While Iranians protest, some Americans are coming around to the call for regime change

When Western policymakers discuss the Islamic Republic of Iran, they tend to act as if regime change were entirely off the table.

It's not as if anyone is taking the position that the world will be better off if Iran maintains its current form of government.  After all, the theocratic system has made Iran the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism ever since the mid-'80s.  So reticence about "regime change" comes not from any assessment of stakeholders' preferences, but from a flawed calculation of risk vs. reward.

Western leaders tend to assume that any advocacy for regime change would leave them unable to deal directly with the mullahs' regime while also leaving questions about the future leadership of the country up in the air.  The former conclusion may be technically correct, but then why would anyone want to maintain a working relationship with the main purveyor of global terrorism?  The status quo might be roughly defensible if it were true that there is no alternative to the clerical dictatorship, but this simply isn't the case.

Iran has a highly organized and active Resistance movement that has been waiting for many years to represent Iranian interests on the world stage, and to ultimately take over national government from the theocratic tyrants.  Those who recognize this fact are less wary of entertaining the possibility that the mullahs may be deposed by the Iranian people.  And as such, they are often willing to highlight Western policies that could facilitate this outcome.

More than 30 such individuals in the U.S. signed their names to a statement this week, which will be read out on Friday as part of the all-day "Free Iran Global Summit."  The event has been organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran and will consist of numerous gatherings across 102 countries, linked by a live video stream celebrating the recent progress of Iran's pro-democracy activist movement.  That movement, under the leadership of the NCRI and its main constituent group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, has been responsible for two nationwide uprisings and many other widespread demonstrations since the end of 2017.

The American statement explicitly calls attention to this trend and praises "every act of defiance and protest" as "a courageous call for liberty, and a rebuke to an illegitimate and isolated regime."  The bulk of the statement then focuses on warning about the regime's inevitable backlash against both the domestic Resistance movement and foreign targets of Iran-backed terrorism.  But even before addressing the proper Western response, the signatories take the bold step of teasing the idea of regime change.

"The days of religious fundamentalists controlling Iran are numbered," the statement says in its first line.  It is a direct challenge to the status quo in Western policy circles, and that challenge is made all the more significant by the prominence and the ideological diversity of those who attached their names to it.  Signatories include scholars, retired military officers, former congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and several American diplomats.  Some, including Rudy Giuliani and Joseph Lieberman, will also speak directly to members and supporters of the Iranian Resistance when they participate in Friday's summit.

The event can be expected to further amplify the core message of the statement, which is one of accountability for the Iranian officials who have ordered and carried out terrorist attacks and human rights abuses as part of an ongoing effort to consolidate their hold on power.  But whereas the statement serves to promote international investigations leading to criminal charges against those officials, the summit will more explicitly take aim at the entire underlying system.  The NCRI has long maintained that regime change in Tehran must be pursued solely by the Iranian people, but this is not to say that neither the coalition nor its Western supporters recognize the supportive role that foreign governments could play.

To its credit, the Trump administration has already shown some willingness to do so.  Its commitment to "maximum pressure" has evidently exposed some of the regime's vulnerability as well as impeding some of its funding for regional proxy groups.  It may even be appropriate to give the current U.S. posture some share of the credit for last November's nationwide uprising, which adopted the same regime change–oriented slogans as the uprising that was already underway at the beginning of 2018.

If it is true that the White House helped to boost the morale of Iran's activist community, it is important to note that it did so without deploying military personnel or sending material aid to the Resistance or raising the threat of war between the U.S. and Iran. Economic and diplomatic pressures were sufficient in their own right.  We can only imagine how much greater the effect would be from truly multilateral pressure, especially if that pressure included legal consequences for Tehran's four decades of malign activities.

This is exactly what the signers of the American statement pointed to when they declared that "justice delayed is justice denied" and noted that the principle of sovereign immunity does not apply to crimes against humanity.  The subtext of that message, which has been missing for so long from most discussions of Iran policy, is that the prosecution of Iranian officials will expose still further vulnerabilities in their regime — vulnerabilities that could promptly be exploited by an activist population that has already been pressing for regime change, with remarkable, if limited, success.

Photo illustration by Monica Showalter with use of images by Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 and Renatus via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.  Images enhanced with FotoSketcher and PhotoShop.

