Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | June 21, 2009

Takedown: Ahmadinejad

Ice Cream While Tehran Burns.  Vanilla.

As others have pointed out, President Obama has made the most important thing very clear:  he is prepared to deal with whoever emerges as the victor in Iran, and is so wary of being perceived to take sides that he has only just – today – articulated a serious criticism of the regime’s violence and brutality towards the protestors.

For his high-wire rhetorical performance to date, Obama is being rewarded by misrepresentation in Iranian state media, which this morning showed video of him with false translations suggesting he “supports the protestors against the government and they should keep protesting.”

To be absolutely clear:  Obama did not say anything like this.  He has said nothing like this since the beginning of the crisis.  MSM outlets have helpfully interpreted his reticence as a policy of not raising false hopes among the protestors for US intervention.  Yet the regime in Iran is using video of him, fraudulently, to do just that.

It seems to me that, regarding this aspect of our posture on Iran, the cows are out of the barn.  Treading a “fine line” (and it’s amazing how far back the Google results go, when you run a search on “Obama” and “fine line”) is a keep-‘em-in-the-barn policy, one that has been overtaken by events, as it were, when the cows have made good their exit.

So:  this is one putative point raised in favor of being noncommittal about the post-election crisis in Iran:  that we don’t want to raise false hopes in the protestors.  So far, there has been no substantive articulation by Obama, Secretary Clinton, or their press spokesmen of the premises underlying Obama’s taciturnity on the Iranian crisis to date.  The media and punditry have been left to speculate and present analysis.  Other potential points are that we want to be able to negotiate with whichever faction wins out, a position that could be jeopardized by taking sides; and a point widely discussed in the last couple of days, that there is not much to choose between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, in terms of true commitment to political reform and liberalization.

Time, however, and the risks Iranian citizens are taking with their lives and futures, are clarifying for us that what is happening in Iran right now is a real revolution.  The original “Seven Demands” suggested so, in proposing that Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei be removed from his position and replaced.  The fundamentally responsible posture of the protestors remains a key feature:  they are largely proposing to replace important figures and rewrite the constitution under their aegis, not do away with order entirely.  However, as numerous commentators have noted, the concessions being offered by Khamenei – mainly a recount of the 12 June vote, and the meeting planned for tomorrow with the principal candidates – are not considered adequate by the protestors.  They do not appear to be seeking unrealistic change, but they are definitely seeking real change.

A brief tactical analysis.  We can say, because this is a movement seeking true liberalization, that has latched onto a member of the “old guard” who is willing to act as their leader, that the situation at hand is not “Solidarity in Poland, 1981.”  In that situation, Lech Walesa himself was well established as the leader of the Solidarity trade-union movement, and was a liberal reformer and opponent of the Soviet-backed Communist regime.  Moussavi has no such credentials, although he is reportedly somewhat relaxed as regards cultural liberality.

The point here, however, is not that there would be no advantages to Moussavi’s emergence as Iran’s political leader.  The point is that he is not the head of a movement with long-established cohesion under his direction, or a mode of political operation.  Trade-union political movements have been some of the world’s best organized and longest-running, and Solidarity was very much in that European tradition.  The dynamics that gave Solidarity its “solidarity” are largely absent from the gathering Green Movement in Iran.

This, again, does not mean that Moussavi – who once held the now-defunct post of prime minister in Iran – could not put together a functioning government.  What it means instead is that in the problem of influencing events on the ground in Iran, in the coming days, there is no Solidarity-like movement to reach out to and leverage.

This is important, because as the hours tick by, there is more that we could be doing.  However, in terms of going beyond rhetoric – and there is more we could do in that realm too – not all the kinds of tactical action undertaken by Reagan in Eastern Europe in the 1980s are necessarily applicable.

I am making a key judgment here, and it is this:  that while Moussavi appears to offer a serious prospect of political transformation, to some level, in Iran, and is clearly the candidate favored by, and acclaimed as the head of, the Green Movement, backing him specifically and unreservedly could mean backing ourselves into a corner.  At the practical level, this means things like not using the CIA to provide him cash, information, security support, or connections outside Iran that he might become dependent on.  I am not convinced that would be good for him or us – although it is what Reagan did to support Walesa and Solidarity in Poland.

There may come a point at which it is right to forthrightly endorse Moussavi, by name, but it has not come yet, in my judgment.  Again, the tipping point at which Moussavi would benefit from such an endorsement lies in the future, if it emerges at all.

