In a matter of just ten days, Iran has gone through a momentous upheaval-with changes that have rocked the foundation of the regime and must shape Western, especially American, policy in the days and weeks ahead.
In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, Iran cloaked itself in the rule of the cleric, or velayat-e-faqih. The clerics selected their own version of Islam as the foundation of their legitimacy. For the past thirty years the mullahs have professed Islam and touted their Islamicity to the world, basing their legitimacy on three fragile threads: their Islamic "cover," free (although restricted) elections and the defense of Iran's borders. In a matter of just eight days, the first two have been tattered. The third, if tested, might only be ensured with a river of Iranian blood.
The regime has been a party to fraud and in the process has destroyed the nature of the Islamic Republic. The mullahs have tried to convert the republic into an absolute dictatorship with a lifetime puppet presidency. Free elections could not, and would not, be allowed. But there is more. The regime has savagely killed its own people to maintain a harsh and unpopular rule. If the government were popular, it would not have ordered the killing of innocent demonstrators this past week. The state has mismanaged the economy. It has wasted Allah's resources intended for all. Corruption is rampant. Those who submit and support the regime, at least ostensibly, get richer and richer while the ranks of the poor and the unemployed swell with little hope for a better future. And most pointedly, there is no justice in the Iran of today. In Islam, the very existence of oppression, corruption, massive inequality and poverty in a community is prima facie evidence of noncompliance with Allah's laws for just rule. If indeed Iran is to function as an "Islamic" republic, then it is the duty of all Iranians to oppose the clerical government in Tehran.
The regime in Tehran has no legitimacy. Whether the Iranian people want to continue with this system or change direction, the choice must be theirs alone. This is clearly stated in Allah's rules transmitted in the Quran through the Prophet Mohammed and also exemplified in the life of the Prophet on this earth. To call Iran, based on its track record of the last two decades, an "Islamic" republic is an affront to Muslims who actively follow Allah's rules in their daily lives.
The question now for the United States and the rest of the Western world is what dealings, if any, should they have with the regime in Tehran? For someone who has consistently counseled dialogue, noninterference in Iran's internal affairs, rapprochement and renewed relations over the last eighteen years, what I am about to recommend is at best difficult. The United States must take a moral stand behind the Iranian people and not compromise with the illegitimate regime in Tehran in order to get its half-hearted support in the trouble spots of Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. Perhaps for once, the United States can resist the temptation of dealing with a malleable and illegitimate dictator in the name of short-run stability and interest.
The United States and the West must unite as never before. Although in the past blunt economic sanctions have hurt the average Iranian, it is now imperative that America and its allies adopt ever more stringent, focused sanctions to bring this regime to its knees as quickly as possible. The world should use available financial sanctions to precipitate a run on the Iranian rial and cause the collapse of the Iranian economy. It is better that the Iranian people suffer for a short period of time and regain their freedom and prosperity than for them to suffer under this regime with the complicity of the Western world for years to come. The United States should suspend its obsession with Iran's nuclear-enrichment program and Iranian support for America's policies in the region, and instead lay down clear moral terms for cooperating with Iran. These terms must include an immediate end to the human-rights abuses against the Iranian people, legitimate elections and an opportunity for Iranians to revisit their constitution. While these recommendations a week ago might have been seen as interference in the internal affairs of Iran, possibly increasing support for the mullahs, I believe that conditions have changed so dramatically that Iranians fighting the regime will not see this as interference but as support in their struggle that has now begun.
Such a principled stand would be a meaningful follow-up policy on the heels of President Obama's Cairo speech to the Muslim world.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.