Raymond Tanter and Ivan Sascha Sheehan
January 17, 2018
The diverse coalition of demonstrators that have taken to the streets is making it clear that the theocracy ruling Iran has no future.
“[This] is a theocratic regime that is looking backwards, instead of a regime that is looking forward to make the lives of their people better . . . It is my full expectation that you will see the Iranian people continue to revolt against this.” — Michael Pompeo, Director, Central Intelligence Agency
Breaking News: “These protests are not behind us.”
We share Pompeo’s view, stated January 8.
President Trump’s January 12 decision to renew the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, also known as the nuclear deal, keeps it intact for another 120 days as the White House considers whether to modify the arrangement with key European allies or scrap the deal altogether.
But newly targeted, nonnuclear sanctions issued by the Treasury Department signal the president’s intent to turn up the heat on the regime by prosecuting Tehran’s adventurism, while continuing to scrutinize JCPOA compliance. Exhibit A: Treasury named head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, to the sanctions lists, where it also placed a Chinese network helping Iran procure weapons.
The president’s move provides an opportunity to pressure Tehran further over its illicit activities, missile tests and crackdowns on protesters. Iran’s use of coercive capacity toward protesters places the regime in a precarious position with a Trump administration now more inclined to uphold human rights and support the aspirations of the Iranian people. The regime arrested thousands, detained, injured and killed them in uprisings beginning on December 28; demonstrations continue in more than a hundred cities, including the heartland of regime support, rural Iran.
Neither Presidents Bush nor Obama backed the Iranian people, when they rose up to change the regime in Tehran, following protests during their respective tenures. Trump therefore stands to make history, provided he follows through on threats to punish those using violence against freedom-seeking demonstrators, per the authors on January 3.
Trump’s offensive posture in responding to the largest uprising since the 2009 presidential elections places Tehran on its back foot and engenders gratitude from demonstrators: Each day of protest represents an opportunity to leverage the people’s resentment against Tehran and strike a fatal blow to a tyrannical regime.
In contrast to our view, on January 7, Frederick Kagan and Marie Donovan argue “The protests rocking an unprecedented expanse of Iran do not, and probably will not, immediately threaten the regime’s survival despite the hopesand dreams of many here in Washington.” But consider Ray Takeyh’s position on January 16 that “The popular uprisings in Iran make it a sure bet that the Islamic Republic’s government will eventually collapse.”
We do not claim that revolution will transpire in 2018, but rather that change will occur and it may happen sooner than some think.
Former CIA analyst, Marc Reuel Gerecht, observed on January 4:
The current eruptions may well fail to unseat the mullahs. Yet as the great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun warned, there is always another asabiyya, or galvanizing spirit of a superior force, waiting outside the capital, gaining unstoppable momentum.
We share Gerecht’s view that momentum is growing, and calls for change are not easily dismissed when broad support exists.
Omri Ceren, editor of The Israel Project, cites strong bipartisan support for the uprising and the cross-party American coalition has valuable counterparts in U.S allies also backing Iranian protesters. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce understood this and, on January 9, provided strong backing for H.Res. 676, which called for “Supporting the rights of the people of Iran to free expression, condemning the Iranian regime for its crackdown on legitimate protests, and for other purposes.” The non-controversial measure passed by a vote of 415–2.
And if support for protesters is not eliciting deep concern in Tehran, why has the regime’s influence operation to deflect attention and mask discontent on the Iranian street been so concerted?
In a December 31 article in Tehran Times titled “Attempt to hijack nation’s voice,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Majlis (Parliament) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, makes the unfounded claim that an “anti-Iran plan by Saudis, Zionists, and the U.S. was put to force by funding the terrorist expatriate group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization, [the largest unit within the National Council of Resistance of Iran] to seize the moment and wreak chaos.” Regime leaders seeking scapegoats have picked up the theme.
On January 6, an Israeli newspaper, Harretz, teased the headline: “Iran Calls U.N. Session on Protests Another Trump Foreign Policy Blunder” and noted that Iran’s UN envoy said he has “hard proof” of foreign intervention in the protests. But no such evidence has materialized.
Perhaps it is because, as Michael Pompeo correctly notes of the protests, “This was the Iranian people. Started by them, created by them, continued by them, demanding a better set of living conditions and a break from the theocratic regime.”
Haaretz observes that even if protests are quelled, a powder keg remains: “There is no quick fix for the dire economic straits that have driven working and middle-class Iranians onto the streets, and reformists and conservatives both know it.”
Explanations: Why Iran, How and When?
The global framing of Iranian protests, with reference to the regime and its principal regional adversaries, is also a sign of the times. On one hand, there are the January 5 remarks of U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley at an Emergency Session of the UN Security Council Briefing on Iran:
“Once again, the people of Iran are rising up. They are asking for something that no government can legitimately deny them: their human rights and fundamental freedoms. They are calling out, ‘Think of us.’ If the founding principles of this institution mean anything, we will not only hear their cry, we will finally answer it. The Iranian regime is now on notice. The world will be watching what you do.”
