Though the Bush administration has repeatedly
emphasized its desire for democratization and regime change in Iran, there are
serious questions regarding how it might try to bring this about. There is,
however, little question about the goal of toppling the Islamist government,
with the Bush administration threatening war, arming ethnic minorities, and
funding opposition groups.
These efforts come in spite of the 1981 Algiers Accords, which led to the release
of American hostages seized from the U.S. embassy in Tehran, in which the United
States pledged to never again attempt to overthrow the Iranian government. The
failure of the United States to honor this signed bilateral agreement has contributed
to the Iranians' lack of trust in the U.S. government and overall anti-American
sentiment in that country.
Despite claims by the Bush administration that the United States has always
supported "liberty" and "democracy" in Iran, the history of U.S.-Iranian relations
during both Republican and Democratic administrations has demonstrated very
little support for a democratic Iran. In the early 1950s, the last time Iran
had a democratic constitutional government, the United States joined Britain
and other countries in imposing economic sanctions against Iran in response
to the nationalization of the country's oil resources, which until then had
been under foreign control. Taking advantage of the economic collapse and political
turmoil that followed, the CIA helped engineer a coup against Prime Minister
Mohammed Mossadegh, and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from exile to rule
with an iron fist.
Over the next 25 years, the United States armed and trained the Shah's dreaded
SAVAK (Organization for National Security and Intelligence) secret police, which
emerged as one of the most repressive internal security organizations of the
era. Despite claims to the contrary by right-wing critics of the Carter administration,
the United States strongly supported the shah until his final days in power,
providing valuable assistance to the regime even as it was massacring protesters
in the streets. It comes as no surprise, in light of this, that the revolution
that finally ousted the monarchy in February 1979 was stridently anti-American.
Furthermore, since the shah's repressive apparatus had largely succeeded in
wiping out the democratic and secular opposition to the regime, it was religious
opponents – who survived as a result of the greater cohesion made possible through
the mosques – who spearheaded the revolutionary movement. Thus, the radical
Islamic orientation of the revolution was greatly influenced by the shah's U.S.-backed
efforts to maintain control through repression.
As a result of this history, most members of the democratic opposition in Iran
do not take very seriously Washington's claims that it supports freedom for
the Iranian people.
The possibility of U.S.-sponsored regime change in Iran through invasion and
occupation, as took place in Iraq in 2003, is not even being considered anymore
in Washington. The U.S. armed forces are already too overstretched for another
major land war. There is no way feasible for U.S. forces to invade and occupy
a country that is more than three times larger in both size and population than
Iraq and with a far more mountainous terrain. In addition, unlike the Iraqi
armed forces, which were crippled by more than a dozen years of strict military
sanctions, the Iranian armed forces have been able to continually modernize
and upgrade. In addition, the Iraqi experience has largely discredited the already
dubious notion among some Washington policymakers that a Western power can bring
a stable democracy to a Middle Eastern country through sanctions, warfare, invasion,
Some American neoconservative leaders argue that sustained air and missile
strikes against Iranian government, nuclear, and military facilities – a far
more realistic scenario for a U.S. war against Iran – would cripple the regime
to a point that it would empower opponents to rise up against the government.
In reality, Iranian opposition leaders emphasize that war and threat of war
by the U.S. government would certainly unify the population around the regime
and would be used to justify further repression.
The widely reported clandestine U.S. support for Kurdish, Baluchi, and other
Iranian national minorities runs the risk of igniting violent ethnic conflict
and increased political repression in parts of the country, but these efforts
are not likely to pose much of a threat to the survival of the regime.
In addition, the United States cannot realistically hope for a coup, given
that pro-U.S. elements in the military were thoroughly purged soon after the
revolution. The leadership of Iran's military and security forces, while not
necessarily unified in support of the more hard-line elements in government,
cannot be realistically expected to collaborate with any U.S. efforts for regime
change in their oil-rich country.
What recent history has repeatedly shown is that the most effective means for
democratic change comes from broadly based nonviolent movements, such as those
that have toppled dictatorships in such diverse countries as the Philippines,
Bolivia, Madagascar, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, and elsewhere.
