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How to Counter the Iranian Regime’s Challenge

Thousands of Iranian-Americans protest against Iranian Regime in Support of Regime Change in Iran outside the UN in New York (file photo)
Thousands of Iranian-Americans protest against Iranian Regime in Support of Regime Change in Iran outside the UN in New York (file photo)

On New Year’s Eve of 1978, when President Jimmy Carter arrived in Tehran, during a state dinner, he described Iran under the Shah as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Little did President Carter know that the Shah was going to be overthrown in less than 14 months in the course of one of the most unprecedented revolutions in modern history. Four decades later, we are witnessing the same failure again.

Few in the West could see the uprisings of December 2017 and November 2019 coming to hit the Mullahs like a wrecking ball. If the West doesn’t fully understand the dynamics of social forces operating beneath the surface in Iran, how can it react to evolving facts on the ground? How can it stand on the right side of history? How is it going to defend its national interests against the most active state sponsor of terrorism?

For the past four decades, the West has allowed the Mullahs to dictate the narrative on Iran. Indeed, the Mullahs’ propaganda machine has spoon-fed the West as to how to view the regime, Iranian society, and the opposition movement, leading to conclusions benefiting mullahs:

Stability of Regime:

Mullahs claim that the regime is stable. Then, what explains the massive uprisings of 2009, 2017, 2019, and the continued protest movements to this date? Why would the regime resort to killing more than 1,500 in a matter of 48 hours to quash the uprising of 2019? Here, we witness a regime on its last leg rather than a stable one. The uprisings of 2017 and 2019 did not happen in a vacuum. They should be viewed within the context of decades of struggle, sacrifices, and hard work by the organized resistance of the Iranian people. Why did the West miss all those signs? What signs and realities is it missing today?

Primary Conflict in Society:

For decades, the Mullahs have portrayed the main conflict in Iran between the so-called reformist and hardline factions of the regime. However, with the radicalization of society through the recent uprisings, they had no choice but to put an end to the so-called reformist theatrics, which became a source of liability for the regime during uprisings. This elimination has made it difficult for the appeasers in the West to carry out their business as usual. Without the cover of “reformists,” how could they now advocate dealing with the regime? In reality, though, the main conflict in Iran has always been between the people (and their organized resistance) and the totality of the ruling regime.

The recent uprisings have discredited the claims that the regime is stable and that the main conflict within society is not between the people and regime. Cornered by the people, the Mullahs now pin their hope on claiming there is no alternative to the regime.

The Alternative:

The reality is that Iranian people have an alternative, i.e., the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of a broad range of political forces and personalities established in 1981 to topple the Mullahs’ regime. As the NCRI’s pivotal member, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is the most organized opposition group globally. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of MEK members have been killed by the regime, today, MEK thrives in Iran and leads the protest movement through its resistance units. Mullahs correctly see the only existential threat from the MEK. Having failed to physically eliminate the MEK (and by extension, the NCRI), the regime now increasingly relies on those who appear to be opposing the regime to sell the idea that there is no viable alternative. Overall, the regime’s approach is to focus its propaganda machine on the demonization of MEK. Further, it attempts to distract attention away from MEK/NCRI toward the harmless “opposition” elements, e.g., remnants of the previous monarchical dictatorship.

On the international front, the Mullahs have taken advantage of the inherent vulnerabilities of the Western democracies to prevent an effective policy toward the theocracy in Iran:

(a) Changing Administrations: Mullahs often wait out U.S. administrations with adversarial tendencies. In the meantime, the policies of the theocracy remain the same, despite any changes at the level of the players implementing the policies.

(b) Election Oriented Policies: In order to win elections, policymakers tend to adopt policies designed to achieve short-term results, which inherently are neither comprehensive nor strategically sound. Such policies do not effectively address the multi-faceted threats posed by the regime, and as a result, the theocracy can advance its objectives. Indeed, the regime ruling Iran has been the primary culprit for the failure of U.S. policy in the region.

(c) Western Lens: Policymakers view the Mullahs’ regime through the lens of Western politics and norms. Over the years, the Mullahs have taken full advantage of policy-makers erroneously viewing the regime consisting of reformists and conservatives. In reality, though, all factions within the regime support terrorism abroad and repression domestically, and as a whole, the theocracy cannot reform itself.

What is to be done, then?

A policy centered on human rights can generate vast bipartisan support in the U.S. This policy, supported by public opinion, can stay rock solid as administrations come and go. This policy would directly target the Achilles heel of the Mullahs’ terrorism more than any other approach. After all, the need for repression inside is what propels the regime to seek sources of power through terrorism, beyond its borders, and in the region. In turn, the strength of the repression apparatus domestically translates into motivation, logistics, personnel, and the organizational ability for its terrorism apparatus abroad. As a result, to dismantle the regime’s terrorism abroad, its repression apparatus inside Iran has to be effectively targeted.

A policy based on human rights would not tolerate the regime’s suppression of the protest movement inside Iran, which is the main vehicle for democratic change. Further, the recognition of the indigenous political institution representing the protest movement, i.e., the NCRI, would deliver a lethal shock to the ailing body of the regime, which is immersed in existential crises. This recognition could also act as the final ultimatum to the regime to change its behavior. If not, then it would act as a catalyst and set the stage for the people and resistance units to bring about the final blows for toppling the regime.