But we have reached the point at which we know for sure that it would be worse, for Iran and for us, and our allies, if Khamenei and Ahmadinejad restore “order,” suppress the current uprising entirely, and continue on the path they have already established.  We have also reached the point at which it should be crystal clear that Ahmadinejad is the Iranian leader preferred by Russia and China, as noted in my last post.  It would be the height of strategic lunacy to sit complacently and watch from a distance, assuming that the Iranian “hardliners” will not make any recourse to their good buddies up north, if the regime seems to be in serious trouble.  They will want to avoid such recourse as long as possible; but to stay in power, if it becomes necessary, they will make it.  A failure on our part to recognize and combat Russian support to the regime hardliners would be an error of grave and historic proportions.

As would the failure to recognize what has become evident in the last 24 hours:  that the movement protestors and Moussavi are both committed to a fight – and that we have a unique opportunity whose window could close within days.

To summarize:  there is a fight on.  It is an opportunity for us, as well as for Iranians seeking reform.  Ahmadinejad’s coziness with Russia – on display this very week, as he appeared at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit while Iran was rocked with protest – bodes ill for every stage of the future, starting with his hold on power in Iran.  The principal tactical vulnerability we face, in this situation, is that it is not clear even now if prompt material support,  to Mir-Hossein Moussavi specifically, would promote the outcome we most desire – a transformed, liberalized Iran – or would even be to his benefit.

In this situation, then, it looks to me like the highest-payoff pressure point – the center of gravity – is the confidence of the existing regime, its ability to remain in power, and any pragmatic connections that may materialize with Russia, as it tries to suppress protest.  Moussavi may indeed emerge – in fact, probably will, if he remains alive – as the transitional leader of a new Iran; but our priority to encourage that development should be to apply pressure to the existing regime.

Virtually all of the editorial opinion on Obama’s rhetoric this week has focused on support to the protestors.  And that is both a moral cause and a valid tactic.  But in addressing the regime’s confidence and cohesion, another aspect of the same rhetoric that can be deployed in support of the reform protestors is its utility for accurately characterizing the evil of the hardliners’ regime.  Instead of according the regime special courtesy, as Obama has routinely done – including his remarks this week, which involved an oddly punctilious reference to Ayatollah Khamenei as the “Supreme Leader” – it would be appropriate to describe its actions and aspirations as evil, and observe pointedly that the history of repressive regimes has frequently been collapse, in favor of liberalization and consensual government.

We are well past the point at which there is any hope that greater conciliation of Iran’s radical regime will yield “negotiations” on the nuclear weapons program.  Ahmadinejad declared categorically, more than once in the past six weeks, that the nuclear program is not negotiable under any circumstances.  When the regime is laboring to remain in power, there is nothing to lose, and much to gain, by applying rhetorical pressure.  In this regard, Reagan’s example is fully applicable.  Pull out the stops, and speak the truth everyone knows:  that the Islamic radical regime in Tehran is brutal, repressive, vile and deceptive with its own people, and that it exports terrorism in its region, and we stand with those who demand its demise, and relief from its vice and terror.

We should next ensure that news and opinion from outside Iran, and in particular, the official communications of the United States, are getting through to Iranians.  Satellite and AM radio broadcast, and satellite TV, can get information through to many.  But we should also ensure servers and atmospheric communications nodes are set up across Iran’s borders to enable Iranian dissidents to communicate among themselves, and with outside supporters, even if the regime shuts off more and more access.

If emerging reports of tanks arriving in the streets of Tehran are accurate, the internal conflict may well be about to ratchet up to the next level.  Countering that next level is something we should have been preparing for before now, but if we had been doing so, we would be ready to launch a comprehensive campaign designed to sabotage the regime’s use of the IRGC against Iranians.

Most of the IRGC ground force is garrisoned around Tehran, Esfahan, and western/southwestern Iran from Kermanshah to Ahvaz.  A systematic campaign of sabotage against the IRGC would include, to begin with, frequency jamming, to interfere with tactical communications.  Spoofing Iranian communications is an additional option.  The US Air Force and Navy can bring such capabilities to bear from geographic positions we already hold in proximity to Iran.

The IRGC in Tehran represents a particularly difficult target for persistent sabotage, by small special forces teams; and one would not prudently predict immediate and comprehensive results.  One approach would be launching, alongside a carefully targeted effort near Tehran, a parallel sabotage campaign from the west and southwest, across the border from Iraq, and working toward Tehran and Esfahan.  This would have the effect of jeopardizing the regime’s operational “reserve,” alarming it about the scope of what may be going on inside the country, and keeping the whole IRGC organization in disarray.

