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Iran: A Regime Change: Potential, Incentive, Direction

By Kam Zarrabi


Iran's strategy in the nuclear chess game still underway must have surprised a lot of thinkers from Washington to Tel Aviv. Those who thought, or at least hoped, that the Iranian government, torn between the conservatives and the reformists in their struggle for power, would be in such disarray as to lack a coordinated front with regard to Iran's defense and nuclear policies, must be disappointed.


President Khatami's statements in response to the IAEA findings, and American and Israeli objections to IAEA conclusions, clearly points to the fact that, when the chips are down, all the factional rivals rally behind a common front. The last time this spirit of nationalism was put to the test was twenty years ago when Saddam Hussein's armies invaded Iran hoping to take advantage of a nation in total chaos, with no organized armed forces or even a coherent leadership.


While Khatami's statements that IAEA has found no evidence of Iran's nuclear weapons development in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is true, some evidence has been found that Iran is quite capable of achieving that status.


What Iran is saying with a surprisingly unified voice is that it has no intention of arming itself with nuclear weapons, and that its nuclear technology is intended solely for peaceful purposes. Iran is now showing signs that it may be even ready to agree to more intensive and intrusive inspections by the IAEA, in order to erase any doubts as to its compliance with the non-proliferation agreements. What is not being said, and understandably so, is how long or up to what time will Iran continue to honor this promise. And, that is exactly what is agitating the Israeli and, by extension, American Middle East strategists.


The pressure on the IAEA by the American Administration to drag Iran in front of the Security Council to face sever sanctions for its alleged violation of the NPT is to also pave the way for potential Israeli or American military action against Iran.


It would be insane to think that striking at Iran's nuclear electrical plants under construction in Bushehr, Natanz or Arak, would be an effective means of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Iran is a huge country, mostly mountainous, and not every square meter of its vast terrain is exposed to spy satellites. Furthermore, research and development of nuclear weapons technology can be carried out clandestinely and, thanks to modern advances, even without the need for physical testing of the final product. As long as there are universities, physics laboratories, highly trained scientists, and ample natural resources available, and they certainly are, the capability will exist, even if the intent may be curtailed, awaiting future regional developments.


Therefore, it is this "potential" or capability that is of concern by the alarmists, not whether Iran currently has the ultimate weapon. Understanding this fact, we can now see the real reason for military threats by Israel and the United States (meaning Israel, again) against Iran's nuclear facilities. Since any such military strike is absolutely ineffective as a meaningful measure to stop, or even significantly delay, potential nuclear weapons developments, the real aim must be something more consequential. Nuclear power generation plants under construction will, however, serve as the only reasonable targets for a surgical strike with minimum human casualties, should a case, however concocted, be made that Iran has violated the NPT agreement. At the same time, military targeting of anything within the Iranian soil, regardless of its real strategic value, is the surest way to start a series of political disturbances in the country that might lead to a rapid breakdown of the ruling hierarchy, add momentum to the internal opposition elements, and pave the way for a regime change.


A regime change in Iran, of the kind envisioned by Tel Aviv and Washington, will be the most concrete and perhaps the only way to ensure that Iran rejoins the league of compliant states and abandons any scheme that might challenge America's hegemony and Israel's military supremacy in the region. There are many thinkers and social scientists on both sides of the globe who find very little wrong with this scenario.


For some thirty odd years after World War II, the entire Islamic Middle East, including Iran, had remained in exactly that kind of compliance. Until the fall of the Pahlavi regime in 1978, a real axis did exist in the Middle East, the Tehran/Tel Aviv axis, safeguarding America's strategic interests in the region, from control over the flow of oil, to blocking potential Soviet expansionism.


As America's best friend, Iran realized an accelerated rate of economic growth in the two decades, from the mid fifties to the late seventies. Economic growth paralleled the pace of Westernization and the creation of a new consumer based economy and a rapidly mushrooming Middle Class. It was this inordinate pace toward modernization that stretched the social fabric to the breaking point. As the eager entrepreneurs and the nouveau riche excitedly capitalized on new opportunities awaiting them at every turn, they left in their wake the multitudes, the great majority of the population, who couldn't keep up with the pace.


A new pseudo-aristocracy was thus created that was to outdo the "old money" in every way. The joy of consumerism and the attraction to anything Western, however shallow or superficial, were equated with progress; and progress meant an increasing appetite for the newly acquired tastes, creating an ever-widening chasm between the neophytes and the traditionalists. The prevailing philosophy of the times was the laissez faire or the no-nonsense capitalist axiom: So that the chickens can also eat, feed the horses lots of oats.


