The Magazine

Regime Change in Iran?

Applying George W. Bush's "liberation theology" to the mullahs.

Aug 5, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 45 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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A QUICK LOOK at the response in Iran to the president's remarks gives you some idea how powerful liberal ideas are in the modern Middle East. From the "reformists" behind President Mohammad Khatami to the "hard core" behind spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, they are furious. The Iranian parliament passes anti-American, anti-"hegemon" declarations; the "moderates" and the "hard-liners" organize street demonstrations to prove to America and, more important, to themselves, that they cannot be intimidated. They know, even if the Near East Bureau at the State Department does not, that the Iranian people overwhelmingly view clerical rule as fundamentally illegitimate. The heavily Westernized clerics of Iran's religious establishment--and these mullahs are on both sides of the so-called "moderate-conservative" split--know perfectly well that the Persian word azadi, "freedom," is perhaps the most evocative word in the language now, and it no longer denotes the idea of national independence, as it did during the revolution. Under the mullahs, azadi means personal liberty. Its first political connotation among the people has become, without a doubt, representative democracy unfettered by a paternalistic clerical vanguard (Khatami and friends) or by a more direct, slightly more mean-spirited dictatorship (Khamenei and company). Azadi has also become indissolubly associated with the United States.

To his intellectual credit, Khatami knows that America is currently the driving force of history because, among other things, it is the engine of individual liberty, whose centripetal eminence draws to it those who wish to shatter tradition, in other words, the young. The majority of Iran's population is under 20 years of age. They are restless, angry, poor, sexually frustrated, and addicted to the dream, encouraged by the material promises of the revolution, of a better life. Khatami's failure to do much of anything since his election to the presidency in 1997 except talk, often in vague, contradictory language, about greater freedom has further made the case for the United States. Indeed, the political, Westernized clergy like Khatami and Khamenei, who have America on the brain, have become unintentionally America's most eloquent ambassadors in the Islamic Republic.

President Bush's recent decision to take his distance from Foggy Bottom's continuing wish to somehow engage the "moderate" clergy behind Khatami bilaterally will, of course, enhance the stature of America on the "Iranian street." Neither Khatami nor any other regime-loyal cleric will be able to co-opt America's immense prestige and awe among the Iranian people by suggesting through some "dialogue of civilizations" that the clerical regime can command respect abroad, or that it can induce America to pay homage to the culture and permanence of Iran's Islamic revolution. This is painfully embarrassing for the regime, which in great part defines itself vis-a-vis the United States.

This was an easy but significant victory for President Bush and, more important, for the Iranian people, who unquestionably want "regime change" in Tehran. Quite contrary to the depiction one often sees on CNN or reads in the press, America's position in the Middle East has strengthened enormously since September 11. Where it matters most--and no place matters more than Iran (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in comparison small potatoes)--America's influence has increased, if not skyrocketed. The Israeli-Palestinian war has, by the way, also fortified America's awe throughout the region. By returning to the West Bank, the Israelis, and by extension their American allies, have demonstrated how they, not Yasser Arafat and his minions, hold most of the cards in the Israeli-Palestinian future. President Bush's decision to ignore Arafat and return Washington's attention to the coming war with Iraq, combined with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's more aggressive military actions, has with alacrity diminished Arafat, and effectively undercut Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's designs to direct America's foreign policy.

Despite his administration's dithering on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian question, President Bush through his war on terrorism, the axis-of-evil speeches, and his new doctrine of preemptive warfare has clearly reversed the momentum in the region, putting America's foes on the defensive. It is worthwhile to look back just a few years to see the magnitude of the Bush administration's achievement since September 11. Think about the Clinton administration's record in the Middle East. In particular, look at the way that administration handled Iran. On the ground and in the mind, the difference is striking. The Bush administration may well waste what it has achieved, depending on its future actions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, but the promise and possibilities of change in the region have never been greater.