Political leaders and government agencies of major Western powers, as well as international celebrities and influencers, should proactively coordinate to strengthen the freedom activists protesting in Iran. The international community should today enhance direct assistance for human rights activists, endorse private initiatives of non-violent civil resistance, and speak with a louder voice supporting a free Iran. Fortunately, there exists today a vibrant community of private sector activists, a proliferation of communication technologies, and a deep understanding of how to empower civil society. In an age of decentralized networks, digital platforms may offer true democratization of services, governance, and accountability to a society deserving of a brighter future in a post-Islamic Republic of Iran. The capabilities and technologies are all readily available. It is just a question of will and resources.
Many doubt the possibility of achieving this outcome because it hasn’t happened in the past forty-three years since the Islamic Revolution. However, the expert consensus failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and assigned minimal probabilities to it happening when it did. But thanks to a multi-layered strategy of U.S.-led soft power, it happened like most disruptive change: gradually, then suddenly. The so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 was similarly a strategic surprise to most government agencies in the business of anticipating such changes.
For the past five weeks, the people of Iran have been taking to the streets, with the catalyst this time around being the brutal death of Mahsa Amini. Unlike in previous waves of protest, such as the wave led by the Green Movement in 2009, unity is being formed around both anti-regime slogans, such as “death to the dictator” as well as social issues, including “Woman, Life, Freedom.” This is a major advancement from past protest waves which demonstrated against fake elections and cost of living but not against the fundamental legitimacy of the regime. The protests themselves have been expanding across various sectors of society, to include women, university students, labor unions, and even representatives of the oil sector.
Despite the $750 billion U.S. defense budget, there has been limited investment in information campaigns, civil resistance training, strengthening of alternative leadership, and a wide range of other tools to empower the Iranian people.
Recent headlines about Russian president Vladimir Putin threatening the use of a battlefield nuclear weapon and President Joe Biden’s reminder why such events could escalate to “nuclear Armageddon,” should put the Iranian threat in context. If Putin can be backed into a corner where such a scenario is even plausible, a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran would also become emboldened to expand its regional aggression, and could similarly be forced into a nuclear escalation. Meanwhile, ongoing events in Iran may offer the best way to navigate the Iranian threat, for both the international community and the Iranian people.
Two parallel issues, the Iranian regime’s survival, and its nuclear program, are beginning to intersect. The latter has occupied the world’s attention for the past twenty years while the former has occupied the international community since the 1979 revolution that saw the rise of Iran’s radical Islamic regime.
For the past two decades, the West has had five options to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.
The first has been to negotiate a longer and stronger agreement between Iran and the P5+1. The international community must not negotiate with a regime violently assaulting women for not wearing hijabs correctly. So long as there are continued Iranian protests drawing such wide-spread public attention on the lack of basic freedoms, human rights, and especially women’s rights—an issue the Biden administration has championed—it may well be impossible for any P5+1 nuclear deal to be signed.
The second has been to demonstrate to Iran the cost is too great, in terms of sanctions and diplomacy, to continue down the road of nuclearization.
The third, or what has been known in Israel as “Strategy C,” has been using covert attacks, clandestine actions, and cyberattacks to delay the program’s development.
The fourth is to use overt military force to destroy or set back Iran’s nuclear program.
The fifth, ever more relevant today, and something which the West has been reluctant to support, has been to push for regime change by helping the Iranian people overthrow their oppressors, through any non-violent means necessary. We have long argued that this fifth strategy offers the best prospects for a long-term solution and may well today be the only option.
The promotion of regime change in Iran is not only an under-appreciated option for exerting additional pressure on the regime, but also deals with the root of the problem. This option has been discarded by leadership circles around the world, leaving Iranian dissidents and human rights activists stranded on the sidelines of history for the past forty years. It is not only morally abhorrent to abandon freedom fighters from what was once a great civilization, but also strategically unwise.
Regime change does not have to mean military force; rather an intentional effort to utilize non-kinetic means to strengthen and support the opposition to liberate their country. The military option should be kept on the table and used, as a last resort, if necessary. Supporting freedom-seeking people should be an active non-partisan policy at all times.
That a free and democratic Iran would be optimal for U.S. foreign policy is something that can be agreed on across America’s political spectrum, yet this objective remains absent from ongoing debates. The question of whether to strike, or allow Iran to go nuclear, is a mistaken dilemma. A revival of the JCPOA is today a politicized distraction and a form of appeasement to the Mullahs. Similarly, maximum pressure by way of economic sanctions is insufficient on its own and must be complemented with an all-domain strategy around a single, merciless objective. This is the scenario that keeps the Mullahs up at night.
Will national leaders and global influencers stand up for freedom? Or will we find ourselves in the same place five years from now with a far worse set of options before us?
General Amos Yadlin is a former general in the Israeli Air Force and was head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate. General Yadlin is now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.
Joel Zamel is the founder of Wikistrat, a global crowdsourced intelligence firm.