Regime change in Iran: difficult but not impossible

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, has written a piece for The Forward newspaper in which he claims that the Islamist regime in Iran, “however odious, is here to stay.”

Alpher argues:

True, the Tehran regime actually encourages Western regime-change advocates by its paranoia. A regime that goes to such extreme measures to suppress dissent and concoct virtual subversives must, the outsider reasons, be extremely weak and unstable.

Yet the simplest indication that regime change efforts against Tehran don’t work is the fact that for nearly 30 years they haven’t worked.

Indeed, objectively speaking, the mullahs’ regime has been in far worse straits throughout most of the past three decades than it is today, when it is flooded with petrodollars. Iranians willingly vote in their elections, however unfair and undemocratic they may look to us. They idolize the heroes of the war in the 1980s with Iraq. And when they express dissatisfaction with their abject lack of freedoms, the regime is very skillful at suppressing dissent.

I asked Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian blogger living in London, to respond to Alpher. Here is what he writes:

I have rarely read something so defeatist in the last 29 years, during which I have followed Iranian related news on a daily basis. In fact the article does not give any valid reasons why the Islamic regime cannot be toppled, it just says it’s difficult! So should we only engage in easy tasks? Next time I am handed a project at work should I say, oh that’s difficult, I only want to do easy ones?

I have to say I agree with a few points in the article. Fomenting ethnic dissent is counter-productive to toppling the regime. Those familiar with Iranian history and Iranian psychology will realise that the overwhelming majority of Iranians are so anti-separatism that they will put up with the most repressive regime to keep the historic entity of Iran intact, and this includes myself. The Islamic Republic does not discriminate against the ethnicity of Iranians, it discriminates against those who do not conform to the state’s interpretation of religion. The Islamic Republic is not a “Persian chauvinist” state, the Supreme Leader is an Azeri like myself. Persian is not a ruling ethnic group, it’s the common language of the Iranian people and much loved because of its richness by all Iranian people. The majority of Persian literature lecturers and scholars are non-Persians.

Back to my objections to the article. Is it difficult to topple the regime? Yes it is. Is it impossible? Not at all. Why is it not impossible? Just look at the trend of its popularity in the last 29 years. In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, 98 percent of the people voted for the referendum to establish an Islamic republic. Although it was a flawed election, we have to accept that the majority were in favour, not knowing what was ahead for them. Would a similar number vote in favour now? Absolutely not. Just look at the filtering of the candidates by the Guardian Council. The regime is so scared of giving the Iranian people a real choice that even the most loyal people to the revolution are now barred from standing as candidates. If the likes of Yossi Alpher bothered to promote engagement with Iranian dissidents as well as with Iranian state officials, perhaps it would surprise him to find out from the ex-political prisoners that even their prison guards and governors would at times manifest their hatred of the religious dictatorship in Iran. That’s how deeply unpopular the regime has become.

The difficulty in mobilising the Iranian masses to reach the critical mass required to topple the regime is that the regime to them seems invincible. They lack confidence, and certainly such articles by Yossi Alpher do not help. The people of Iran need to see that the world is not bending over backwards to the Ayatollahs, that their struggles are reported by the international media, that the regime’s officials are not received by the world as eminent dignitaries, that the notorious judge Mortazavi is not accepted in Geneva as the head of the Iranian Human Rights delegation. They want to see a crack in the regime’s invincibility. Then the likes of Yossi Alpher will be surprised at how quickly the crack will spread, just as academics have always been surprised with any revolution. I can’t recall a revolution which was ever predicted, neither in Iran, nor in East Europe, nor anywhere or any time by any academics. Predicting revolutions is not a safe bet to bolster your academic credentials. It does not happen very often, but it does happen.