Disrupting fuel nodes for fuel-hungry tanks and APCs is an obvious approach, along with disabling tanks and mobile artillery at the most tactically useful/feasible junctures.  As reports from Tehran have indicated today, the regime can and will attack its people from another vector – the air – and it would be imperative to disrupt the regime’s ability to deploy IRGC helicopters, and ultimately, bombers and fighter-bombers as well.

In this regard, credible reporting that toxic chemicals are being disseminated against the populace by aircraft could well prompt actual strikes on key air facilities.  Iran does not have that many from which the regime can sortie aircraft to perform ground attacks on its people in the major cities:  hitting just the main military air facilities at Tehran-Mehrabad, Esfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz could take out a great deal of capability in one Tomahawk missile strike, and make a very convincing statement to the radical regime about its prospects and options.

If the regime does commit ever greater atrocities against its people, the US could also seek condemnation via UN resolution, and sanctions that would entail the prohibition of commercial air travel into and out of the country, as well as an arms embargo as long as the radical regime remained in power.  Ideally, we would be prepared for enforcement with a coalition, or unilateral enforcement if necessary, even if the UN was unable to agree on sanctions.  The purpose would be, bluntly, to isolate the radical regime, from Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, or any other source of outside assistance.  In addition to the more easily accessible borders, we can ramp up a reasonable capability to, in the short term, monitor border traffic at the Caspian Sea littoral and the “Stans” on Iran’s northeast border, and have a good probability of interdicting at least some of any shipments Russia might try to make by these routes.  (We have no realistic means of preventing ships from docking in Iran from across the Caspian Sea, but interdicting cargo when it has been unloaded is a different issue.)

It is not even clear that most of these measures, particularly any kinetic ones, would end up being necessary – if a firm posture of the United States against the radical regime, and its actions, were being communicated in the most effective language.  Finding their IRGC’s communications jammed or spoofed, and listening themselves to radio messages from transmitters across the border, the radical mullahs might well lose confidence and cohesion even without actual attacks.  It might indeed not require more than a handful of acts of sabotage against the IRGC to convince them – given a determined stand by the people – that their cause was lost.

In fact, if a more activist US posture – with rhetoric, excursions to the UN, tailored force preparation, and quiet warnings to Russia – appeared to ensue on a ramp-up of regime mistreatment of dissidents, the hardliners could rethink their intentions based solely on the apparent potential for calculated US pressure on them.  An outcome in which their will to reimpose their preferred order was broken by the prospect of that threat, without the threat having to be executed, might well make for a problematic transitional period – but would still be preferable from almost every standpoint to a prolonged crisis of internal unrest.

In a plan of this kind, it would be critical to be ahead of the power curve, and ready to execute the most applicable measures as a fluid situation changes.  Fox is now, as of 7:00 PM Pacific time, reporting “intelligence” that suggests the regime “is not in control of the situation”:  it is not clear what that means, but if it means the Basij on the streets of Tehran cannot keep order in the capital, then Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are facing the decision of their lives.  Perhaps they will retreat to safety in militarily protected positions, and continue to press Moussavi and Korrabi for the meeting proposed for tomorrow.  Perhaps Moussavi will be detained by the regime.  Perhaps the IRGC will be deployed in force against the people in the major cities, where the demonstrations have been widespread.

Whatever the radical regime does, it is possible for the US to be ready to respond, with measures to pressure and undermine the regime.  There are clearly elements in Iran with governing experience who can step in – with the people’s approval and consent.  Pressuring this regime – Khamenei and Ahmadinejad – is not even close to the same thing as consigning Iran to an internal instability that would be bad for Iranians, or for the region.  Shouldering the Russians out of the problem is possible; and indeed, probable, if their favorite Iranian president is unhorsed.

I believe – my judgment again – that it is imperative to prevent the appearance of the US selecting a leader for Iran.  The current juncture is the best time in the last 30 years for Iran to achieve real reform, and for America to promote that outcome to the extent of what is in our interests, without being, or appearing to be, a decisive outside patron of the leader who emerges.  The Iranians and Moussavi are not organized to the extent of Solidarity and Walesa; but the Iranians themselves are clearly the ones making the choice here.  This is the biggest opportunity they, and we, have had for decades.

