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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THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION, like a majority of Iran-watchers in the academy and press, really did not enjoy dissecting the nature of the Islamic Republic's tyranny. Children of the left, the Clintonites by and large could not free themselves of a basic tenet of tiers-mondisme: The injection of Western thought into the bloodstream of foreign cultures is somehow illicit. The same folks who had a hard time being staunch cold warriors before the Berlin Wall fell had a particularly hard time dealing with Islam as a political force. They wanted to avoid suggesting that there was anything politically obstreperous about Islam. Liberal, secularized Christians and Jews who wouldn't hesitate to dissect the political nature of Christianity and Judaism avoided turning the same acumen towards the Middle East's last great monotheism.

As the author Susan Sontag once remarked in a discussion about Islam and the West, it was good and right to be "pro-Muslim." Behind the Clinton administration's hope that Mohammad Khatami was something decisively different was more than a little Vietnam-era idealism and guilt about the past exercise of American power in the region. Where the pro-engagement crowd on the American right wanted to reduce or drop sanctions against the Islamic Republic primarily because of a love of free trade and a growing annoyance at the intrusion of American morality into the realpolitik of foreign affairs, the pro-engagement crowd on the American left wanted to reduce or drop sanctions primarily because of an irenic temperament. Bill Clinton wanted to make friends. Just as the Clinton crowd thought Yasser Arafat wanted peace with the Israelis, they thought Mohammad Khatami and company really wanted an amicable dialogue.

Of course, this did not mean that liberals didn't have troublesome ideals. Women's rights were an unqualified good. Persecution of Baha'is and Jews in Iran was deplorable. Stoning was bad. Lopping off hands and feet was not good either. Trying to kill the British novelist Salman Rushdie was unconscionable. But these ethical infractions somehow couldn't and shouldn't impede the commendable attempt to find a "third way," an "Islamic path to democracy." The pro-woman cleric Mohammad Khatami and the "reformist" mullahs behind him might well, we were assured by many journalists, academics, and not a few sympathetic U.S. officials off the record, hatch some kind of "post-Islamist" democratic order--an Islamism with a human face.

We needed to be patient and sympathetic and, above all, non-confrontational. We should apologize for our sins to advance reconciliation, which according to the director of the new Persian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the NGOers of the Soros Foundation, ought to be the ultimate objective. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accordingly apologized for the American-backed 1953 coup against the oil-nationalizing Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. She also apologized for our subsequent support to the shah and our "shortsighted" aid to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. President Clinton went further--further certainly than any president has ever gone in trying to elevate apologia into diplomacy. He apologized for everything. He apologized not only for us, but for the entire West. President Clinton expressed his highest ideals as a form of international therapy. In an amazing, off-the-cuff speech in April 1999, the president gave us his formula for Middle Eastern conflict resolution:

"Iran has been . . . a subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. . . . It's quite important to tell people: Look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago. ...So I think while we speak out against religious intolerance we have to listen for possible ways we can give people the legitimacy of some of their fears, of some of their angers, or some of their historical grievances, and then say . . . now can we build a common future?"

In an Iranian context, the president's well-intended sentiments were risible. Haughty and heavy-handed, the Iranians are not known for showing empathy toward their neighbors. Shahs and mullahs do not apologize. For them, statecraft is not soulcraft. It is about power. For many of the clerics in Iran, it's also about projecting God's will on earth. By disposition, President Clinton and his administration were exquisitely ill-suited to handle Iran and the Middle East. The very empathy they aimed at clerical Iran only fed the belief in the region that the United States is no longer a power much to be feared.

It is impossible to imagine George W. Bush apologizing to Iran, or to any country with which the United States has played hardball politics. It genetically just couldn't happen. In that difference of personal chemistry--and for both Bush and Clinton it is certainly more a matter of sentiment than intellectualized strategy--lies the possibility for Bush of greatness in foreign affairs. But what should the Bush administration do next concerning the Islamic Republic?

THE WISEST PATH is probably to punt downfield, as the administration is doing with the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. The war with Iraq--assuming it happens--will have an enormous impact on the Middle East. If the United States stays in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, and ushers in some type of a federal, democratic system, the repercussions throughout the region could be transformative. Popular discontent in Iran tends to heat up when U.S. soldiers get close to the Islamic Republic. An American invasion could possibly provoke riots in Iran--simultaneous uprisings in major cities that would simply be beyond the scope of regime-loyal specialized riot-control units. The army or the Revolutionary Guard Corps would have to be pulled into service in large numbers, and that's when things could get interesting. The clerical regime fears big street confrontations, afraid that it cannot rely on the loyalty of either the army or the Guard Corps.

And if an American invasion doesn't provoke urban unrest, the creation of a democratic Iraq probably will. Iraq's majority Shiite population, who will inevitably lead their country in a democratic state, will start to talk to their Shiite brethren over the Iran-Iraq border. The collective Iranian conversation about American-aided democracy in Iraq will be brutal for the mullahs (which is why the Bush administration should prepare itself for Iranian mischief in Iraq's politics once Tehran determines that the Bush administration is indeed serious about ensuring a democratic triumph in Baghdad). The Bush administration should, of course, quickly and loudly support any demonstrators who hit the streets in Iran. America's approval will not be the kiss of death for the brave dissidents who challenge the regime's armed defenders. On the contrary, such psychological support could prove critical to those trying to show to the people that the die is now decisively cast against the regime.

Yet unless the ruling mullahs, or their terrorist stepchildren, the Lebanese Hezbollah, force Washington to respond to some egregious act of terrorism before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration ought to just let the clerics stew in their own mess. Thinking seriously about Iraq and Iran simultaneously might overwhelm the administration, which seemed completely consumed for a time by the rather small-scale war in Afghanistan.

Eventually, the administration may have to deal forcefully with the Lebanese Hezbollah--who remain perhaps the most lethal terrorist organization in the Middle East--and their Iranian and Syrian backers. The administration may have to tell the Russians, sooner rather than later, that their support of Iran's nuclear program is unacceptable. (If the Russians ignore us--and we should try to devise the most painful arm-twisting that we can for Moscow--then the administration ought to prepare for a military strike against the Bushehr reactor facility. Under no circumstances should the United States allow Bushehr to become operational.)

But for the time being, we should focus on the bully pulpit. The administration and Congress should ensure by some means that the unfortunately bankrupt National Iranian Television satellite channel in Los Angeles keeps on broadcasting to Iran (the ruling clerics detest this independent Iranian-American enterprise). Iranian expatriates living in the United States and the West have done enormous good for their homeland by prospering in emigration and by informing their friends and family in Iran--virtually everybody, given the way gossip works in the country--of their lives in the West. Iranian expatriates are the most consequential players in America's public diplomacy with the Muslim world.

President Bush, of course, doesn't need National Iranian Television broadcasts to beam his message into the Islamic Republic. Everything he says moves at lightspeed through the country. The president just needs to keep talking about freedom being the birthright of Muslim peoples. If he does so, he will do vastly more for the Iranian people than Mohammad Khatami ever will. And if history repeats itself--as goes Iran, so will go the Muslim world.

Contributing editor Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.