When Western policymakers discuss the Islamic Republic of Iran, they tend to act as if regime change were entirely off the table.

It's not as if anyone is taking the position that the world will be better off if Iran maintains its current form of government.  After all, the theocratic system has made Iran the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism ever since the mid-'80s.  So reticence about "regime change" comes not from any assessment of stakeholders' preferences, but from a flawed calculation of risk vs. reward.

Western leaders tend to assume that any advocacy for regime change would leave them unable to deal directly with the mullahs' regime while also leaving questions about the future leadership of the country up in the air.  The former conclusion may be technically correct, but then why would anyone want to maintain a working relationship with the main purveyor of global terrorism?  The status quo might be roughly defensible if it were true that there is no alternative to the clerical dictatorship, but this simply isn't the case.

Iran has a highly organized and active Resistance movement that has been waiting for many years to represent Iranian interests on the world stage, and to ultimately take over national government from the theocratic tyrants.  Those who recognize this fact are less wary of entertaining the possibility that the mullahs may be deposed by the Iranian people.  And as such, they are often willing to highlight Western policies that could facilitate this outcome.

More than 30 such individuals in the U.S. signed their names to a statement this week, which will be read out on Friday as part of the all-day "Free Iran Global Summit."  The event has been organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran and will consist of numerous gatherings across 102 countries, linked by a live video stream celebrating the recent progress of Iran's pro-democracy activist movement.  That movement, under the leadership of the NCRI and its main constituent group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, has been responsible for two nationwide uprisings and many other widespread demonstrations since the end of 2017.

The American statement explicitly calls attention to this trend and praises "every act of defiance and protest" as "a courageous call for liberty, and a rebuke to an illegitimate and isolated regime."  The bulk of the statement then focuses on warning about the regime's inevitable backlash against both the domestic Resistance movement and foreign targets of Iran-backed terrorism.  But even before addressing the proper Western response, the signatories take the bold step of teasing the idea of regime change.

"The days of religious fundamentalists controlling Iran are numbered," the statement says in its first line.  It is a direct challenge to the status quo in Western policy circles, and that challenge is made all the more significant by the prominence and the ideological diversity of those who attached their names to it.  Signatories include scholars, retired military officers, former congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and several American diplomats.  Some, including Rudy Giuliani and Joseph Lieberman, will also speak directly to members and supporters of the Iranian Resistance when they participate in Friday's summit.

The event can be expected to further amplify the core message of the statement, which is one of accountability for the Iranian officials who have ordered and carried out terrorist attacks and human rights abuses as part of an ongoing effort to consolidate their hold on power.  But whereas the statement serves to promote international investigations leading to criminal charges against those officials, the summit will more explicitly take aim at the entire underlying system.  The NCRI has long maintained that regime change in Tehran must be pursued solely by the Iranian people, but this is not to say that neither the coalition nor its Western supporters recognize the supportive role that foreign governments could play.

To its credit, the Trump administration has already shown some willingness to do so.  Its commitment to "maximum pressure" has evidently exposed some of the regime's vulnerability as well as impeding some of its funding for regional proxy groups.  It may even be appropriate to give the current U.S. posture some share of the credit for last November's nationwide uprising, which adopted the same regime change–oriented slogans as the uprising that was already underway at the beginning of 2018.

If it is true that the White House helped to boost the morale of Iran's activist community, it is important to note that it did so without deploying military personnel or sending material aid to the Resistance or raising the threat of war between the U.S. and Iran. Economic and diplomatic pressures were sufficient in their own right.  We can only imagine how much greater the effect would be from truly multilateral pressure, especially if that pressure included legal consequences for Tehran's four decades of malign activities.

This is exactly what the signers of the American statement pointed to when they declared that "justice delayed is justice denied" and noted that the principle of sovereign immunity does not apply to crimes against humanity.  The subtext of that message, which has been missing for so long from most discussions of Iran policy, is that the prosecution of Iranian officials will expose still further vulnerabilities in their regime — vulnerabilities that could promptly be exploited by an activist population that has already been pressing for regime change, with remarkable, if limited, success.

Photo illustration by Monica Showalter with use of images by Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 and Renatus via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.  Images enhanced with FotoSketcher and PhotoShop.