People who love freedom and see the advantage of aggressive regimes distracted by turmoil at home were glad for the recent uprisings in Iran. Not so Professor Gawdat Bahgat, of the National Defense University in Washington DC. In The National Interest, he recently cast the Iran protests as dangerous for regional stability and the wrong solution for the conflict between the West and Iran and for what is distressing the Iranian people.
He’s wrong on all counts. But his ideas are worth dissecting because they are what Obama administration defenders have been saying for years about Iran in defense of the flawed nuclear deal.
This Is Internal Dissent, Not Foreign ‘Regime Change’
The recent demonstrations across Iran lasted for several days until brutally suppressed by the Republican Guards Corps (the force behind the mullahs’ theocracy that runs the “republic”). Between 3,700 and 8,000 people have been arrested and more than two dozen killed by the regime, not counting those still dying due to torture and execution during their detention. It is hard to know the real numbers, but the regime has handled previous incidents the same way.
This time, however, is different in that the protestors were not just demanding economic relief and jobs but across numerous cities went straight for the heart of the matter by chanting “death to the ayatollah” and calling for an end to the regime’s aggressive and adventurous foreign policy that wastes the nation’s resources in support of terrorism and rogue regimes such as Syria’s Bashar al Assad.
But Bahgat doesn’t seem to see it that way. In the very first two paragraphs of the essay, rather than relay the actual nature of the protests, he uses the term “regime change,” which conjures up not oppressed people demanding an end to their oppression but suggests outside forces are trying to overthrow the regime. That’s exactly what the regime accuses the United States of doing.
The term “regime change” is not used to describe citizens voluntarily rising up against dictators but to describe other states’ foreign policy. I think Bahgat uses the term on purpose to conjure that image. One imagines the regime would be pleased with Bahgat’s description.
Bahgat also uses the Iranian government’s term for what is happening: “sedition.” Then he offers a curious thought: “It will take some time to accurately understand the roots of this violence and how it will impact Tehran’s domestic and foreign policies.”
Will it, really? The roots of the violence are the misrule and tyranny of the theocracy the people are protesting. Also, the violence is of the regime against the people—very few instances have been reported of Iranian citizens physically assaulting the regime (and who could blame them when peaceful protests are met with brutal crackdowns?). What is unclear about that?
It should also be no surprise. Many Iranians are educated, professional, young, and modern. They quite naturally chafe under the endemic corruption and oppression of a 30-year cleric dictatorship that operates a religious morals police and wastes the nation’s patrimony on the violent adventures of a pariah regime that hates Sunnis, Jews, Christians, and the United States. Bahgat would do well to consider the facts being reported rather than pretending we can’t be sure what is wrong in Iran.
We Can’t Let Freedom Get in Our Way, Now
But Bahgat has another goal in mind. His is a not-so-subtle attempt to defend the Obama approach to Iran (i.e., be nice to the regime and it will be nice to you) by trying to deny what is really happening. That is, the Iranian people’s uprising threatens the Obama policy because their demand for freedom and self-rule would end the rule of an aggressive, corrupt, and expansionist Shiite regime.
Above all, Bahgat seems most interested in saying what will be most useful in maintaining support for the Obama deal with Iran. His flawed arguments are numerous and breathtaking. Warning us that the fall of the ayatollah’s corrupt and oppressive government is dangerous, Bahgat ignores realities and offers up nonsense.
The fall of the mullahs’ government is dangerous only to the rulers themselves. The people of Iran are perfectly capable of self-government if given a chance. They certainly cannot do worse than this regime. Besides, it is a human right to throw off a dictatorship.
As to the idea that instability endangers the region, Bahgat engages in a long-held and flawed belief that dictatorships are somehow more stable than what he apparently assumes is the unruly nature of democratic governance. Democracy might be unruly at times, but it is violent and chaotic only when entrenched elites do things like, say, steal elections and mandate who can and cannot run in them; or meet peaceful protests with violence.
Thus the Iranian people rose up in 2009 over stolen elections, and were met with violence. They rose up again recently because the fruit of the stolen elections was broken promises, increased adventurism, and support for terror—with the $150 billion the Obama administration paid to get the Iran nuclear deal.
The people know very little of that money went anywhere but the rulers’ hands, and much of it was spent on controlling Syria and Lebanon and supporting terrorists. All the promises of reform and improvement for citizens’ lives were broken, just as one would expect them to be under a dictatorship. The fake moderates that so many in the United States and Europe want to believe in are simply pawns in the hands of the Ayatollah Khamenei and the Republican Guards who enforce his rule.
Okay, Let’s Closely Examine Iran Policy
Says Bahgat: “A close examination of Iranian policy suggests that the government has a long way to go to meet the aspirations of the socioeconomic and political needs of its large and young population. These include unemployment, gender equality, transparency, corruption and pollution, among others. The ‘right’ way to address these challenges is a gradual reform of the system, not regime change.”
A close examination of matters is always a good thing, but let’s not pretend it is hard to understand the Iranian regime’s moral and economic failures. Every problem listed above is caused by dictatorship. If the Iranian people were free to choose their leaders, they would be moving toward solutions for all these problems because their interests are to solve them. The regime’s interests are to do exactly the things the people are protesting, such as mismanaging the economy through corruption and military adventurism and imposing the mullahs’ ideas of public morals.
Next, Bahgat says that “experiments with regime change in the broad Middle East are not encouraging. Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are cases-in-point. The process of regime change by definition is destabilizing. An unstable Iran would threaten key global interests.”
