For the past three weeks, the world's attention has focused on escalating conflict in the Middle East. The focus has primarily been on Iran's proxies and their brutal attacks on Israel, the looming threat of Hezbollah expanding the Israel–Hamas War, and Iran-backed assaults on U.S. military targets in the region. However, amid this turmoil, it is imperative to direct our attention to the heart of the matter: Iran itself.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the United States has grappled with the challenge of managing its relationship with Iran. Over the past 44 years, the Islamic Republic and its proxy forces have been involved in the deaths of thousands of Americans, not only within the Middle East, but also around the world. These groups have evolved into potent proxy armies that pose significant threats to regional stability. Furthermore, Iran has relentlessly pursued a nuclear weapons programme, coming perilously close to the point of no return, and has been perfecting its ballistic missile capabilities with the potential to target the American homeland.
The recent Iran-sponsored conflict, in which Hamas played a central role, serves as a stark reminder that conventional methods such as negotiations, sanctions, threats, and containment strategies seem futile in curbing the ambitions of Iran's leadership. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has unequivocally stated, "When you chant 'Death to America,' it is not just a slogan — it is a policy."
It is time to take Iran's leaders to their words and respond accordingly. This necessitates a strategy to remove the current regime from power. However, pursuing such a path requires acknowledging that previous attempts to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions have largely failed. We must also confront the difficult and contentious history of regime-change efforts in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. These past experiences, colored by unique circumstances, might have limited applicability when dealing with Iran's complex situation.
Rather than drawing from these controversial precedents, we might find guidance in the Reagan doctrine and disintegration of the Soviet Union. Iran's regime, much like the Soviet Union, is unpopular among its citizens. Despite increasingly repressive measures, three significant uprisings occurred in 2009, 2019, and 2022, reflecting dissatisfaction with the Iranian population.
Regrettably, in none of these instances, Western nations provided substantial support to Iranians. Previous U.S. administrations, under Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, have been reluctant to extend substantial aid, often opting for containment strategies instead.
The last concerted effort to empower the Iranian people against their oppressors was in 1995 when Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the House, allocated $18 million to the secret intelligence budget for covert operations against the Iranian regime's leadership. Unfortunately, these funds remain untouched.
A phased approach can be envisioned to pave the way for change. It should commence with a clear statement of policy from the U.S. government: "U.S. policy is to support the Iranian people with a view to transitioning to democratic governance in Iran." This statement should end the Biden administration's ongoing dialogues and "understandings" with Tehran. Subsequently, there should be a comprehensive evaluation of Iranian opposition, both inside and outside the country. Although opposition outside Iran is marred by internal disputes, a more concerted effort from Washington may heal these rifts.
In Iran, the challenge is formidable, given the diverse groups, such as students, labor organizations, ethnic factions, Kurds, Azeris, Baloch groups, and other dissenters who oppose the current regime. Regular attacks on the regime's forces and the abundance of anti-regime demonstrations underscore the presence of these groups. Understanding their potential as viable alternatives to ayatollahs is pivotal.
Once a credible coalition of opposition parties is identified, the subsequent step involves offering them support both overtly and covertly. The United States should provide diplomatic and economic assistance, akin to its support for labor unions in the former Soviet bloc. Additionally, the U.S. government should make its preference for a new government abundantly clear and engage in dialogues about Iran's future with potential successors, not the current regime.
To facilitate change, it is imperative to undermine the Iranian government's standing among its population. Given the widespread unpopularity of Iran's leaders, this is not an insurmountable challenge. There are many facets of Iranian leadership conduct that are largely unknown to the Iranian people, such as the extent of corruption within the clerical elite and their families, who possess assets in various countries and engage in un-Islamic extravagances. It is reasonable to assume that intelligence agencies are equipped to discover and disseminate these critical facts.
It is essential to recognize that this is a strategy for gradual evolution, not an immediate revolution. Empowerment of the Iranian people, coupled with diplomatic and economic pressure, can serve as a mechanism to encircle the regime's leadership.
While this approach may not be universally popular, it offers a plausible solution to a multitude of problems, including the containment of Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Houthis, Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, and the Assad regime. Many of these proxies rely on Iranian support to sustain themselves. The elimination of this malevolent regime could eliminate the imminent threat of nuclear breakout and missile advancement, allowing the United States to shift its focus to other pressing global concerns, such as the challenges posed by China and Russia, with the assurance that the Middle East will no longer serve as a flashpoint for conflict.