With the exception of those married to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement at any cost, the idea of a nonviolent regime change in Iran is a very appealing notion. In theory, it would serve American interests by removing a dangerous nemesis with American blood on its hands, and it could also create the possibility of turning a malignant enemy into a potential ally in the Muslim world, while freeing the Iranian people from 40 years of terror, repression and hardship.
But does regime change always mean kinetic military action, or is it possible to change a malevolent regime without force?
According to the research of Harvard’s Erica Chenoweth, more than half of nonviolent revolutions are successful, as long as more than 3.5% of the population participates to ensure regime change, whereas less than 25% of violent uprisings succeed.
So why not Iran?
Just think about how many nations challenged their authoritarian rulers, without violence, successfully overthrowing their governments.
From the nonviolent overthrow of Communist governments in Poland, East Germany, the Baltic states and Czechoslovakia, to the peaceful overthrow of apartheid South Africa, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the 1986 People Power Movement in the Philippines and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, regime change without violence is possible.
Even in the Muslim world, peaceful change occurred in Tunisia after the Arab Winter – and this year, authoritarian leaders in Sudan and Algeria were removed in peaceful movements.
We missed the boat in 2009 when, in the name of pursuing the Iranian nuclear deal, our last administration chose to side with Ayatollah Khamenei, abandoning the Iranian people’s Green Revolution when millions of Iranians went into the streets to protest against their authoritarian government.
As Eli Lake wrote in a 2006 Bloomberg article titled “Why Obama Let Iran’s Green Revolution Fail,” the president “wanted a nuclear deal, not regime change.”
Since the US reimposed and increased sanctions, anti-regime protests have increased due to rising unemployment, a collapse of the Iranian currency, pervasive regime corruption and a dramatic decrease in the average Iranian’s quality of life.
Sanctions have hurt the average Iranian, but they have also motivated their desire for political action and change. Is there anything else America can do to support the Iranian protester?
Are there risks in supporting nonviolent regime change in Iran?
Critics of sanctions and regime change like New York magazine and The Intelligencer said “Iranians may want change, but the collapse of their economy, society and state is surely not the kind of change they have in mind... there is no better way to discredit a legitimate protest movement than by linking it to a nefarious foreign enemy.”
What might start off nonviolently could spiral out of control, dragging America and its allies into a war without clear goals – other than replacing the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. They point to America’s recent failures in Iraq and its unpreparedness for nation-building in the aftermath of the Iraq victory in 2003.
The recent escalating tensions and rhetoric between Tehran and Washington have highlighted these choices and the dangers that might lie ahead.
What 21st-century Westerners never seem to have learned is that military strength combined with diplomacy is the best way to avoid war in the Middle East. As evidence, when President Donald Trump indicated his intention to withdraw troops from Syria, this was perceived as weakness, which emboldened America’s enemies.
Let’s be clear: The Iranian regime is indeed an enemy of America. Too many pundits and politicians cannot differentiate between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people. The Iranian people are not the same as the Islamist revolutionary mullahcracy. In fact, only 55% of the Iranian population is Persian. The overall population is widely believed to be, given the chance, the most Westernized and potentially politically West-aligned populace in the Muslim Middle East.
However, the nature of this regime has not changed since day one, and its goal is still to export, with its proxies, its Islamist revolution throughout the world. In the Western hemisphere, they have engaged in money laundering, drugs, terrorism and support for like-minded regimes in Venezuela and Cuba.
Iran does not want war now, hoping that the next presidential election will bring a Democratic candidate pledging to rejoin the JCPOA and offering Iran hundreds of billions of dollars in potential sanctions relief without ever having to change their spots or actions.
There is plenty of regret and blame about US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the formula of robust diplomacy backed by credible military force remains the best way to avoid wars in the volatile Middle East. A strong US stance is also to be seen as tacit support for Iranians who crave change and want to politically challenge the regime in the streets.
Which brings us back to the question: can regime change in Iran be encouraged without starting a kinetic war?
Nobody knows for sure. But if Iran were a medical patient, then the benefit is greater than the risk to American interests in supporting the Iranian protests that are bound to come. Once we accept this choice, the next question is how to hasten the journey of this repressive, fanatical, violent, anti-American regime to – as Ronald Reagan put it – the “ash heap of history.”
The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate and House, and their foreign policy advisers. A regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and i24TV international, he is a contributor to The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.