There is no question that Obama’s policy in all these places made matters worse, and again Bahgat ignores that in every one of these countries the people were rising up against brutal dictatorships long before any foreign power contemplated regime change. As Elliott Abrams discussed in his most recent book, “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring,” tyranny is what destabilizes a country. Blaming the people for resisting it is a weak—and immoral—argument in favor of “stability.”
Then Bahgat makes an astonishing suggestion: we should desire the preservation of the regime because, like any other regime worried about its national security, it is fighting terrorism by working to defeat the Islamic State. He reminds that “ISIS would welcome a regime change in Tehran.”
Of course Iran opposes the Islamic State. So does the entire world. But the regime is not fighting ISIS simply because of national security reasons. It is using the fight to advance its own interests across the region, especially in Syria and Lebanon, and to further threaten Israel and oppose U.S. interests in the region.
If the mullahs’ regime were to succumb to citizen demands for democracy, there is no reason to believe that a democratic government would cease opposing ISIS. Rather, it would do so without trying to be the hegemon in the region. Further, the regime’s opposition to ISIS is itself destabilizing given the reaction of all Iran’s neighbors to its attempts to establish a Shia-controlled corridor to the Mediterranean.
Throwing Stuff at the Wall to See What Sticks
Next, Bahgat tries to argue the mullahs’ nuclear program is domestically popular, so any change in the regime will not end it. But there is a difference between a nuclear program per se, and a nuclear weapons program designed to protect the dictatorship from its opponents foreign and domestic. A nuclear program about energy and research is not a threat to anyone and can be had by states like Iran under the aegis of global treaties and cooperation with other countries.
That is not what the mullahs (or Kim Jong Un, for that matter) want or have ever wanted. A democratic Iran could theoretically have a nuclear program that isn’t weaponized and doesn’t threaten its neighbors or cost a significant portion of its national resources, but a violent theocracy isn’t interested in any of that.
Finally, Bahgat throws in the regime’s efforts to support Afghan refugees living in Iran and somehow connects this to the drug war. Oh, and something about Iran’s energy reserves being destabilized if the regime falls and that causing turmoil in the global energy market. We are now at the point of throwing things at the wall to see what will stick, to see what will scare the complacent into just continuing the Obama approach of wishing the regime into niceness.
Thus we arrive at the most bizarre of Bahgat’s assertions: that what is really needed is not the fall of the mullahs’ regime but the West reaching out to help the regime reform. Because the regime is so important to stability in the region (yes, that is what we are to grasp from this article), we should be helping to keep it in place. Bahgat apparently knows better than the Iranian people, who are protesting a cruel dictatorship.
Never mind that the mullahs and the Republican Guards have been receiving Western diplomatic and financial assistance since Obama came to office. They got this help after the U.S. Congress forced Obama’s and Tehran’s hand with sanctions. On the brink of economic collapse and having had to put down the 2009 uprising, the mullahs agreed to negotiate a deal on their nuclear program with the naïve Obama administration in exchange for cash and an end to sanctions. They hit the jackpot, and until Donald Trump came to office were on track for a nuclear weapons program after a few years of unverifiable “scrutiny,” along with money to pay for it and for military adventurism abroad.
But to Bahgat, all is well because “The demonstrations that started in late December have ended and the authorities have been able to restore order. Top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani, have acknowledged the need to address the socioeconomic and political roots of this wave of protests.”
Note the description: with no praise of protestors who are demanding their human rights, having treated the protests as dangerous mucking about with global security, Bahgat wants us to understand that the mullahs have dealt with this risk and acknowledge they need to do more to address the public’s demands. Never mind that the public and everyone other than Bahgat and Iran deal supporters know that the regime has had plenty of time and money to address the public’s demands but have only done more of what the public is protesting against.
And of course the regime put down the uprising. It is an existential threat to the regime and its project of a Shia-controlled region.
No Dictatorship Lasts Forever—Or Should
Bahgat says, “Like any country, Iran’s domestic and foreign policies will continue to reflect the perceptions and interests of different factions within the political establishment. Like it or not, the Islamic Republic is here to stay.” But Iran is not like any country; it is like a dictatorship that oppresses its people to the point of uprisings and threatens its neighbors as a matter of course. The regime represents its own interests, period.
And why should the regime be here to stay? What dictatorship has lasted forever? Why should we believe this when it is faced with a crisis like this twice in eight years? Whether outside powers push or stay out of the turmoil, dictatorships in the modern era of digital communication fall when the public is aware of how they are treated and that they don’t have to accept it. Iran, of all countries in the region, is subject to turmoil because of its educated, informed, and young population.
Bahgat’s recommendation: “A better approach would be for the United States to work with its European and Asian allies to help the Iranian government to address the major socioeconomic and political aspirations of the Iranian people. Adhering to the nuclear deal, supporting foreign investment, activating cultural engagement, and promoting strategic dialogue are likely to serve the interests of all concerned parties. A stable Islamic Republic is good for the Iranian people, regional powers and the international community.”
Obama and the Europeans have assiduously tried everything on his list, and still the ungrateful Iranian people rose up across the nation for days, risking their lives to demand self-governance as the only solution to their problems. I suspect the only thing Bahgat really intends is to support the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. He does so because he knows, as does the regime, that besides the Trump administration the uprisings are the primary threat to the regime’s agenda.
At the end of Bahgat’s piece is the usual disclaimer for people who work for U.S. government academic entities, noting that he does not speak for the Department of Defense. Indeed, he does not speak for Defense Secretary James Mattis or the U.S. government, and thank goodness for that.