As Iran’s streets erupt with pro-democracy demonstrations, it is all too obvious that the only option the United States has in altering the Islamic Republic’s behavior is to support the Green Movement.
The clerical oligarchs have tried hard to prevent the contagion of democracy from afflicting their nation. Despite their maladroit attempt to establish a moral continuity between Iran’s 1979 revolution and the recent uprising in Egypt, and their threats of violence and retribution toward those who protest, the mullahs have failed to reclaim their citizens.
It is too facile to suggest that the wave of protests rocking the Middle East was born in Iran, but it is not too simplistic to stress that Iran will not be left behind in the march for freedom.
The Middle East is undergoing one of its most momentous transformations since achieving independence from imperial rule. Although the canard of Islamist takeover has unsettled many pundits and policymakers, the bottom line is that the region has left behind its infatuation with revisionist ideologies. In the streets of Arab capitals we are witnessing the passing of the age of ideology, as neither pan-Arabism, with its promises of modernity, nor Islamism, with its pledges of authenticity, can redeem the region’s autocrats. The restive youth and the overburdened middle class can no longer be tempted by faded orthodoxies and false shibboleths that conceal the reality of repression and corruption. In retrospect, the Green Movement that arose after Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009 was not so much a catalyst but a harbinger of this new epoch.
As exhilarating as the early stages of the region’s political transition may be, democratic upheaval is likely to narrow the conventional options of addressing the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. Great powers such as Russia and China that place a premium on stability are unlikely to agree to more economic sanctions. The Arab states preoccupied with renegotiating their national compacts will be reluctant to participate in efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. And the military option that was always unattractive has now become implausible; it would be rash to employ force against Iran’s suspected nuclear installations and radicalize the Arab populace just as forces of moderation and democracy seem ascendant.
All is not lost, however. The only durable solution to Iran’s nuclear conundrum was always empowerment of the Green Movement. Tehran’s callous leadership, indifferent to the financial penalties of its nuclear truculence, was hardly prone to make cost-benefit assessments and constructively participate in negotiations. Although it has been customary since the disputed presidential election of 2009 for the Washington establishment to pronounce the demise of the Green Movement, the battered Iranian opposition has succeeded in de-legitimizing the theocratic regime and enticing a significant portion of the population to contemplate life beyond the parameters of clerical despotism. Citizens’ disenchantment was mirrored by the steady stream of defecting regime loyalists, who have forsaken their revolutionary patrimony. The breakdown of ideological controls in Iran is bound to affect the cohesion and solidarity of its security services. Deprived of popular credibility or a convincing dogma, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may not even be able to enforce his rule through fear.
The key challenge for the United States is to find ways to connect with the Green Movement. As important as social media or rhetorical declarations may be, such measures are limited. The model of Eastern Europe is instructive, as the West managed to covertly use a range of institutions, such as the Catholic Church and labor unions, to funnel assistance to dissidents. Several parts of Iranian civil society – labor syndicates, savvy youth, clerical dissidents, liberal protesters and universities – exist in a state of perpetual rebellion; they deserve to be beneficiaries of American advice and assistance. Whether motivated by idealism or a desire to advance practical security concerns, the West must recognize that the only thing standing between the mullahs and the bomb is the Green Movement.
The demise of the Islamic Republic is inevitable. Should the Middle East move toward realizing the aspirations of its citizens, and embrace pluralism and accountability, it is hard to see how a retrogressive clerical tyranny can persist in the region. During the democratic transition, there is still the challenge of tempering Iran’s pernicious ambitions, and the mullahs’ penchant for terrorism must still be addressed. The chimera of a diplomatic solution should no longer blind the international community to Iran’s political vulnerabilities. In the end, the most effective means of disarming the Islamic Republic and ending its reign of terror is to invest in the indomitable Green Movement.
By Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.