Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Focus on Iran

| April 11, 2011

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.

The outcomes of the changes underway will be of vital importance for U.S. interests, some for the better, many possibly not. The United States cannot take responsibility for every country, dramatic as developments may be, but the processes underway will unfold whether it is involved or not. Letting the cards fall as they may is easier in the short run, but potentially very costly in the longer term. Within reason, it is thus essential that the United States try to shape developments in desired directions.

It is not about Libya. Libya itself is not important, except for the significant impact that the outcome there, whether Qadaffi, is or is not, allowed to prevail, will have on the future course of the uprisings in the other countries of the region. It is not about a normative debate regarding the role of the United States in the international community or how it is perceived in the Arab world.

It is about a unique, unprecedented, and probably fleeting window of opportunity to help reshape the Mideast, arguably the most troubled and troublesome region in the world, and one which has been the focus of intense U.S. interest and efforts for decades.

With the rapidity of events, attention has been diverted from Iran, in which all of the components of the revolutionary situation, which gave rise to the uprisings in the Arab world, exist as well. Iran's burgeoning young population is as large as anywhere in the region and actually far more educated and worldly. Regime change in Iran should be the number one priority in the Mideast today and is an issue on which virtually all U.S. 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 U.S. 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. The regime's brutal suppression, which succeeded in putting down the mass demonstrations of June 2009 and the more limited ones of late, must not be allowed to prevail.

A few measures are warranted:

  • A clear call by the President Obama for the people of Iran to rise up against the regime, not the half-hearted and indirect expressions of support for change 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. Obama is understandably reticent to issue such a call, an uprising may be crushed brutally, but freedom can not be won through timidity, and there may never be a better opportunity. U.S. moral leadership is important 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.
  • 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; regime change will be painful, it can not be done on the cheap.
  • Significant financial and material support should be provided to opposition groups in Iran, directly where appropriate, covert elsewhere.
  • Young Iranians' internet savvy and well-known fondness for social media, whose disruptive political affect has 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, it is too big and has retaliatory capabilities at its disposal, so even modest military options, such as a no-fly zone, are not feasible. If and when unrest grows, however, some highly limited measures may be possible, such as disrupting regime communications.

If ever U.S. 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 U.S. leadership can make a difference.

The above measures will probably 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?

Statements and views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck. "Focus on Iran." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 11, 2011.