The United States should abandon both the “myth of externally-orchestrated regime change” and the “illusion of imminent revolution” in Iran, a new analysis suggests. Highly-publicized initiatives to support Iranian reformers have backfired, exposing activists to repressive measures and playing into the hands of a regime eager to portray indigenous democrats as agents of foreign powers, argues Brookings’s Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department advisor.
“Abandoning the regime change fantasy means disbanding or significantly retooling democracy promotion programming for Iran“, she contends in a report for the U.S. Institute for Peace. It is understandable that policy-makers seek to replicate the apparent success of democracy assistance in supporting democratic transitions in the likes of Ukraine and Georgia. But Western intervention is the “third rail” in Iranian domestic affairs and conspicuous democracy promotion is likely to backfire on local activists.
The various agents for change within Iran include students and youth, reformist clerics like Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and a technologically-empowered women’s movement. But, despite what Ladan Boroumand describes as the remarkable resilience of civil society, the opposition currently lacks leadership, organization and a convincing strategy for political change. It also needs to challenge and transcend the current rules of the game.
“The fundamental shortcoming hampering Iran’s democratic aspirations has been the general unwillingness of Iranians to risk their lives and livelihoods to demand the change they want or to defend the dissidents who have been imprisoned for their own advocacy,” she writes.
Meaningful change is unlikely to occur without significant mobilization, but a mixture of repression-induced timidity and fear of political turmoil. “The disinclination of Iranians to mobilize on a mass basis reflects a widespread aversion to unrest and violent change, she notes, “an understandable, if unfortunate, legacy of the Islamic revolution.”
Another analyst notes “Tehran’s trepidation” at the new U.S. administration’s signals on U.S.-Iranian relations:
Tehran’s reception of the early warning signs from Washington are focused on calls for increases in military spending, NATO expansion, boosting intelligence agencies, strengthening of the “nation-building, democracy-promoting” National Endowment for Democracy, …..
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, won’t be surprised at the Islamic Republic’s hostile response to the prospects of a new administration in Washington. Despite occasional suggestions of Tehran’s openness to dialog with the United States, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological commitment has led him to sabotage any serious initiatives:
Khamenei considers himself not only the leader of the Islamic Republic but also the highest authority on Islamic ideology in the world. He therefore sees himself as responsible for the survival of Islamic ideology and its values, as well as his image as its leader. Because the Islamic Republic has failed to meet its economic, cultural, and social promises, Khamenei has made anti-Americanism the cornerstone of that Islamic ideology.
The plight of Iranian dissidents was recently highlighted by the Omid, the virtual memorial database of the Islamic Republic’s victims, specifically the peaceful dissidents and intellectuals slain in Iran in the fall of 1998:
Ten years ago, on November 22nd 1998, Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar were brutally murdered in their home by agents of the Ministry of Information. While the Iranian society was still chocked by the news of this abject crime, two members of Iran’s writers’ association, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Ja’far Pouyandeh disappeared and were found dead on December 3rd and December 10th, 1998, respectively.
(The Forouhar, Mokhtari, and Pouyandeh families are appealing for an independent investigation into these deaths. To support this appeal please send your name and city of residence to email@example.com)