This piece originally appeared in The National Interest.
In Vienna, the American negotiating team is busy snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as the Islamic Republic demands concession after concession from Washington in exchange for Tehran’s return to the 2015 nuclear deal. In a stark shift from just a few months ago, when the Islamic Republic was under extraordinary economic pressure, the regime is once again confident on the international stage. Indeed, it appears that the Biden administration, which promised to center its foreign policy on human rights, is potentially saving one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships from collapse and building it back better.
Buoyed by the assist from Washington, it will be a busy month ahead for the newly confident Islamic Republic. The full power of the state, crossing any and all factional lines, will be marshaled for the quadrennial theatrics of the regime’s elections, whose candidates are handpicked by a twelve-member, unelected body known as the Guardian Council. In Clubhouse chats and among foreign-based journalists, the conventional wisdom is that the Islamic Republic is stable and its existence unquestionable. That is just how the regime likes it.
Yet while the regime’s public relations efforts continue to fool many in the Western media and on the world stage, it is a far cry from the reality for everyday Iranians, who largely view the regime as defunct and illegitimate. In a poll run by the regime’s own state propaganda network (which proudly airs the torture-induced, Soviet-style forced confessions of dissidents), 51 percent of respondents said they would not vote in the regime’s upcoming elections.
The ongoing protests of pensioners, workers, farmers, and the families of murdered activists validate privately conducted polling that shows many Iranians are simply waiting for the next opportunity to revolt. Far from the fantasy world on display in Vienna and on Twitter, there is a reality simmering just beneath the surface of Iran’s politics that should guide American policy: Iranians do not want the Islamic Republic; they want regime change.
The mere utterance of the words “regime change” raises alarm bells in the United States. However, as many Iranians envision it, the collapse of the Islamic Republic would neither be led by Washington nor require an American military intervention. The fall of the Islamic Republic will be led by the Iranian people. Their expectation of the United States, however, is that it does not save the dictatorship from crumbling. Yet to many Iranians, that is exactly what Joe Biden is doing.
Though there is no question that Iranians want change. To determine whether that change would benefit the United States necessitates asking what kind of change the Iranian people want. While Covid-19 has limited mass protests, Iranians’ past demonstrations offer a glimpse into their views on America and what a future Iran might look like if they had their way. In nationwide anti-regime demonstrations in 2017, 2018, and 2019, Iranians refused to step on American flags planted by the regime as props. They often chanted, “Our enemy is right here, they lie when they say it is America!” Unlike the Islamic Republic, the Iranian people look to America as an ally.
U.S. action to serve as an ally with the Iranian people would present America with opportunities to address three significant threats.
First, the radioactive elephant in the room. Despite attempts made by negotiators in Vienna, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear threat will never truly be put “in a box,” as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put it. Many have argued that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s unpublished fatwa, or religious edict, banning the production of nuclear weapons remains a guarantee Iran will never build a bomb. Former Secretary of State John Kerry went as far as to say he had “great respect” for the fatwa. Yet even after the Biden administration announced its intentions to remove sanctions and rejoin the nuclear deal, the regime’s intelligence minister said Iran might nonetheless pursue an atomic bomb. As long as the Islamic Republic is in power and retains its nuclear industry and infrastructure, it will pose a nuclear threat to the United States and its allies. A free Iran, however, would likely have no such aspirations. Four decades of investing Iran’s limited resources in the regime’s endless wars in the region and nuclear ambitions have brought Iranians poverty, misery, and isolation. Therefore, Iranians chant “leave Syria alone and do something for us” or “what happened to the oil money? It has been spent in Palestine.”
Second, the Islamic Republic continues to be the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. Tehran supports leading Sunni terrorist groups like Al Qaeda by providing refuge to its top leadership and by acting as a “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication” to the terror organization, according to a letter written by Osama bin Laden and found during the raid that led to his death. Even during its period of rapprochement with the West after Iran and world powers reached an interim agreement in 2013 known as the Joint Plan of Action, Tehran did not cease its funding for international terrorism. The regime reportedly spends more than one billion dollars per year to finance foreign terror groups around the world that target America and its allies, especially Hamas and Hezbollah.