OpinionOp-EdA third way to address the Iranian threat

A third way to address the Iranian threat


Wall Street Journal: With an Iranian presidential election coming in June, President Obama may be presented with a second chance to get his policy right.

The Wall Street Journal

Support the opposition and let Iranians topple a regime they despise.


With an Iranian presidential election coming in June, President Obama may be presented with a second chance to get his policy right. In 2009, when massive protests followed Iran’s disputed presidential vote, Mr. Obama sat by as the insurrection was brutally put down by the Tehran regime. But the rage against the regime is still intense, and if similar protests explode in June, the White House should be prepared.

The president ought to know from the example of the Arab Spring that seemingly secure despots can be toppled by popular will. The coming elections offer a chance for America to demonstrate its belated support for the Iranian opposition, and Washington would do well to encourage the Iranian people to rise up in the coming months.

Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have said that Iran is unlikely to produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year. That period gives the U.S., Israel and their allies breathing room to pursue an alternative to the two stark choices of accepting a nuclear Iran or launching a military strike to stop it. A third option is encouraging and supporting the opposition in Iran, where millions of people yearn to be freed of the ayatollahs’ oppressive rule.

Like the Soviet Union in its latter days, Iran’s regime is hollow and detested by most of its people. Few believed that Soviet rule would end without war, yet it imploded with little violence. At the time, intelligence assessments described the Soviet regime as stable and the economy as relatively healthy—even though unrest was actually rampant, the economy moribund.

Thanks to sanctions and government mismanagement, Iran can’t even make a pretense of economic health: Official analyses from the Iranian parliament’s research center show that, in a survey of 98 companies, production over the past 12 months has declined 40.3%. Employment has dropped 36.5% over that same year. Inflation is roaring: Finished products cost 87.9% more, and raw materials are up 112%. The country is riddled with strikes and protests from workers who haven’t been paid for months.

The Iranian government is also widely viewed within the country as corrupt and illegitimate, having stolen the 2009 elections. The Green Movement, which briefly flourished after the vote, has seen its leaders arrested by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has also shut down scores of newspapers, magazines and websites.

Most Iran watchers believe that the opposition has been crushed, but they held the same view before June 2009, when millions of Iranians took to the streets and fought for months. The supreme leader is so concerned that his security forces prevent even small public gatherings, including the funerals of apolitical artists and musicians. He has repeatedly purged top officers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, fearing betrayal. The arrest and torture of journalists, bloggers, union leaders and other potential sources of unrest has increased in the past year, too.

The clearest indication of the opposition’s strength is the regime’s treatment of the Green Movement’s two main leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Both have been under house arrest for more than two years, yet neither has been put on trial. Ali Saeedi, the supreme leader’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards, admitted last year to an interviewer that the men weren’t being prosecuted “because they have supporters and followers.”

Yet the opposition persists, routinely striking the regime’s most valuable assets. Gas pipelines, ports and oil refineries have been sabotaged and Revolutionary Guards attacked. A source within the opposition tells me that seven Revolutionary Guard officers were ambushed and killed last month on a highway north of Tehran. Opposition leaders have told me that antiregime forces—including the Greens, the trade unions and the major tribes, including Kurds, Baluch and Azeris—are coordinating their actions.

Supporting the Iranian opposition and overturning the Islamic regime wouldn’t just be a way for the West to avoid a nuclear confrontation. It would also cut off the lifeblood for terrorist groups around the world.

What can the U.S. do to make this happen? Take a page from the playbook used to stir internal challenges to Moscow’s rule.

Leaders in both the executive and legislative branches should publicly call for the end of the regime, just as President Reagan decried the “evil empire.” And the Iranian people must hear about it: At present, American broadcasting to Iran focuses heavily on American events and policies, often very critically. A more concerted effort should be made to give Iranians real news about their country. And members of the opposition should be furnished with the hardware to better communicate with each other and the outside world.

The U.S. should also mount a relentless campaign for the release of political prisoners in Iran, naming them in every available international forum.

As with Soviet workers’ organizations, the U.S. should encourage international trade unions to build a strike fund for their Iranian brothers and sisters.

The essential thing is for the West to be in regular contact with the opposition so its needs will be known. Sources in Iran tell me that no Western nation has communicated with leaders of the Green Movement since the days before the 2009 elections. That is shameful. But it is not too late to get started.

Mr. Ledeen, a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is the author of “Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles” (Transaction, 2011).


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