By Akhilesh Pillalamarri
Defense hawks in Washington believe that the people of Iran are waiting with baited breath for the regime in Tehran to collapse, and wouldn’t mind a little American help along the way—whether through direct military intervention, or “naturally” as the result of grassroots protests—“with Washington backing” of course.
There is no greater fallacy. While the people of Iran are undoubtedly frustrated with their government, they are not at the cusp of changing it, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to believe. In fact, any attempt by outside actors to change the regime would cause the people of Iran to unify around the clerics. We would deflate the reformist party and enable the hardliners who have consistently warned their people that we couldn’t be trusted after all.
This ongoing mind-reading of the Iranian people is a Washington fantasy with no basis in reality.
After witnessing the debacles of our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, who can blame the people of Iran for not wanting direct American military action? As Damon Linker points out in The Week, our attitude toward unsavory regimes in other nations is all too often informed by “an incorrigible optimism about the benefits of change and consequent refusal to entertain the possibility that a bad situation might be made even worse by overturning it.”
But other reasons abound. Almost nobody in Iran supports the main group pushing for Western-backed regime change in Iran, National Council for the Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an organization widely seen as a front for the despised Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), an Iranian Marxist group that fought against the late Shah, was virulently anti-American, and worked with Saddam Hussein to invade Iran during the Iran-Iraq War before rebranding itself as a democratic opposition group.
Despite this being common knowledge among unbiased observers, figures like National Security Advisor John Bolton continue to promote it as an alternative for Iran.
In actuality, despite the desire of a sizable segment of Iranians—especially young people in Tehran and other large cities for a pro-Western government—there is no well-organized, secular, democratic organization waiting in the wings to take charge. Any organization that bills itself as such is following in the deceitful footsteps of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi leader-in-exile who sold himself in the United States as the Iraqi George Washington, but failed to garner any political support after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
History shows us that there is no quicker way for a leader or a group to lose legitimacy than by seeking the aid of a foreign power. King Louis XVI of France managed to hold on to his throne for a few years after the storming of the Bastille, but was deposed after fleeing Paris and seeking the aid of France’s enemies. Iranians, like Americans, value liberty in the sense of national self-determination: They would rather be under-served by their own leaders than by well-meaning foreigners or those perceived to be their puppets.
After wasting almost two decades of blood and treasure in countries with weaker national identities than Iran like Iraq, U.S. policymakers would have to be detached from reality to believe anything good could come of intervention in Iran’s politics.
The people of Iran have a long historical memory: Those who sold out their nation to foreign powers, even in opposition to tyranny, have gotten not thanks, but only the collective hate of the Iranian people. From the actions of the satrap Bessus who killed the last Achaemenid Persian king Darius III to curry favor with Alexander the Great, to the slaying of the last pre-Islamic Persian ruler Yazdegerd III by a local ruler to appease the invading Arabs, Iranians have looked askance at collaboration with foreigners. Numerous 19th century Qajar rulers failed to implement their policies because they were thought to be too close to the goals of the imperial powers of Russia or Britain. And the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, could never escape the perception that his ascent to power in 1953 was enabled by British and American intelligence agencies, regardless of his own self-perception as a nationalist.
Most Iranians, no matter how much they oppose the current government and its politics, would not support an invasion, let alone peaceful ascendancy to groups believed to serve anyone’s interests other than Iran’s: It is a matter of pride and honor.
Continuing American pressure will backfire and strengthen Iranian national solidarity, especially if the alternative is a terrorist group such as the MeK.
It is true that Iran has been racked by protests throughout the past year, such as January’s multi-city protests, and the closure of the Grand Bazaar in Tehran in June. But those protests were spontaneous actions resulting from blue-collar frustration with the economy and are unlikely to lead to an outcome favorable to American interests.
If our pressure on Iran leads to regime change, the most likely alternative is probably a military junta, led by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a shift away from the semi-civilian government that Iran now enjoys. The group’s members have been competing with our geopolitical interests throughout the Middle East for decades and could take an even harder anti-American line than the current government. When confronted with invaders and foreign pressure, Iranians have always rallied around military strongmen, such as Nader Shah in the early 18th century, who threw out the invading Afghans, and Reza Shah in the early 20th century, who saved Iran from disintegration after World War I.
Washington should be careful what it wishes for. We should not delude ourselves that the people of Iran are waiting for the American government’s support and intervention. The truth is darker.
Akhilesh “Akhi“ Pillalamarri is a fellow at Defense Priorities. An international relations analyst, editor and writer, he studied international security at Georgetown University. Find him on Twitter @akhipill.
This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on August 7, 2018. Read more HERE.