The final thing we must remember is that any half-measures or tentative approaches in this matter would be worse than doing nothing.  If we were to take any of the measures outlined above, we would need to be prepared to take all of them (or at least a comprehensive suite of measures that included the key elements of will and objective).  We must not, for example, put special-purpose aircraft provocatively next to Iranian airspace, without the political will to, in fact, undermine the regime, and presidential rhetoric consonant with that objective.  It would be fatal to take any single measure with the vague idea of seeing what we might get out of it.  Our posture would have to be alert, determined, and planned, matching measures to objectives, across disciplines, diplomatic and military.

Merely exuding the signal that we are doing contingency thinking in these terms might well be the most persuasive information that has yet crossed the mullahs, in the current crisis.  We tend to forget that we have nearly 200K troops deployed on either side of Iran, and our Navy and Air Force all over the region.  When they are losing control of their own cities, the radical clerics will tend to see their security situation in particularly stark and military terms.  I would not at all discount the possibility of their being willing to negotiate much of the transition the protestors are demanding, if they were persuaded that we – who have, in fact, the capacity to isolate and undermine them – are considering plans to do so.

Do I think we will either make such plans or send such signals?  No.  But we could.


  1. I hope it’s not too bold of me to suggest that the Iranian government is doing a fine job of isolating and undermining itself.
    Perhaps instead of matching their crimes with our own half-hearted acts of war, such as sabotaging their communications and equipment on their territory, and dropping the odd missile upon their soldiery, why not sit and wait and watch them fail.
    Every time the world sees them clubbing and killing their own, their claim to be innocent and oppressed by the West looks more absurd.

  2. fuster — much as I esteem your many excellent contributions, I must respectfully disagree that our best option is to act as if the Iranian regime will collapse by itself.

    Merely being obviously vicious and brutal doesn’t cause regimes to fall. It was crystal clear by 1918 that the Soviet regime was meaner than the meanest junkyard dog, and by 1928 that it was trying to get into the record books in terms of “number of own people killed for a political idea.” But it hung on for more than six additional decades. Hitler was well understood to be a homicidal maniac surrounded by the most efficient of bureaucratic enablers, but it took invasion and military defeat to bring his regime down.

    Maybe the protestors in Iran won’t need any outside help putting effective pressure on the regime to collapse, now. But they probably will.

    One thing to keep in mind, with the regime clamp-down on media coverage, is that we in the public no longer have as clear a view of what’s going on as we did even a week ago. The milestone of the regime’s proposed meeting with all the major candidates — the one proposed for today, which Moussavi announced he would not attend — has presumably now passed. I’m not convinced we out here, following the web and watching TV, have as accurate a perspective on the current situation as our national intelligence agencies have. They will know within hours if tanks and artillery are being deployed, for example. But the lag between their knowing and our being informed of it, by our own leaders, will be a political decision. It won’t be oriented solely on how releasing that info affects the ideas of the American people, but also will be considered in light of the effect of such announcements on Iran’s leaders — since they will hear them at the same time we do.

    At any rate: a government with a whole military apparatus at its disposal has every advantage over its unarmed people. Unless it is pressured in ways that reduce or eliminate those advantages, it’s going to win and stay in power.

  3. Yes, opticon, the regime will not collapse now unless the skies open, the armed forces change sides, or a superior armed force overwhelms it.
    There’s no other “collapse now” available. Those half-arsed support operations are worth spit unless we’re supporting a certain winner.
    Our opportunity is for political/economic constriction.

  4. From your comment over at Belmont Club:

    “But the world’s leaders aren’t welfare moms and college interns waiting in growing wonder for the Obama Communication Magic to rock their world. They’re armed and mean, and virtually all of them have, unlike Obama, spent their entire adult lives dealing with crushingly real things, as opposed to compiling c.v.’s and doing the occasional scribbling from air-conditioned offices, while other, less presentable people wove plans around them and their special talents.”

    Excellent description of the terribly unserious people we Americans have become — especially our so-called leadership classes. A leader who could simultaneously manipulate a nation of Oprafied, hardship-averse, dependency-addicted adolescents while besting the hard men in places like Teheran and Beijing would be a substantial person, indeed.

  5. […] point I didn’t make in my last Iran post is that the measures outlined in it have a “Best before” date, beyond which taking action to […]

  6. […] was all foreseeable 10 days ago.  I have offered suggestions here, here, and here for measures we could have been taking up to this point, to weaken and deter the Iranian regime, […]

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