Deterring Regime Change in Iran?

The ongoing protests beginning with students and expanding (although it’s difficult for an outsider, even one who follows news reports, to know exactly how much) to other sectors of society have created a great deal of hope among those – surely most decent people around the world – who would like to see the repressive regime of the Islamist mullahs ended or significantly changed. For better or worse, however, the fluid situation has created a certain temptation in the Bush administration and among some of the more enthusiastic would-be serial regime-changers inside the Beltway to try to take credit and/or control of the budding rebellion.

Unfortunately, an aggressively proactive stance on the part of the U.S. government is more likely to make things in Iran worse rather than better. It might even stifle or short-circuit what seems to be an ongoing process that seems likely to bring significant change to the repressive Iranian regime some time in the foreseeable future, if not necessarily as quickly as some of us might like.

It’s not difficult to understand the enthusiasm of some in the administration to want to be on the right side of history regarding Iran – even as one is naturally a bit suspicious of those in and out of the administration who see regime-change in Iran as another feather in the nouveau American empire’s cap. But I suggest that those in the government with a sincere interest in seeing at least some liberalization and perhaps even an end to the fundamentalist regime would do well to seal their lips for a few months at least.


The basic situation in Iran is fairly well known. About 70 percent of the population is under 30, half under 25. That means that most of the population has no personal adult memory of what life was like before the ayatollahs took power in 1979. The mullahs’ regime, which seemed exciting and promising when they were taking out the old shah’s repressive regime back in the day, is now the old order, and it’s a repressive and annoying old order to most younger Iranians to boot.

This generational shift has been intensified by increasing access to the Internet and fairly steady communication between Iranians in Iran and friends and relatives in the West. Iran has long been a fairly well-educated and sophisticated society, and the mullahs haven’t wiped out that sophistication and interest in the outside world. There is a thriving film industry that in the past few years has sent several critically-acclaimed films to the world at large.

Perhaps most interesting has been the development of literally thousands of "web loggers" or bloggers in Iran. Some estimate that there are as many as 10,000 Iranian bloggers, some devoted largely to personal obsessions or interests, but quite a few offering comments, links to news stories and updates on current events in Iran. There’s little doubt that bloggers like,,, and have had something to do with keeping the student protests going. The idea among the student protesters has been to build up to massive demonstrations July 9, the anniversary of a 1999 government crackdown on a smaller previous student protest.


But it’s interesting to see what some of these bloggers actually have to say. As reported on (a war enthusiast who seems sincerely to believe it’s about spreading freedom rather than empire, though I cringe at giving any of them the benefit of the doubt) here’s what Lady Sun, who seems to be a student who reports directly from Tehran, had to say last week:

"I am bitter, sentimentally angry, and dreadfully sad. Monarchists are killing themselves rambling about a new revolution, a protest, an opposition… I hate monarchy, we hate monarchy, we hate any sort of dictatorship. I hate this stupid Bush who is releasing statements in support of the students. I hate him who has no idea what kind of people Iranians are. I hate the monarchists who think we are that stupid to put the red carpet for Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah’s son. I hate the pressure groups who are literally massacring their fellow Iranian citizens. I hate our reformist government who can do sh*t about all this chaos. I hate our ‘real’ government who has closed its eyes on the reality and seeks for popularity and stability in suppressing people. I hate all the students including myself who can do nothing. The biggest thing we can do is just playing the role of scapegoats, victims of ignorance, brutality, whatever.

"If only they knew how small the amount of freedom we are seeking is…"

One can understand the hopelessness leading to bitterness. Sadly, Lady Sun’s assessment of the chances for the current student protests to have much impact in the long run seems to be fairly realistic. The important thing for Americans to note in this cri de coeur is the comment about Bush jumping on the student revolt bandwagon that he somehow missed when he was in college.


I am willing to believe that at least some people in the administration and the punditocracy are genuinely trying to help bring more freedom to Iran – or at least to position themselves on the side of the angels regarding a regime that is generally ill-regarded in the United States and is genuinely objectionable. But I talked with Daniel Brumberg, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he seems convinced that the statements from the administration are counterproductive at best.

