Wasting Lady Ashton's Time

The time is ripe for Iranians to topple their brutal government—they're even nostalgic for the Shah. Too bad the Obama administration doesn't know what it's doing.

It seems that the on-again, off-again meeting between the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Lady Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is on again in Geneva for December 6-7. The talks with representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany are expected to last two days to afford "sufficient time for a full and in-depth exchange of views," according to excerpts from the invitation letter to Iran. The Obama administration and its European allies appear to be champing at the bit to talk with Iran regarding a range of matters, but especially about putting a halt to Iran’s nuclear enrichment and presumed weapons program. This past Wednesday saw U.S. officials even holding out the promise of more economic support for Iran. The Iranians, on the other hand, are still playing hard to get and say that they are willing to talk about anything except their nuclear-enrichment program.

First some facts and then a different vision of how to deal with the mullahs.

The Obama administration has little or no comprehension of the mindset of those who are in control behind the scenes in Iran. U.S. officials and their advisers have hardly had any meaningful engagement with them. These street-smart Iranians are nowhere to be seen in public. In their mindset, the United States is weak and wants an agreement with Iran at any cost whereas they, the Iranians, hold all the cards. To them, Europeans, for example the French, are even weaker; Iranian intelligence operatives were laughing when they got the French authorities to release an Iranian who was being held for the murder of a former Iranian prime minister in France! These shadowy Iranians have contempt for weakness. The willy-nilly ratcheting up of sanctions further supports their beliefs of U.S. indecisiveness and weakness. Although Washington has numerous ways to make the sanctions truly “crippling,” it has declined to do so on the premise that the average Iranian may suffer too much. When have realists lost sleep over the sufferings of average Iranians? The Iranian authorities know that they will not be attacked because: a United States that is unwilling to adopt effective sanctions will not take military action against them; U.S. hands are tied in Afghanistan and in Iraq; although Israel is the only real military threat, America is unwilling to give Israel carte blanche because things could go horribly wrong; and Washington has learned the painful lesson of the Iran-Iraq War if nothing else, that is, if Iran is attacked, then Iranians will rally behind the mullahs.

In today’s Iran the plain truth is that the regime is unpopular as never before. The only supporters of the regime are those who receive direct benefits from their association, including: a minority of clerics (since the devout have long divorced themselves from the likes of Khamenei), the Revolutionary Guards, the Baseej, the intelligence services, the families of “martyrs” who receive regular subsidies and businessmen who are directly connected to regime insiders, all told about five million out of a population of 75 million. The average Iranian no longer supports the regime because: their economic condition has become intolerable and they have no hope of improvement; income disparities have grown since the Shah’s reign; Iranian citizens have fewer personal freedoms than under the Shah; dissidents are treated much more harshly than they ever were under the Shah; and many feel ashamed of where Iran finds itself today, especially in comparison to Persian Gulf Arabs who have historically been regarded as inferior but whom Iranians today envy. And importantly, the majority of Iranians have become totally disenchanted by the entire apparatus of their clerical regime. They see how their religion has become perverted and brutal. They see the devout clerics distancing themselves from the political mullahs. There is a forced religiosity in the today’s Iran and far less religious freedom than there was under the Shah. The clerical regime has brought severe costs, such as economic mismanagement, brutality and religious pretensions, and no tangible benefits. Reminiscences about the Shah’s regime are becoming increasingly frequent and nostalgic.

The clerics and their supporters believe that the United States is bent on getting rid of them and that their best hope for long-term survival is the nuclear program, which they cannot abandon.

Realists in America and in Europe know that the real problem is not Iran’s nuclear quest but its regime. An agreement with the mullahs would be not worth the paper it is written on. The regime with nuclear capabilities will be many times worse than it is the regime of today.

For the imagined “average” Iranian what is better? An attack on Iran (and covert operations in Iran by the United States) to overthrow the regime? Cooperation between Tehran and Washington? Or all-out pressure on the regime with crippling sanctions in the hope to overthrow it?

A military attack on Iran (and covert operations that could be exposed) is not in the interest of anyone, Iranians or the West. Simply said, the regime will receive widespread support, thus increasing its lease on life. Cooperation with the mullahs would reduce pressure as the economic noose would somewhat loosen, in turn affording the clerics more room for maneuver and more domestic support.

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