Progress had its price as well. Along with modern education, exposure to new technology and general literacy, came social excesses and indulgences that were reflective of a callous underestimation or outright disregard for the nation's deep traditional roots. It wasn't long before the New Year on January 1st was celebrated with much greater fanfare than the three-thousand year old Norooz. On a typical weekend, families from the suburbs of the Capital would spend half a day driving their three-wheeled mini pickups to the fashionable Shemiran and stand in line to taste the newest gift from the West, the round, shoe-leather-tough hamburger, or as some locals called it hamburgerd - 'gerd' meaning round in Farsi! The most expensive rare Scotch whiskey was often blended with Coca Cola at dance parties, and Dior dresses were worn underneath the traditional chador, even by ladies who actually preferred adhering to their customary garb. The crow that wanted to mimic the gait of the partridge, forgot how to walk altogether!


The old aristocracy and the aspiring new elite who continued to measure, cut and sow the socioeconomic fabric of the nation, were either unaware of or underestimated the plight of millions of stragglers, the ordinary citizens, those who couldn't run their daily errands wearing fashionable high-heel shoes, or would have a belly ache eating the hamburgerd.


When the house of cards began to fall apart, many with money and means, especially those with backgrounds or connections in the West, abandoned the wreckage and fled the scene. Some had to or chose to stay behind, due to their particular circumstances, hoping, like many now in diaspora, for a cataclysmic change that would once again return them to social and economic prominence.


So, what kind of regime change is possible for Iran that would be conducive to the current policies of the United States and Israel, without violating the sentiments of almost the entire nation, with the exception, perhaps, of much smaller crowds who do wear high heels and love hamburgers?


I received yet another unsolicited e-letter from one Farhad Mafie, titled "Please, Call Me an Iranian, Not a Moslem". Many others of literary background and liberal views within Iran, as well as many abroad, share these sentiments. Mr. Mafie attempts to dispossess anything Islamic about the Iranian culture and heritage through a rather uneducated leap of faith. Mr. Mafie's reaching back twenty-five centuries to tap into the glory of the kingdoms of Cyrus and Darius is as historically irrelevant as the Zionists claims of ownership of lands in Palestine today that used to be the legendary kingdom of David and Solomon three thousand years ago. 


Mr. Mafie has every right to be a non Moslem Iranian, as are hundreds of thousands of others; but denying or denouncing Iran's Islamic heritage is either a sign of cultural illiteracy or an ulterior motive.


A regime change, or a change in the direction of the Iranian regime, is absolutely inevitable, if for no other reason than the natural evolution of its own political dynamics. How, to what degree, and when this change is to take place depends on several factors currently at play.


Option 1: Direct or indirect intervention by the United States and/or Israel.


The current pretext, as outlined above, will be the allegations of non-compliance with the NPT requirements, regardless of what IAEA officially declares In this scenario, Israel may strike at Iran's nuclear sites, and shelter itself against international condemnations and sanctions under a US veto at the UN Security Council, as was the case twenty years ago when it struck at the Iraqi nuclear power plant.


Unlike Syria which was belligerently violated by an Israeli token surgical strike, Iran will react by threatening retaliation at some future time. While the hardliners will urge an openly declared increase for support of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance, the moderates will undoubtedly recommend a measure of resolve and diplomatic maneuvering to avoid deeper regional confrontations. The anticipated increase in Hezbollah vigilance and Palestinian insurgency, with Syrian support, will give Israel the excuse it needs to strike at the enemy targets, with America's blessing and support.


Within Iran, conflict between the impatient hardliners and the reformist regime will reach a climax that could easily destabilize the government and provide the atmosphere for a well financed and well supported group, such as the Pahlavi gang, to repeat the coup of 1953.


The new "compliant" regime will form close ties with Israel and benefit from a lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United States. The clergy will retreat to their sanctuaries in Ghom and Mashhad, and history will begin to repeat itself - déjà vu!


At least, this is how the scenario has most likely been envisioned by strategist in Israel, and by certain think tanks in Washington. Even if this scenario does not unfold as planned (which it will not, for reasons that will be outlined below), the ensuing bloodshed and devastation in Iran, the damage to Lebanon and Syria, and further isolation of the Palestinian population, would suit Israel's myopic interests very well.


Option 2: Allowing Iranians to take care of their own.


If the Iranian government plays its cards right, as it appears to be the case, the current flashpoint created by Israeli interests alleging Iran's nuclear threats will be effectively defused. Ariel Sharon and his supporters and collaborators here, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton, and others, who have been acting as the steering committee for American policy in the Middle East, are losing their window of opportunity to expand the campaign against Israel's antagonists in the region. The situation both in Iraq and Afghanistan can only get more complicated with time, and George W. Bush's Presidency is on the line next year. The United States can ill afford to be dragged into another, potentially much larger, conflict at this time, regardless of what the Israeli interests might dictate.