On the other hand, Moscow—a fierce critic of Washington for convening the security council over protests in Iran—dispatched its envoy Vasily Nebenzya to argue that involving the council in an “internal affair” damaged the top UN body.
Whereas Haley praised the protests as a “powerful exhibition of brave people,” her Iranian counterpart said the U.S. administration “was abusing its power as a permanent member of the council” by arguing that external agitators were fueling the conflict.
In The Princes and the Mullahs: Why Iranians are in the streets—and Saudis aren’t, Elliott Abrams unpacks why protests are erupting in Iran and not in neighboring Saudi Arabia and suggests freedom-seeking demonstrations are simply more important in Tehran than Riyadh. Abram’s thesis underscores an important element of frustration on the Iranian Street.
The Islamic Republic of Iran led by Ayatollah Khamenei, is now seventy-eight; he replaced Ayatollah Khomeini, who was eighty-six when he died. A similar situation once described Saudi Arabia: One brother replaced another, and each was older than the previous. In contrast to Iran, power is now moving to a new generation in the Saudi Kingdom—the new crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is thirty-two and several advisers are from his generation.
“It’s obvious to Saudis that he wants significant social and economic progress and has begun to promote it,” Abrams notes. “To Saudis, this means that their government is in new hands and is suddenly an engine of change—not its enemy, as in Iran.”
In contrast, MEMRI, an Israeli Journal covering the region, reports that though the regime suggests otherwise—the nationwide uprising in Iran is directed squarely at Tehran’s ruling elite. Protestors are making explicitly political demands and targeting the regime’s leaders by calling for an end of the regime of the Islamic Republic and a discontinuance of shipments of Iranian wealth to Syria and Gaza with the chant, “No Syria, no Gaza, my life is for Iran.”
Among notable demands expressed: a referendum; abolition of Rule of the Jurisprudent—a Supreme Leader who is above the law; free elections; free press; and separation of religion and state—the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran conceived in the 1978–1979 Revolution.
We interviewed protestors at an Iranian-American event near the White House on January 6 for several articles and witnessed similar demands and chants repeated by Iranians around the world; ditto BBC.
So, how does one change the regime in Tehran? Invasion and occupation, as with the U.S.-led war in Iraq and subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein, or regime change from within, by the people, as happened in the Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe? Our research indicates three steps, which point to how and when.
The Way Forward
First, the decision by the U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control to designate Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), pursuant to the global terrorism Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 was consistent withCountering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Listing of the IRGC, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization–along with more than forty related entities, was necessary to contain the regime’s belligerence. So too were sanctions on the Islamic Republic for involvement in terrorist activity and large-scale counterfeiting. Washington’s imposition of sanctions on five Iranian companies it alleges were working on part of Iran’s illegal ballistic missile program was sensible, but more needs to be done. There are dozens of IRGC offshoots and affiliates engaged in weapons shipments, human-rights abuses, and suppression of protesters, which still require scrutiny and need to be targeted by U.S officials.
Second, the White House should engage in proactive steps to discredit the disinformation campaign fueled by Tehran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and seize the narrative on Iran policy resulting in the Iran nuclear deal, by no longer ignoring Iran’s malign activities by the Obama administration. A 2012 report by the Library of Congress Federal Research Division titled, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security: A Profile, identified several individuals and organizations operating for years for MOIS, against the opposition. It seeks to tarnish the resistance’s reputation to reinforce rule of Ayatollahs. We suggest a thorough counterintelligence review of the Iranian influence operation worldwide to combat regime disinformation.
Third, the National Security Strategy is out-of-date. Reassess and change it so that it takes into consideration the demonstrations and subsequent violence by security forces against protestors. Expansion and acceleration of protests in Iran means regime change from within needs to be in U.S. national-security and human-rights strategies.
Consider historical risks taken by protestors to defy authorities and how quickly events turned in parallel cases: 1989 alone saw movements for change in Romania, Tiananmen Square, and the Berlin Wall, and in what came to be known as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
Will 2018 bring revolution to Iran? Perhaps. The diverse coalition of demonstrators that have taken to the streets is making it clear that the theocracy ruling Iran has no future. As nuclear strategist, Fred Charles Iklé, remarked in his classic treatise: “Just as every war must end,” we say all dictatorships will fall, because they lack popular support. If ongoing, nationwide demonstrations do not reflect a lack of popular support and a regime on the ropes, what does? If not now, when?
CIA Director Pompeo rightly observes: “The economic conditions in Iran are not good. That’s what caused the people to take to the streets,” Pompeo observes. “Meanwhile, the Iranian regime threatens violence. Qassem Soleimani wastes their money in places like Lebanon and Syria and Yemen trying to foment goodness knows what.”
As former American UN Ambassador John Bolton said in Paris to the Grand Gathering of Iranians for Free Iran: “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself!”
The question is not if regime change will happen, but when it will happen.
Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, personal representative of the secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe, and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @AmericanCHR.
Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Human Security and Negotiations and Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.