No.1 US priority in Middle East: regime change in Iran

Change in Iran would transform the region as a whole and is a goal on which virtually all US allies agree. So why is Obama so reticent to take a strong stance? Freedom cannot be won through timidity. Here are several key steps for a US-led effort to help make the regime crack.

The popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East are breathtaking and apparently far from over. After decades of paralysis and ossification, the entire Middle Eastern landscape is changing before our eyes.

With the rapidity of events unfolding throughout the region, attention has been diverted from Iran. But Iran has all the same elements that have brought about the uprisings in the Arab world – even more so.

Iran’s burgeoning young population is as large as anywhere in the region and actually far more educated and involved in globalization and worldwide social and political trends. As with the restless young populations of other parts of the region, Iran’s youth suffer from the same dire unemployment, lack of opportunity, and suffocating oppression.

Regime change in Iran should be the No.1 priority in the Middle East today and is an issue on which virtually all US allies, in the region and beyond, can agree. Everyone wants to see the Iranian regime go. Change in Iran would transform the region as a whole, on the political, socio-economic, and strategic-military levels. It would, indeed, portend a new Mideast.

Instead of continuing to harbor futile hopes of engagement with Tehran, which the Obama administration itself acknowledges will probably not work, what is needed is a US-led effort, both public and behind the scenes, to make the regime crack. Regime change in Iran can only come from within, from its people; it cannot be fomented from the outside, but it can be aided and abetted, nourished, and given the encouragement and support which may make it possible.

Key steps to crack the regime

I offered a more detailed version of this argument in a recent column published on Harvard's Belter Center website. Here are some of the key measures I think are warranted:

• President Obama should make a clear call for the people of Iran to rise up against the regime, not the half-hearted and indirect expressions of support for change expressed so far. This should be combined with a vision of a new and better future for Iran, following regime change, including a rewarding relationship with the United States. Mr. Obama is understandably reticent to issue such a call; an uprising may be crushed brutally. But freedom cannot be won through timidity, and there may never be a better opportunity. US moral leadership is important to Iranian young people who, unlike the regime, are commonly very pro-American and who so deeply hope that the winds of change in the region will sweep Iran as well.

• There should be a major escalation of the sanctions already imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, now to include the repressive character of its regime and the harsh measures it has taken to suppress opposition. Serious sanctions will impact the people of Iran, not just the regime, but such steps are necessary to bring about change. Regime change may be painful, but it will ultimately serve the people of Iran.

• Significant financial and material support should be provided to opposition groups in Iran, directly where appropriate, covertly elsewhere.

• Young Iranians’ Internet savvy and well-known fondness for social media, whose disruptive political effects have now been demonstrated, should be exploited, for example by indirectly flooding Iran with free iPads and other Internet devices. Instead of the old “Atoms for Peace” program, this would be “Apples for Freedom.”

• Iran is not Libya. Its size and retaliatory capabilities make even modest military options, such as a no-fly zone, not feasible. But if and when unrest grows, some highly limited measures may be possible, such as disrupting regime communications.

The demand for US leadership on Iran

If ever US leadership was called for, to help chart a new course for the region, it is now. The United States will be blamed no matter what it does; some will claim that it has not intervened sufficiently, others that it has gone too far. Iran is the big prize and a place where US leadership can make a difference.

These measures may not succeed in bringing about the desired change in Iran, but the downsides are minimal. How could we explain a failure to even try to take advantage of the opportunity?

Chuck Freilich was a deputy national security adviser in Israel. He is now an International Security Program senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

This piece first appeared on the Power & Policy blog.

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