Brumberg, the author of the 2001 book Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran and numerous articles in academic journals, mostly about power-sharing in the Middle East, is on leave from Georgetown University and has previously taught at Emory and Chicago. He noted that while the student protests have been impressive and suggest certain vulnerabilities of the regime, the regime itself is still genuinely powerful and has been fairly shrewd in the way it has handled them.

In the first days of the student protests, for example, various ostensibly pro-regime "vigilantes" harassed the students, sometimes quite violently. It wouldn’t be surprising if the regime encouraged them to do so, but last week it arrested a few of them. Some see that as an admission of regime weakness, but Brumberg sees it as shrewd PR. The regime has also made sure, he says, that none of the student demonstrators have been killed, which could create the potential of a martyr in a culture in which martyrs are often revered.

Brumberg sees that as shrewdness rather than weakness, and it might even have worked. Some news stories suggest the protests have been petering out in the last few days, although it will be interesting to see what happens as July 9 approaches.

Mr. Brumberg reserved his scorn for those in the U.S. government who have gone out of their way to demonstrate vocal support for the student revolts. "They have made it more difficult for the students to gain support from other sectors of Iranian society, including reform-minded members of parliament, merchants, and workers," he told me. If the regime can spin the protests as the work of American agents and the students as naive dupes of the United States – and it can and it has – it can minimize support from other sectors of Iranian society and undermine the political effectiveness of the student movement.

I’ll presume that’s not the intention, but these overeager expressions of support from U.S. officials play right into the hands of the mullahs, whose interest is to keep the students physically and psychologically isolated from potentially sympathetic elements in other parts of Iranian society. The mullahs might even be able to use the protests to increase their power and control over the short run, as governments throughout history have often done in the face of protests that fall short of toppling the regime.


"I‘m afraid that something resembling real democracy in Iran is a matter of years or decades rather than weeks or months," Dan Brumberg told me. He noted that while several thousand students participating in daily protests is impressive and a sign of solid discontent, there are about 600,000 students in Iran. The protests so far have taken place mostly in northern Tehran (though there have been assemblages in other cities), which has traditionally been fairly wealthy and westernized.

As organized so far, the protests don’t seem to be a precursor of revolution very soon. If the regime (perhaps with the unwitting help of the Bush administration) can keep the students isolated from other potentially sympathetic Iranians, the threat to the stability of the regime is probably slight at this time.


Brumberg does think that underlying demographic and political factors will eventually lead at least to some loosening of the iron grip of the mullahs, though it is almost impossible to say when and what form reform will eventually take. Unfortunately, he said, "the evolution of Iranian democracy is not subject to American influence" – indeed the influence the United States has in Iran is mostly negative. We just can’t empower rebellion in far-off lands by escalating our rhetoric – it is more likely to have the opposite of the desired effect.

While there is plenty of enthusiasm for stepping up diplomatic and military pressure, with the thrill of an invasion a possible, even likely eventual outcome, from the neocon crowd like Bill Kristol, Michael Ledeen et. al., it might just be that the Bush administration itself is adopting a more cautious approach. Dan Brumberg told me that he thought he detected a slight moderation in tone from President Bush and other administration spokespeople as compared to a couple of weeks ago. Given that the administration is simultaneously talking tough about possible nukes and murmuring about tightening economic sanctions (look how effective they’ve been in getting Castro overthrown), that might be significant.

There are also Republican operatives who think the administration will be reluctant to go much farther than tough talk and maybe promising to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors – at least for now. There is an election coming up, after all, and Iraq hasn’t gone as swimmingly as the optimistic hawks had expected. Political tacticians might well figure that another major war in the middle of campaign season – it would take a while to do not only the propaganda but the concrete military build-up, assuming the U.S. even has sufficient forces to do so without Iraq becoming even more of an embarrassment – would not be conducive to reelection for the Boy President.

Particularly if that’s the case (and that doesn’t rule out the possibility of an invasion after the election campaign next year), the administration would do well to cool it even more. That might be difficult, given Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" and the expectations possibly arising from the bellicose statements to date. The administration could be caught in a trap of its own making, in which it feels it has to escalate at least the rhetoric when the Iranian regime rather predictably doesn’t cave in the face of previous rhetoric.

But that rhetoric could be extremely dangerous to the people of Iran who desire freedom from the mullahs, or at least more freedom to live their lives as they choose. Let’s hope there are cooler heads in the administration who care about Iranian freedom more than the opportunity to grandstand.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).