Iran’s Greatest Vulnerability

by Michael Ledeen

The Iranian people hate the regime

Iran is on the march all over the world, from Syria and Iraq to Venezuela and Cuba (where they have a Hezbollah base). Except when they unceremoniously retreat, as in recent days when their flotilla to Yemen turned around when they saw the U.S. Navy.

There’s a lesson there: If you want the Iranian regime to be less bellicose, aim a gun at its temple. Better yet, threaten the survival of the regime itself. You don’t need aircraft carriers or airplanes or even special forces. All you need is the will to support a free Iran.

Of all the many worries that torment the dreams of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, the greatest is the menace represented by the Iranian people, who detest the regime. In a remarkable open letter to President Barack Obama, Khamenei’s nephew, Mahmoud Moradkhani, carefully made the point:

There are powerful and pro-active forces in the Iranian opposition and if the censorship of the media that are supporting the Islamic regime of Iran were to be removed, the opposition can easily organize and assist the powerful civil disobedience of Iranian people.

We can see the regime’s recognition of the threat to its power in the behavior of the Islamic Republic’s leaders. On the one hand, the record level of repression, even more brutal under the false reformer Hassan Rouhani than it was under the monster Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which bespeaks Khamenei’s fear that he is losing control. On the other hand, the refusal of Khamenei and his henchmen to bring formal charges against the now-iconic leaders of the antiregime, Green Movement chiefs Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and the Ayatollah Hossein-Kazamani Boroujerdi. The first two are under house arrest, while the dissident clergyman suffers under pitiable conditions in prison. All three are too popular for prosecution, as various regime leaders have admitted on several occasions.

This is a particularly fractious moment for the regime, as the factions jockey for position in post-Khamenei Iran. A senior figure in the Revolutionary Guard Corps had to arrange an interview in which he denied that he and his henchmen were organizing a coup. General Hassan Rastegarpnah said the IRGC wasn’t tempted to take drastic action to consolidate its power, since “it has its own place in the government and does not need to overthrow [it].”

That a senior military officer should be required to issue such a statement says a lot about the internal turmoil. And there’s lots more. The country is a shambles.

The fear of popular anger is catalyzed by abundant evidence of regime incompetence and corruption. Food is in increasingly short supply, primarily because there is no money to pay for imports (for all practical intents, Iranian banks are broke; insofar as money is available, it is controlled by Khamenei personally and by the IRGC), and government subsidies have been thrown into question for the new fiscal year. Those funds go mostly for war, not the people’s well being.

There’s little hope that Iranian agriculture will improve, as the country is in the grips of a critical water shortage, and the regime’s response has made it worse. Iran is an arid country, and the regime has built dams all over the place, with disastrous results, according to an Australian report that cites an Iranian government document:

The impact of these dams in Iran has been significant and negative; they have produced significant shrinkage in water bodies and reductions in downstream access to water. Three of Iran’s lakes, Lake Maharlu, Lake Bakhtegan and Lake Parishan, have dried and turned to desert. . . . Once the second largest lake in Iran, Lake Bakhtegan has dried completely. . . . Lake Urmia meanwhile is following a similar path, with a 70 percent surface water reduction over the last 20 years.

Students of the Soviet Union’s ecological policies will recognize this as a replay of the destruction of the Aral Sea. Tyranny is deadly for freshwater lakes, it seems.

The impending doom of Lake Urmia, the biggest fresh-water lake in the region, has provoked periodic demonstrations by the locals, and they join other protesters in industry and education who are enraged at being stiffed by the government.

A few weeks ago, the national teachers’ organization went on strike, demanding to be paid and protesting the relentless Islamization of the official textbooks. The government responded with the usual method—throwing the head of the group into prison—but the intimidation doesn’t seem to be working: The teachers have announced a national strike for the end of the first week in May.

No wonder, then, that the regime’s key security forces, the IRGC and the Basij, have stepped up preparations for urban conflict. In March, 5,000 Basijis held training exercises throughout the country, and this month a mixed force of 12,000 Basijis and IRGC troops held exercises in Tehran.

If you made a list of social, economic, and political conditions that undermine the legitimacy of a regime, you’d likely conclude that Iran is in what we used to call a “prerevolutionary situation.”

Khamenei and Rouhani certainly agree. I don’t read the analyses of our intelligence community, but I doubt those worthies would be inclined to paint such an explosive picture of Iran, even if they believed it. Which they probably don’t. Remember that Reagan was told that Gorbachev was firmly in control on the eve of the Soviet Union’s implosion, and the CIA scoffed at the very idea of an organized uprising in Iran before the massive demonstrations of 2009. In any event, they know that Obama doesn’t want to hear that his would-be partner is going wobbly.

Nonetheless, wobbly it is, and Western support for regime change—which has long been the most sensible and honorable Iran policy—once again beckons to anyone who wants to take a giant step toward a rational policy. Those millions of angry Iranians about whom Khamenei’s nephew writes are ready to go, waiting for a bit of support from us and the rest of the free world. It would be nice to hear some of the presidential candidates say so.


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