Smart Power Iran

We should make every effort to subvert and overthrow the government of Iran as non-violently and as indirectly as is humanly possible by both covert and overt actions.


By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | April 29, 2013

Iran plays smart. We do not – unless the objective is to stay engaged for engagement’s sake. That really worked neatly during the Cold War and we had the Soviets exactly where we wanted them: engaged. Thus, for most of the conflict we did not accomplish anything save for staying engaged. The fallacious assumption was that the impotent engagement saved us from a nuclear war, as if the Kremlin was incapable of nuking us at its will while remaining engaged diplomatically pro forma. Had it wanted to attack us, it would have: engagement or not. Thus, engagement was a psychological prop for our own comfort, a device to soothe our own anxieties, but not a tool to deal with a mortal enemy. And then Ronald Reagan came along and changed the rules of the game. Reagan demonstrated clearly that engagement for engagement’s sake is insufficient to secure America’s strategic objectives. As John Lenczowski says, a symphony orchestra of statecraft must be deployed to achieve them.

What are our strategic objectives in Iran? Ostensibly, we want to prevent Teheran from going nuclear, which should be our plan minimum. A sovereign nation, however, has a right to develop its potential to the utmost, including nuclear capabilities. Concerns about nuclear proliferation are easily dismissed as a ploy by the mighty to control the weak. Look at Iraq. Had it had an A-bomb, the U.S. would not have invaded. A fission device helps keep bullies at bay. That is Iran’s propaganda line and it finds many a sympathetic ear, in the developing world and Western leftist circles in particular.

Our answer is that nuclear energy is fine and even nuclear weapons can be acceptable, depending on who wields them. An A-bomb defending neutral Switzerland would probably elicit undiplomatic yawns from the non-proliferation community. But a nuke in the hands of rabid ayatollahs should send jitters through anyone reasonable.

Peaceful nuclear energy can easily be converted into bellicose nuclear power. And that destabilizes the region, which is becoming gradually rife with fission weaponry. It is no slippery slope fallacy to posit that India and Pakistan’s nuclear program spurred their neighbors to match them. Iran’s success in acquiring a doomsday machine has already prompted Saudi Arabia and others to research possibilities of acquiring one. And the oil rich sheikdoms can easily afford it. We shall then soon witness what Robert D. Kaplan eerily presciently predicts to be a multilateral, constant game of nuclear brinksmanship engaging Middle Eastern states driven by high pitched religious and nationalist animus in a series of confrontations, each with a potential to replicate the Cuban missile crisis on microscale. And a regional nuclear conflict can easily metastasize to involve China and Russia, and, thus, the whole of Eurasia and, eventually, the world.

The threat to global peace is real then. But we have no strategic objectives as far as Iran aside from a wooly commitment to “regional stability” and “Israel.” Yet, we have been working at cross purposes with our Israeli ally because it is in Tel Aviv’s interest to foster a degree of regional instability. If there are troubles in the region, neighbors are less focused to bother the Jewish state. But the neighbors also tend to remain less fixated on destroying “the Zionist entity” and disrupting the neighborhood when their governments are allied with the United States. Egypt was the prime example of that until we helped its military regime to succumb to the Islamists during one fine Arab Spring.

It appears then that regime change was President Barack Obama’s objective in Cairo, after all. But why not a regime change in Iran? This time around let us foster a turnover to a friendly government in Teheran, which Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership clearly is not. Our strategic objective in Iran should thus be replacing the regime of the Supreme Ayatollah with a government allied with the United States. We should restore monarchy, plain and simple. And we must shed our anti-royalist prejudice. Had we done so in Afghanistan, the nation would have been stabilized and the Taliban threat a history. We had the perfect monarch: respected, loved, and Westernized: Mohammed Zahir Shah. Our egalitarian prejudice prevented us from playing this lucky card.

We must overcome our prejudices to succeed in Iran. The current heir to the Shahinshah Throne is a long-time American resident; he has expressed his unswerving commitment to democracy and human rights as well as pledged support for a Teheran-Washington alliance. Further, there is a palpable nostalgia for the Pahlavis in Iran. What’s there not to like? Constitutional monarchy it is then.

How do we go about achieving our strategic objective? It is mischievous to claim that the only choices we have are either engaging for engagement’s sake or humming along with John McCain’s greatest hit “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” There is a whole, vast world of diplomacy and political warfare in between, a rich environment of the tools of statecraft that we should make a rule of deploying, instead of idly engaging or wantonly fighting. Violence, if employed at all, should always be the measure of last resort. Yet, it must always remain on the menu, if only to menace our detractors with its ominous specter of America’s might.