Even the relatively conservative Washington-based Freedom
House has produced a study that, after examining the 67 transitions from
authoritarian regimes to varying degrees of democratic governments over the
past few decades, concluded that the changes were catalyzed not through foreign
invasion, and only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary elite-driven reforms,
but overwhelmingly by democratic civil society organizations utilizing nonviolent
action and other forms of civil resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, civil
disobedience, and mass protests.
In apparent recognition of this trend, Congress last year approved $75 million
in funding for an administration request to support various Iranian opposition
groups. However, most of these groups are led by exiles who have virtually no
following within Iran or any experience with the kinds of grassroots mobilization
necessary to build a popular movement that could threaten the regime's survival.
By contrast, most of the credible opposition within Iran has renounced this
U.S. initiative and has asserted that it has simply made it easier for the regime
to claim that all pro-democracy groups and activists are paid agents of the
Despite the increased repression of recent years, Iran has witnessed a growing
civil society movement and increasing calls for greater freedom. Indeed, those
in the Iranian regime correctly recognize that the biggest threat to their grip
on power comes not from the United States, but from their own people. Civilian-based
insurrections have played a critical role over the past century in challenging
Iranian rulers, such as during the Constitutional Revolution of 1907 and the
overthrow of the shah in 1979. Iran's clerical leaders, faced with growing dissent
– particularly among youth, the middle class, and urban dwellers – realize that
they may be next.
In an effort to head off such a popular uprising and discredit pro-democracy
leaders and their supporters, Iran's reactionary leadership has been making
false claims, aired in detail in a series of television broadcasts during the
third week of July, that certain Western nongovernmental organizations that
have given workshops and offered seminars for Iranian pro-democracy activists
on the theory and history of strategic nonviolent struggle are actually plotting
with the Bush administration in offering specific instructions on how to overthrow
the regime. On several occasions, Iranian authorities have arrested and tortured
these activists, forcing them to sign phony confessions allegedly confirming
Some Western bloggers and other writers, understandably skeptical of U.S. intervention
in oil-producing nations in the name of "democracy," have actually bought into
these claims by Iran's hard-line clerics that prominent nonviolent activists
from Europe and the United States – most of whom happen to be highly critical
of U.S. policy toward Iran – are somehow working as agents of the Bush administration.
These conspiracy theories have in turn been picked up by some progressive Web
sites and periodicals, which repeat them as fact. The result has been to strengthen
the hand of Iran's repressive regime, weaken democratic forces in Iran, and
strengthen the argument of U.S. neoconservatives that only military force from
the outside – and not nonviolent struggle by the Iranian people themselves –
is capable of freeing Iran from repressive clerical rule.
Historically, individuals and groups with experience in effective mass nonviolent
mobilization tend to come from the left and carry a skeptical view of government
power, particularly governments with a history of militarism and conquest. Conversely,
large bureaucratic governments used to projecting political power through military
force or elite diplomatic channels have little understanding or appreciation
of mass popular struggles.
As a result, the dilemma for U.S. policymakers is this: the most realistic
way to overthrow the Iranian regime is through a process the United States cannot
The U.S. government has historically promoted regime change through military
invasions, coups d'etat, and other kinds of violent seizures of power
by an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent "people power" movements, by contrast,
promote regime change through empowering pro-democratic majorities. Unlike fomenting
a military coup or supporting a military occupation, which are based upon control
over the population and repression of potential political opponents, nonviolent
civil insurrections – as a result of being based upon a broad coalition of popular
movements – are impossible for an outside power to control.
As a result, the best hope for Iran comes from Iranian civil society, which,
despite the repression from its government and the negative consequences of
sanctions and threats against its country from Washington, is quite capable
of eventually bringing down the regime and establishing a more just and democratic
society. Freedom will some day come to Iran. When it does, however, it will
be in spite of – rather than because of – the policies of the United States.
Reprinted courtesy of Right Web.