The international community can no longer deny the nuclear ambitions of the theocratic state. But hand-wringing is the order of the day.
There are four main options, it seems: engagement, sanctions, military action and regime change.
In his first interview as US president, Barack Obama asked the mullahs to “unclench their fist”. They have done nothing of the sort. While the rhetoric that pours from the mouth of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not always shared by Iran’s educated elite or much of Iran’s clergy, those in control of Iranian government policy do not censure him either: they are cut from the same cloth. Iranians might be more cosmopolitan than their neighbours but the educated elite, as much the shopping classes and the teenagers enjoying fast food, don’t make nuclear policy.
Rather, command and control over an Iranian bomb rests with the most extreme element – the Revolutionary Guard. This is much better understood in the region than it is in the west. More and more of the Arab states are firming up their positions as a result of the Iranians lending their support to a series of insurgent and radical movements which promote themselves as the resistance against the US and Israel.
Islamist movements backed by Iran include Palestinian Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels fighting the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Tehran also promotes Jihadi elements in Egypt, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Shia opposition forces in the Gulf States.
Iran does have friends such as Syria, not to mention Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, but its list of enemies is lengthening. Israel, of course, is just the most vocal, but Jerusalem on its own would not be able to put sanctions on any agenda. The fact that its interests coincide with those of most Sunni regimes has brought matters into focus. The public pronunciations of Arab regimes mask the strategic reality of a common threat.
On the so-called ‘Arab street’ things seem very different, of course. There, the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel remain matters of fundamental importance. Iran is aware of this and attempts to use its support for radical positions on the Palestinian issue to curry favour. The Saudis, the Egyptians, and so on, are equally determined to shore up the foundations of their own regimes. None of these is perfect – far from it – but they do represent something approaching stability, in contrast to the anarchy that Tehran promotes.
Among the big powers, Russia has tended to be far more equivocal in its approach to a nuclear Iran than Britain, France or the US. Only China traditionally offers greater opposition to the idea of harsher sanctions against the Iranian regime. However, since the revelation of Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, even Moscow has been edging towards sanctions.
Iran’s decision to boost uranium enrichment to levels which experts fear would put it on the verge of nuclear breakthrough has caused great alarm in the Kremlin, even if it would still prefer to up the notch without severing its long-standing oil links. Yes, it’s not just America that uses the black stuff.
The sense must be though that sanctions have been tried 100 times before. The Islamic Republic has been dodging them for three decades now. Besides, broader sanctions will have an impact on the ordinary Iranian who needs to heat his house and drive his car, and Iran is (perhaps surprisingly) a net importer of petrochemicals. The danger is that the Iranian government will attempt to deflect the inevitable resentment on to foreign powers, about which Iranians are historically wary – for understandable reasons.
This is why some advocate Israeli or US-led military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. F-16s dropping ultra-precise bombs is the stuff of men’s magazines. Yes, they would delay the nuclear programme, but at what price? They too are also likely to strengthen the regime, as young Iranians rally to the defence of their homeland. That was precisely what happened when Iraq invaded Iran, consolidating Ayatollah Khomeini’s grip in the process.
Iranians might dislike their government, but they dislike foreign invaders even more. Even limited military action would probably strengthen the regime even if the initial effect would be to cause it to turn in on itself.
It’s a highly imperfect solution – but one that cannot ever be totally dismissed if all else fails. Either directly or through its murderous agents, Iran can retaliate – from Afghanistan to Lebanon, and by targeting American and NATO troops; not to mention renewing rocket attacks on Israel through Hezbollah and Hamas. In case of an attack, the Iranian people, even young people, might very well pour into the streets in support of their leaders.
We must not forget that more than one-fifth of Iranians are under the age 15. The vast majority were born after the 1979 revolution. They have nothing in common with the Iranian doctors we might know who have lived for more than three decades in exile. Instead the western powers need to create a template for change.
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, for example, it was far more important that a Chinese student stepped in front of a row of tanks than that the CIA knew who that student was.
For the Iranian people to be allies against the regime, however, it is essential that the US and the EU empower them. Funding efforts to bolster Iranian civil society will be crucial. That means taking a page from the playbooks used in Georgia and Ukraine where pro-democracy elements led “people-power” revolutions that unseated dictatorships.
SUPPORTING Iran’s trade union movement would be money well spent. Iranian workers’ chief grievance is the government unilaterally withholding wages. Investment there could grease the wheels of regime change.
Yet protests themselves will not topple the regime until the Revolutionary Guard cracks. They need to be divided. Defectors must be encouraged while known terrorists should be hunted down. Western authorities can use technology to disrupt the regime’s telecommunications.
The Iranians do it, so why not their opponents? Regime change is then perhaps the only strategy that will deny Iran a nuclear bomb. Military strikes might be effective in the short term, but regime change could result in Iran becoming a moderate republic attempting to heal its economic problems rather than finding some external excuse for them.
We cannot give up. The Iranian people have recently felt empowered enough to create a movement and to give it a colour name a la Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, namely green. The massive demonstrations that started as a protest over the results of the presidential elections in 2009 are still a living reality. They are, reports suggest, alive and well and gaining momentum. The ayatollahs are getting visibly nervous. Good.