With Tehran fomenting conflict from Yemen to the Levant, many American policymakers hope that an Iranian democratic revolution will increase Middle Eastern stability.
California Rep. Tom McClintock, who is a Republican, recently told the Organization of the Iranian American Communities that America should provide "every ounce of moral and material support that the Iranian opposition needs to rid their nation of this fascist, Islamic dictatorship." A bipartisan House majority even co-sponsored a resolution endorsing Iranians' "struggle to establish a democratic, secular, and non-nuclear republic of Iran."
The National Council of Resistance of Iran encourages the United States to support Iranian opposition groups, claiming, "Iran's society has become more restive, awaiting a spark to explode and overthrow this regime."
However, the Iranian regime is actually impregnable because the state's security forces remain loyal and the opposition cannot organize a guerrilla army. Accordingly, containing Iran's regional ambitions, not regime change, should animate America's Middle East policy.
Containing Iran's regional ambitions, not regime change, should animate U.S. policy.
A successful revolutionary group must overpower a regime's defenses, either by causing part of the regime's security apparatus to defect or by seizing power with its own army.
Most Arab dictatorships that were toppled lately followed the first course. Tunisia's former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled in January 2011 when the military refused to disperse demonstrations against his authoritarian rule. Protected by the army, an interim government suspended Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally party, dissolved the secret police, and organized free elections. Militaries in Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan subsequently deposed dictators facing mass opposition.
Revolutionaries who cannot win the military over must defeat it. Soldiers are more loyal when they belong to a different religious or ethnic group than the revolutionaries or share a regime's ideological zeal. Bahrain's predominantly Sunni army, to preserve Sunnis' privileged position in that country, remained loyal to the Sunni monarchy during the abortive 2011 Shiite-led revolution. Similarly, troops from Rwanda's Hutu supremacist regime in the 1990s did not defect to Paul Kagame's Tutsi Rwandan Patriot Front.
Tunisian, Egyptian, Algerian, and Sudanese soldiers belonged to the same religious and ethnic group as the protesters and were accordingly more reluctant to kill them. Moreover, those dictatorships were kleptocracies reliant on patronage, a weaker motivator than religious or ethnic solidarity. Ideological zeal usually drives soldiers to kill coethnics, as when communists murdered millions in Red Terrors. Venezuela's military continues suppressing the democratic opposition partly because of what exiled Venezuelan retired Gen. Antonio Rivero calls "a deeply impregnated filial commitment to the late President Hugo Chávez and his ideology."
Iran's security apparatus is far more fanatical than Venezuela's military.
Iran's security apparatus, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is far more fanatical than Venezuela's military. It has been brutally quelling repeated protest movements since 2009. Iran was ripest for a military rebellion during the 2009 presidential election protests, because numerous regime insiders, from former cabinet members to ayatollahs, actually joined demonstrators in decrying the fraudulent election results. Iranian security forces succeeded in 2019 by unhesitatingly killing hundreds during 2019 protests, which started over fuel prices but increasingly turned against the entire regime.
The Iranian opposition could not organize a guerrilla army during any of the last decade's mass anti-government protests because that would require a territorial base outside of the government's control to train and supply fighters.
In short, Iran's Islamist regime is thoroughly entrenched. American strategy for curbing Tehran's destabilizing activities, which include attacks on Saudi oil-processing facilities and support for militias across the Middle East, should therefore prioritize containment. That consists of limiting Iran's access to advanced weapons and the cash necessary to bankroll its regional proxies.
Although a bipartisan House majority in May sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter urging "increased diplomatic action by the United States to renew the expiring United Nations arms embargo against Iran," Democratic enthusiasm for President Trump's "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign is more tepid, even though the sanctions have dramatically reduced Tehran's subsidization of its regional proxies.
For lawmakers to embrace containment wholeheartedly, they must first recognize that assurances of the Iranian regime's frailty are unfounded.
Micah Levinson is a resident fellow for The Middle East Forum in Washington, DC.