In Iran, as elsewhere, we need an integrated strategy. Our flexible, multifarious moves should be grounded in geopolitics, history, culture, new technologies, and political and military opportunities on the ground. To put it simply, we should make every effort to subvert and overthrow the government of Iran as non-violently and as indirectly as it is humanly possible. The actions should be covert and overt, of course. The strategic objective of regime change needs not be stated explicitly to the international community. Instead, international support should be rallied for individual tactical planks of the strategic plan to achieve the exit of the ayatollahs.

First, on the global scene we must take Iran’s government to task at the United Nations. Turn the screw on economic sanctions even farther. And hit the accomplices, too: no more Teheran money laundering in Moscow banks. As far as human rights, no transgression is too insignificant to merit glossing over on that forum and in the media. Work closely with the NGOs, in particular human rights organizations like Amnesty International.

Second, the United States must endeavor to secure the backing of Russia, China, and the EU for taming Iran. The Big Three will oppose it to a various degree, but keep them engaged anyway. Here the engagement for engagement’s sake will be a good tactic of diplomatic attrition. Politely agree to disagree, while meekly appearing to agree. Practice incrementalism in negotiations; get at least one of the Big Three to agree to some of the U.S. proposals, and then get the other two on board with mutually agreeable minutia. Amplify the apparent unity; downplay differences. Practice stealth bilateralism, where possible, within the EU in particular. For example, encourage the French to make all the important noises so long as they tally with our objectives. In that sense “leading from behind” can be smart. The appearances of multilateralism must be kept both at the global top and at the regional level. No repetition of Iraq, please.

Third, we must work on regional geopolitical alignments to squeeze the ayatollahs. This will require the juggling of many interlocking and contradictory variables. The general line is to stress the imminent threat of the Shia A-bomb for the neighboring Sunnis everywhere. Just as Teheran’s Shiism threatens Suniism theologically, so do the Grand Ayatollah’s nuclear weapons endanger the Sunis existentially. This should be beamed at the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Turks in particular. In addition, each Muslim nation should be approached with a particularist message sculpted to address its interests and concerns.

Pakistani support for the Iranian enterprise would be extremely helpful, perhaps crucial. To secure it, very importantly, the United States must cool India’s ardor for Iran, and her distrust of Pakistan. Make Islamabad comfortable enough through bribes of aid and military guarantees as well as allow it more leeway in Afghanistan to shift Pakistan’s primary attention from Delhi to Teheran, at least for the duration of the enterprise. Encourage Pakistan’s secret assistance for Iran’s dissidents, including Islamabad’s co-sectarians. Meanwhile, covertly and indirectly, via dissident Iranians, we should aid Beluchi separatism on the Pakistani side of the mutual border to exacerbate tensions between Islamabad and Teheran. We should then lean on Afghanistan to distance itself from Iran. Further, borderland western Afghani tribes should be encouraged to support irredentism of their kin and kith beyond the Iranian frontier. Stress common ethnicity of the tribes primarily, while treating Shiism as a convenient binding element.

Saudi Arabia has a vital stake in our success. The Saudis stand to lose most as Iran’s cyclical threats to choke off the oil flowing through the Strait of Hormouz will soon be backed by nuclear force. Further, with Teheran’s fission bomb behind them, the Kingdom’s Shias will imminently feel much more secure objecting to their sorry lot under the House of Saud. To prevent this, King Abdullah will have to bankroll much of America’s operation to effect regime change in Teheran. Aside from paying the U.S. for keeping the waters navigable, Riyadh simply should fund Iranian dissidents within and without the nation. Since it would be against its vital interests to support Shia fundamentalists (counterparts to the Kingdom’s own Wahabbists and Salafis), who are, after all, now in power in Teheran, Saudi Arabia would have to support the Iranian monarchists. Funding is what the Saudis must supply to help us save them.

Turkey should be brought on board as a part of Washington’s charm offensive of reintegrating NATO and restitching the Israeli-Turkish partnership. Teheran loathes both, and it also threatens Ankara’s neo-Ottomanist project, perceiving it as a pretentious usurpation of Muslim leadership on the part of the Turks. To attract the Turks, the U.S. should learn how better to play the Kurdish card. Since the prime minister (and soon to be president for the foreseeable future) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been negotiating with his own Kurds – the latter emboldened by their de facto autonomy in Syria and Iraq, achieved in the last place with American help – the Turkish leader may be willing to deflect the domestic Kurdish demands vis-à-vis Ankara by channeling their energies toward Teheran. And, we should help convince the Kurds to feel sunny and giving.

