October 10, 2004


The revolution next time: As Iran moves to the front burner, some in Washington are arguing that with a little help exiles and dissidents can topple the mullahs and establish a pro-Western democracy. Sound familiar? (Laura Rozen, October 10, 2004, Boston Globe)

AS INTERNATIONAL CONCERN mounts about Iran's nuclear aspirations, a fractious debate is emerging in Washington over what to do if multilateral diplomacy fails to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.

Some basic facts are agreed upon: that Iran's nuclear program has become broadly popular in that country and has given further political strength and cohesion to a clerical regime that has also been under growing internal pressure from its population to reform. But here consensus ends.

To some American observers, these facts imply that the United States should grit its teeth and deal directly with a regime that calls America the Great Satan, perhaps even offering to lift US sanctions in exchange for Tehran abandoning its nuclear program. Another faction believes the United States should pursue the Bush administration's current course of multilateral diplomacy to its logical conclusion: Encourage the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran in noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the UN Security Council, thus triggering discussion of a host of various punitive measures, from travel bans and an oil embargo to possible enforced disarmament.

To another group, however, the current facts argue for an entirely different solution: Change the Iranian regime, their thinking goes, and the nuclear issue will take care of itself.

Leading the charge in favor of this idea is neoconservative writer and political operative Michael Ledeen. For years, Ledeen -- currently the Freedom Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and acontributing editor at National Review -- has argued that the chief source of international terrorism in the world is Tehran. In numerous articles and his most recent book, "The War Against the Terror Masters" (2002), Ledeen has insisted not only that overthrowing the regime in Tehran should have come before military intervention in Iraq (though he continues to strongly support that operation), but that it would be relatively easy. "You don't have to fire a shot," he told The New York Sun in November 2002. "The Iranians are dying to bring down the government themselves."

While Ledeen's argument did not prevail then, it is gaining attention now, in particular as European-led diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear program have faltered in recent months. Earlier this year, the White House considered a secret policy directive that included a proposal to destabilize the government in Tehran. Preoccupied with the insurgency in post-war Iraq, and facing opposition from the State Department, the Bush administration put further consideration of the plan on hold. But there are signs that it is returning to the fore. In July, Senators Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004, which declared that "it should be the policy of the United States to support regime change for the Islamic Republic of Iran and to promote the transition to a democratic government to replace that regime" and would authorize the president to "provide assistance to foreign and domestic pro-democracy groups opposed to the non-democratic Government of Iran." (The bill has been referred to the Foreign Relations Committee for further consideration.)

The regime change idea is generating controversy both inside and outside the Bush administration, not least because it is Ledeen himself who is most vigorously championing it. For inseparable from Ledeen's decades-long fascination with Iran and fervent belief that it is on the verge of democratic revolution is Ledeen's own controversial history with America's Iran policy, his zeal for the covert, and his disdain for sanctioned bureaucratic channels for US foreign policy making. [...]

In a recent e-mail interview, Ledeen suggested that whether the push comes from inside or outside Iran is just a small detail that distracts from the larger goal."

Most successful revolutions have had external support," Ledeen wrote. "That includes the American, French, and Russian revolutions." Besides, he asserts, "Most Iranians believe that American support is crucial for the spread of freedom, and that unless there is American support, efforts to topple the regime are doomed."

Some Iranian opposition activists agree that the United States signaling to Iran in a decisive way that it wants regime change may embolden the internal opposition, as Reagan's labelling the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire" and calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall may have emboldened dissidents to step up resistance to Soviet totalitarianism."

So our Natan Sharansky sitting in Iranian jail has to feel that something serious has changed in US policy," says Shary Ahy, a Virginia-based Iranian-American political scientist who is involved in a new effort to build a coalition of Iranian democratic opposition groups inside and outside the country. "Instead, they've been hearing a lot of double-talk from the US."

While Ahy wants the United States to commit itself to democratic regime change in Iran, he says it is crucial that it clearly state that this does not include any military action. "No one in the Iranian opposition I have talked to wants military action," he says.

The problem with comparing the Iraq of 2003 with the Iran of 2004 is that the Iraqis had come to justifiably despise us for first betraying their popular revolt in 1991 and then maintaining a brutal sanctions regime, which hurt them while helping Saddam, for the next twelve years. Iranian attitudes towards the U.S. are far more favorable, in no small part because so many Iranians are too young to remember the repeated occasions on which we screwed their nation over.

President Bush has already spoken to the Iranian people of our support for their aspirations, Radio Address by the President to the People of Iran on Radio Farda (George W. Bush, 12/20/02)

I'm pleased to send warm greetings to the people of Iran and to welcome you to the new Radio Farda broadcast.