Iran has already shown, at least to the satisfaction of the international community, particularly the European Union nations, that it is not in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But, more significantly, Iran has left little doubt in anybody's mind that it does have the technical capability and the resources to develop a viable nuclear arsenal at a time of its own choosing. That means that even if Iran refrains from any immediate military response to an Israeli preemptive strike against its nuclear electrical plants, Israel will have hell to pay later for such adventurism.


Another factor that should play a vital role in plotting the course to positive reforms in Iran is the already proven tendency of the rival or opposition groups to rally behind a common cause when the very integrity of the nation is at risk. Saddam Hussein tested the Iranian's resolve once before.


We hear a lot of emotional and politically motivated criticisms of the power and influence of Iran's so-called non-elected clerical leadership, its anachronistic social intolerance, and its opposition to democratic reforms spearheaded by the popularly elected Administration. Many critics, such as Mr. Farhad Mafie in his latest open e-letter, go as far as accusing them of unpatriotic and even traitorous preference for an archaic Islam at the expense of Iran's national identity. Another way of looking at the same picture, of course, shows Iran's conservative religious core holding on to the reins of power in order to preserve the very same Iranian national identity from exploitation and ravages of Western imperial designs and imposed cultural decadence. 


However one chooses to look at that picture, Iran's ultraconservative factions do understand that adhering to aggressive hard-line policies and rhetoric against the current propaganda barrage aimed at destabilizing Iran will prove counterproductive at this critical time. Such policies will definitely play into the enemy's hands, which means not only the end to their theocratic or spiritual leadership, but also the potential dismantling of the entire social structure which took shape with the revolution of 1978. Any outright confrontation with the military might of the United States, whether directly, jointly with Israel, or by an extension of the operations from Iraq or Afghanistan, will prove disastrous for Iran. Therefore, any uncalculated belligerence by the Iranian hardliners at this time would be a ticket for potential disaster for them and for the nation.


In an ironic twist, Israeli schemes to isolate and demonize Iran, as well as the American Administration's complicity in irrational and counterproductive allegations against Iran, have given Iran a unique opportunity to benefit now from the support of the European Union, as well as Russia, as evident in their stance with regard to the NPT affair. An opening to Europe will inevitably soften internal resistance to engaging in a more equitable and constructive dialogue with the United States. We are already seeing some evidence of this softening of tones from both sides. 


Much to America's advantage, Iran can be immeasurably instrumental as a stabilizing influence in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the United States not to recognize this opportunity will prove to be a strategic and economic mistake, even more so than the cowboy adventurism currently underway in the region. 


As far as Israel is concerned, a prosperous and strong Iran, confident of its retaliatory capabilities, is less likely to feel apprehensive or threatened by a trigger-happy Israel. More significantly, better relations with America, something that the Israeli lobby in Washington has been fighting all along, will alleviate Iran's incentive to retaliate by supporting Palestinian opposition groups, something that has never been to Iran's best interests, anyway.


Advice to the Wise


For most of us who want to have the cake and eat it too, simply choosing to call ourselves Iranians will not legitimize our claim. What do we have to lose, other than a sense of nostalgia, if our ambitious suggestions or relentless criticisms sink Iran deeper into the abyss?


Mr. Mafie and other elitist members of the intelligentsia, whether of the Right or the Left orientation, have some appealing suggestions, appealing only to the similarly educated and West-struck crowds both in Iran and abroad. Most Iranian intellectuals would not go as far as Mr. Mafie in disclaiming Islam altogether, but would like to see a separation of religion from the direct affairs of the state. Most would like to see broader liberties or permissiveness, in dress code, entertainment, and open dialogue and dissent. The ideologues among us like to see reforms toward a true participatory democracy in Iran, as well. They all want these changes to take place; and they want it all right now and without delay!


What our ideologues fail to admit is that, not only do they not represent a sampling of the Iranian nation as a whole, what they are promoting is an oligarchy of the elite, those who have appointed themselves as the guiding beacons for the direction that tens of millions of not-no-elite populations must follow. So, what else is new? Back to Square-One, again.


What would happen if we were to poll a random population of one million Iranians, from Sarakhs to Chah-Bahar, and Torbat to Susangerd, as to whether they would vote for a secular, liberal democracy in place of an Islamic Republic? Of course we know what a few hundred thousand voting-age Tehranis would say.


Perhaps it was out of respect for the prevailing attitude and sensitivities of her fellow Iranians, rather than the fear of persecution, that Ms. Shirin Ebadi has chosen not to equate women's dress code with her struggle for human rights for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize.


If it is the will of the majority of Iranian citizens that must prevail, as we all claim, we who are sitting pretty here with no fear or worry of tomorrow, and I am including Mr. Mafie and myself in that 'we', better wait until we receive a formal invitation from the Iranian public, asking us to go back and assume our leadership roles.


In the meantime, let us not wish for the kind of regime change that would bring bloodshed, chaos and ruin to a nation that was once ours too.

... Payvand News - 11/20/03 ... --

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