With Turkey on board, its Azeri ally will likewise join. Baku is already at the loggerheads with Teheran. Here we should play on national, and not religious differences as most Azeris are Shia. But they are also post-Soviets and, thus, heavily secularized. The thuggish post-Communist leadership of Azerbajian consequently views fundamentalist Iran as a serious threat. Perhaps tacit encouragement of northern Iran’s Azeri minority to assert its rights would be in order as well. Irridentist clamor would be welcome. To secure Azerbaijan’s participation, understandably, the United States would have to deemphasize temporarily its carte blanche to Armenia.

Further, Shia-majority Iraq should be handled in a very sophisticated manner. Since our withdrawal, we have had very little influence over that state. The impact of Iran there is paramount, though, and growing. Since it would be extremely hard to detach the ruling elites in Baghdad from Teheran, we should endeavor to neutralize them by fostering a further decentralization of Iraq. We should continue to support autonomy for the Kurds and the Sunnis as well as other minority rights. Centrifugal tendencies already exist, as the non-Shia find the government increasingly unbearable. At the national level, however, we should also back Arab nationalism as a natural counterweight against Persian supremacy. And, we should gingerly encourage militaristic nationalism of a secular kind among the Iraqis at large.

Fourth, when the global and regional geopolitical ducks are lined up, let us embolden the non-violent freedom fighter in Iran itself. We missed our chance during the Green Uprising, when the Obama administration recoiled from helping the Iranian students. The momentum of that spontaneous mass movement is long gone, but there are still strong memories, as well as participants, a few very committed, including a number still in Iran. That could be a building bloc. Émigré politicians of various stripe should be enlisted in some kind of a grand council with a constitutional monarchist flavor but they should not form a government in exile. Instead, the United States must always emphasize that the system of the government of Iran after the liberation from the ayatollahs would be up to the Iranian people at home. Yet, monarchist sentiments should be encouraged, along with nostalgia for cultural Zoroastrianism as a faucet of Iranian nationalism. The latter entails de-emphasizing the officially sponsored fusion of Shiism and Iranian national consciousness. It would be good to remind the Iranians in this context that their people pray in a language – Arabic – most do not understand. Such messages should be conveyed through public diplomacy and other means, employing social media, the internet, and Radio Free Teheran.

Within Iran, or, more precisely, outside of the immediate border areas, the emphasis should be on non-violent resistance, borrowing whatever gimmicks from, say, Poland’s anti-Communist struggle that can be made compatible with the needs of Iran. Publishing underground newssheets and beaming internal radio and Internet streaming programs with new technologies can work well. Small dissident cells working covertly and a few intrepid souls giving witness overtly will allow the resistance to seize the high moral ground and, thus, attract supporters both at home and abroad. Students will be the mainstay of the resistance, but including soccer fans is smart as the humble classes ought to be involved, too. And there must be some kind of networking between the dissident Iranian and their minorities in the name of the heritage of the Great Persian Empire, the first ever historical effort at universalism, according to Adda Bozeman.

Mainstream resistors should focus on active measures, that is non-violent subversion. They should stay away from other covert operations, in particular sabotage and assassination. Non-violence beats armed struggle anytime unless the situation deteriorates to Syrian proportions. Although it is tempting to support other dissident elements to undermine the ayatollahs, the United States should be very cautious with various religious extremists and national socialists, like the Sunni Jundallah or Marxist-nationalist Mujahedeen Khalq. Both resort to violence. Both have also worked for the Mossad, the former recruited under a false flag. That is not a legacy for the heirs to the Green Uprising to embrace.

All this should be shored up by continued activities of our diplomacy, intelligence, and military. Satellite and drone overflights should continue. We should hold joint maneuvers with the Saudis, Turks, Azeris, Iraqis, and, perhaps, even the Pakistanis. U.S. civilian and military advisors should be embedded everywhere possible. The U.S. Navy must continue to prowl the waters and face off against the speedboats of the Revolutionary Guards. Our presence is the best deterrent to Iran’s aggression. For example, bringing a naval laser gun to the Persian Gulf is a shrewd move. We ought to spread rumors also about our mighty kinetic weapon, which – we shall assure the ayatollahs – can create earthquakes. Who knows, maybe it was the messianic power of President Obama behind the last big one that hit the nuclear installation at Bushehr? The diplomacy of force should thus continue to speak to Teheran.

Last but not least, the United States must remember the lessons of history and the law of unintended consequences. Even the best laid plans can and will disintegrate. Once engaged, the endeavor will become dynamic, morphing constantly and throwing surprises our way. Thus, we need iron will to persevere and see the operation through. If we have no bold vision, no guts, we may just as well continue our engagement for engagement’s sake. And expect the worst. Let’s play smart. Smart power America.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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