For many years, the United States has helped bring news and cultural broadcasts for a few hours every day to the Iranian people via Radio Freedom. Yet the Iranian people tell us that more broadcasting is needed, because the unelected few who control the Iranian government continue to place severe restrictions on access to uncensored information. So we are now making our broadcast available to more Iranians by airing news and music and cultural programs nearly 24 hours a day, and we are pleased to continue Voice of America and VOA TV services to Iran.

The people of Iran want to build a freer, more prosperous country for their children, and live in a country that is a full partner in the international community. Iranians also deserve a free press to express themselves to help build an open, democratic and free society.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Iranian people, particularly the families of the many Iranians who are in prison today for daring to express their hopes and dreams for a better future. We continue to stand with the people of Iran in your quest for freedom, prosperity, honest and effective government, judicial due process and the rule of law. And we continue to call on the government of Iran to respect the will of its people and be accountable to them.

As I have said before, if Iran respects its international obligations and embraces freedom and tolerance, it will have no better friend than the United States of America.

Best wishes for a bright future, filled with knowledge and information and freedom.

But he needs to do so in the same type of public forum that Ronald Reagan used to serve notice on the Soviets that the only acceptable outcome to the Cold War was regime change.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2004 2:14 PM

Say, what happened to that uprising last week?

We know something about unrest, or ought to, or else the 20th century really was a pointless exercise.

('Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want' -- Dan Stanford)

If it's true that the population is on the verge of explosion, then it will explode given an igniting event. The perfect sort of igniting event is nonpolitical, one in which every disgruntled sector can unite to overthrow the regime.

A perfect such event happened in Iran, the earthquake in Bam.

No uprising followed.

I conclude, therefore, that the extent of discontent in Iran has been overstated, way overstated.

They do not want democracy or any other western intrusion. All they want is a more competent band of mullahs.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 10, 2004 3:55 PM

The 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua led to the overthrow of Somoza but it took seven years. You're too wrapped up in yourself to grasp the tides of history.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2004 4:00 PM

So our Natan Sharansky sitting in [sic] Iranian jail....

More likely in an unmarked grave or a vat of lye.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 10, 2004 6:28 PM

The Iranian people, unlike Arabs, have a culture other than that tumor known as 'Islam.' The mullahs have tried to wipe it out but have been spectacularly unsuccessful.

Most Iranians see a role for Islam in their society and will never adopt American style Church/State separation, let alone Euro mass secularism. It is also unlikely there will be a mass movement from the streets to overthrow the regime, which has been skillful in co-opting the unemployed young males of its working class into a Green Guard.

Population growth there will demonstrate the essential unsustainability of the system. My expectation is that some more moderate, but still religious figure will emerge who will end the confrontational nonsense of the last 30 years and return the nation to normalcy.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 10:52 AM

The difference is Shi'ism, not that they are Persian.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 11:00 AM


That's ridiculous. Baby Assad is a Shi'ite.(Alawism is a form of Shia Islam) The majority of Iraqi Arabs are Shia.

The Turks, who also have a real culture that predates Islam, are Sunni yet don't have this pathology.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 11:15 AM

Yes, you'll have noticed that the drive for democracy in Iraq is led by Shi'ites and opposed by Sunnis.

The Assads aren't religious, they're Ba'athists.

Turkey had a great leader who made Islam compatible with a liberal state.The ease with which it's done suggests Sunnism will be quite easily Reformed.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 11:23 AM

Kemal called himself 'Father of the Turks' and went out of his way to divorce Turkish identity from Islam. A similar nationalist leader is the only hope for Iran.

The Shia are the majority in Iraq so it is only natural for them to support 'democracy.' Then they'll vote some hairball like Sistani into power. If they were the minority, they would have a different opinion.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 11:39 AM


No, Sunnism required that; Shi'ism is naturally democratic because so similar to Judaism and Christianity.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 11:49 AM

Well, the Iranians democrats can always hope for a bigger, better earthquake closer to media centers, and they have a fair chance of getting one.

But you're the one who's been predicting the imminent uprising, and I'm the one saying tnere hasn't been one, and I'm right.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 11, 2004 3:44 PM


As an egoist you measure imminent by your pulse, imminent in the course of history is a far different beast.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 3:55 PM

No pulse, no future.

See Darfur

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 12, 2004 1:14 PM

Yes, you were wrong about Darfur too. We dealt with it in record time.

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2004 1:32 PM

Actually, being Persian means quite a bit (to the average Persian). Being Shi'ite means less (except to the professional mullahs, who are an abomination to Persian history, as you have noted here many times).

The Persians look down on the Arabs, no matter what their background. They look down on Pakistanis, Indians, and Afghans (for pretty much the same reasons). The Shah tried to 'renew' Persian tradition, but he was so corrupt that he undercut it completely by the time he was forced out.

But approaching Iran as Persians, with an understanding of what that means, is not a bad idea.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 12, 2004 11:33 PM