairly well known. About 70 percent of
the population is under 30, half under 25. That means that most
of the population has no personal adult memory of what life was
like before the ayatollahs took power in 1979. The mullahs' regime,
which seemed exciting and promising when they were taking out the
old shah's repressive regime back in the day, is now the old order,
and it's a repressive and annoying old order to most younger Iranians
generational shift has been intensified by increasing access to
the Internet and fairly steady communication between Iranians in
Iran and friends and relatives in the West. Iran has long been a
fairly well-educated and sophisticated society, and the mullahs
haven't wiped out that sophistication and interest in the outside
world. There is a thriving film industry that in the past few years
has sent several critically-acclaimed films to the world at large.
most interesting has been the development of literally thousands
of "web loggers" or bloggers in Iran. Some estimate
that there are as many as 10,000 Iranian bloggers, some devoted
largely to personal obsessions or interests, but quite a few offering
comments, links to news stories and updates on current events in
Iran. There's little doubt that bloggers like www.iranmania.com,
have had something to do with keeping the student protests going.
The idea among the student protesters has been to build up to massive
demonstrations July 9, the anniversary of a 1999 government crackdown
on a smaller previous student protest.
THAT DOESN'T HELP
it's interesting to see what some of these bloggers actually have
to say. As reported on andrewsullivan.com (a war enthusiast who
seems sincerely to believe it's about spreading freedom rather than
empire, though I cringe at giving any of them the benefit of the
doubt) here's what Lady Sun, who seems to be a student who reports
directly from Tehran, had to say last week:
am bitter, sentimentally angry, and dreadfully sad. Monarchists
are killing themselves rambling about a new revolution, a protest,
an opposition... I hate monarchy, we hate monarchy, we hate any
sort of dictatorship. I hate this stupid Bush who is releasing statements
in support of the students. I hate him who has no idea what kind
of people Iranians are. I hate the monarchists who think we are
that stupid to put the red carpet for Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah's
son. I hate the pressure groups who are literally massacring their
fellow Iranian citizens. I hate our reformist government who can
do sh*t about all this chaos. I hate our 'real' government who has
closed its eyes on the reality and seeks for popularity and stability
in suppressing people. I hate all the students including myself
who can do nothing. The biggest thing we can do is just playing
the role of scapegoats, victims of ignorance, brutality, whatever.
only they knew how small the amount of freedom we are seeking is..."
can understand the hopelessness leading to bitterness. Sadly, Lady
Sun's assessment of the chances for the current student protests
to have much impact in the long run seems to be fairly realistic.
The important thing for Americans to note in this cri de coeur
is the comment about Bush jumping on the student revolt bandwagon
that he somehow missed when he was in college.
THINGS MORE DIFFICULT
am willing to believe that at least some people in the administration
and the punditocracy are genuinely trying to help bring more freedom
to Iran – or at least to position themselves on the side of the
angels regarding a regime that is generally ill-regarded in the
United States and is genuinely objectionable. But I talked with
Daniel Brumberg, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, and he seems convinced that
the statements from the administration are counterproductive at
the author of the 2001 book Reinventing
Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran and numerous articles
in academic journals, mostly about power-sharing in the Middle East,
is on leave from Georgetown University and has previously taught
at Emory and Chicago. He noted that while the student protests have
been impressive and suggest certain vulnerabilities of the regime,
the regime itself is still genuinely powerful and has been fairly
shrewd in the way it has handled them.
the first days of the student protests, for example, various ostensibly
pro-regime "vigilantes" harassed the students, sometimes
quite violently. It wouldn't be surprising if the regime encouraged
them to do so, but last week it arrested a few of them. Some see
that as an admission of regime weakness, but Brumberg sees it as
shrewd PR. The regime has also made sure, he says, that none of
the student demonstrators have been killed, which could create the
potential of a martyr in a culture in which martyrs are often revered.
sees that as shrewdness rather than weakness, and it might even
have worked. Some news stories suggest the protests have been petering
out in the last few days, although it will be interesting to see
what happens as July 9 approaches.
Brumberg reserved his scorn for those in the U.S. government who
have gone out of their way to demonstrate vocal support for the
student revolts. "They have made it more difficult for the
students to gain support from other sectors of Iranian society,
including reform-minded members of parliament, merchants, and workers,"
he told me. If the regime can spin the protests as the work of American
agents and the students as naive dupes of the United States – and
it can and it has – it can minimize support from other sectors of
Iranian society and undermine the political effectiveness of the
presume that's not the intention, but these overeager expressions
of support from U.S. officials play right into the hands of the
mullahs, whose interest is to keep the students physically and psychologically
isolated from potentially sympathetic elements in other parts of
Iranian society. The mullahs might even be able to use the protests
to increase their power and control over the short run, as governments
throughout history have often done in the face of protests that
fall short of toppling the regime.
AND INTELLIGENCE REQUIRED
afraid that something resembling real democracy in Iran is a matter
of years or decades rather than weeks or months," Dan Brumberg
told me. He noted that while several thousand students participating
in daily protests is impressive and a sign of solid discontent,
there are about 600,000 students in Iran. The protests so far have
taken place mostly in northern Tehran (though there have been assemblages
in other cities), which has traditionally been fairly wealthy and
organized so far, the protests don't seem to be a precursor of revolution
very soon. If the regime (perhaps with the unwitting help of the
Bush administration) can keep the students isolated from other potentially
sympathetic Iranians, the threat to the stability of the regime
is probably slight at this time.
does think that underlying demographic and political factors will
eventually lead at least to some loosening of the iron grip of the
mullahs, though it is almost impossible to say when and what form
reform will eventually take. Unfortunately, he said, "the evolution
of Iranian democracy is not subject to American influence"
– indeed the influence the United States has in Iran is mostly negative.
We just can't empower rebellion in far-off lands by escalating our
rhetoric – it is more likely to have the opposite of the desired
there is plenty of enthusiasm for stepping up diplomatic and military
pressure, with the thrill of an invasion a possible, even likely
eventual outcome, from the neocon crowd like Bill Kristol, Michael
Ledeen et. al., it might just be that the Bush administration itself
is adopting a more cautious approach. Dan Brumberg told me that
he thought he detected a slight moderation in tone from President
Bush and other administration spokespeople as compared to a couple
of weeks ago. Given that the administration is simultaneously talking
tough about possible nukes and murmuring about tightening economic
sanctions (look how effective they've been in getting Castro overthrown),
that might be significant.
are also Republican operatives who think the administration will
be reluctant to go much farther than tough talk and maybe promising
to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors – at least for now.
There is an election coming up, after all, and Iraq hasn't gone
as swimmingly as the optimistic hawks had expected. Political tacticians
might well figure that another major war in the middle of campaign
season – it would take a while to do not only the propaganda but
the concrete military build-up, assuming the U.S. even has sufficient
forces to do so without Iraq becoming even more of an embarrassment
– would not be conducive to reelection for the Boy President.
if that's the case (and that doesn't rule out the possibility of
an invasion after the election campaign next year), the administration
would do well to cool it even more. That might be difficult, given
Bush's inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" and the
expectations possibly arising from the bellicose statements to date.
The administration could be caught in a trap of its own making,
in which it feels it has to escalate at least the rhetoric when
the Iranian regime rather predictably doesn't cave in the face of
that rhetoric could be extremely dangerous to the people of Iran
who desire freedom from the mullahs, or at least more freedom to
live their lives as they choose. Let's hope there are cooler heads
in the administration who care about Iranian freedom more than the
opportunity to grandstand.
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