Military strike on Iran would strengthen regime and reverse democratic reform
There is a critical discussion going on within Iran on Iran's role in the world, its nuclear program, and the nature of its government. A U.S. military strike on Iran would end this vital debate, shifting the balance of power to the hardliners, who would put Iran on a war footing with the U.S.
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The notion that populations will rise up against their government and make common cause with the country that is bombing them and killing their loved ones is based on highly dubious logic. Moreover, the historical record lends little support to the thesis. Despite massive bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II, the fascist regimes remained in power to the bitter end in both cases. U.S. bombing of North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s did not dislodge Ho Chi Minh or his successors from power. NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999 actually caused Slobodan Milosevic's popularity to increase for a time. It was not until much later, and the election that drove him from power was based on largely domestic issues that the democratic opposition was able to get rid of him.
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Some Iranian dissidents seem to understand that point and are very nervous about a U.S. political embrace. Iranian human rights activist Emad Baghi complained, 'We are under pressure from both the hardliners in the judiciary and that stupid George Bush.' Vahid Pourostad, editor of the pro-reform National Trust newspaper, noted that whenever the United States 'supported an idea publicly, the public has done the opposite.' Popular resentment against a heavy-handed U.S. role is especially likely in Iran. A good many Iranians remember that the United States interfered once before in their country's internal affairs, and the outcome was not a happy one. It was a coup orchestrated by the CIA in 1953 that ousted a democratic government and restored the autocratic shah to power. His corrupt and repressive rule for the next quarter century paved the way for the Islamic fundamentalist revolution. Any hint of U.S. meddling today would probably cause Iranian moderates to make common cause with the ruling religious elite.
There is at least one other path to this outcome that could result from the current nuclear stand-off. If the United States were to launch military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program, it seems most likely that this would result in the same hardliner victory in Tehran. Obviously such an unprovoked act of war would throw a great many things up in the air, but it seems most likely that doing so would once again play into the arguments of the hardliners: They would be able to claim such attacks as proof that the United States sought to destroy the Islamic Republic and subjugate Iran; they would be able to argue that such an attack increased the importance of acquiring nuclear weapons to deter future American military operations, and many Iranians probably would be more willing to tolerate economic problems if they believed it necessary to make sacrifices to fight a war against the United States. It would simultaneously discredit the reformists and the pragmatists for having argued for better relations with the United States and might provide an excuse for the hardliners to crack down hard on even the mildest forms of dissent.Consequently, a U.S. military operation ironically could have the same impact as a Western failure to deal firmly with Iran's nuclear program: it could allow Iran's radical hardliners to marginalize the reformists and pragmatists and to take more complete control over Iranian policy and governmental organizations. In other words, both of the extreme options being considered by Western governments to deal with Iran's nuclear program--military strikes or caving in to Tehran--would likely produce the same terrible (from a Western perspective) outcome with regard to the future of Iran.
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Some war advocates believe that U.S. military action would not generate support for the regime. They cite the example of Irani dissent against the Iran--Iraq War to assert that an attack would not unite Iran against the U.S.:"Something so secular and adventitious as an American airstrike on a nuclear facility is very unlikely to bring back that magic, that love of God and man, that can send young boys across minefields on motorcycles."This assertion ignores Iran’s fierce resistance to Iraq’s invasion of 1980. When Saddam Hussein attempted to seize Iran’s oil province of Khuzestan, even Khuzestani Arabs rallied to Irani nationalism. Indeed, the invasion united all Iran behind a theocracy whose grasp on power had been far from secure. Dissent arose only many years later. After Iraqi forces were driven from Iran, Khomeini determined not to quit fighting until Saddam Hussein was deposed. Irani forces thus pursued Saddam’s army deep into Iraq in an invasion that faltered only at the gates of Basra. This was when protest began, after most of the 750,000 Iranis who would perish in the war were already dead.Protests decried any further slaughter in what had become an expeditionary war. Of the need to resist invasion in 1980 there had been no dissent, only volunteers for battle. A U.S. war or air campaign would seem the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Furthermore, U.S. military action would allow the theocracy to escape culpability for the economic disaster looming before Iran. Perceived responsibility for economic problems would be transferred to the U.S., as happened in Iraq.
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In terms of Iranian domestic politics, three issues are relevant to the current analysis. One is that the Ahmadinejad government has, to an extent, regained control of public order in the wake of extensive opposition after last year’s election, but there is no guarantee that this will last in the long-term, in spite of repressive methods being used. (23) A second is that the economy remains in deep trouble with even the current high price of oil having little effect. The third is that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is operating increasingly as a state within a state and would almost certainly benefit from any major external crisis. (24) There is thus a sense, in which an attack on nuclear and related facilities by Israel would be of real political value to the Iranian leadership, and especially the leadership of the IRGC. Whatever the unpopularity of the Ahmadinejad government, most political analysts within Iran are convinced that an attack on the country would result in a high degree of political unity right across the spectrum of opinion, however unpopular the government of the day.
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Any attack on Iran would give the current Tehran government legitimacy, especially the hard-liners, as Iranian citizens closed ranks in the face of an external threat. The Iranians have long memories, and the political viability of extremist leaders could be extended for decades following such an attack. This perpetuation of extremist ideologies would be another unfortunate result of the attacks. The voices of reformist leaders such as former President Mohammad Khatami would in all likelihood be silenced. In the past Khatami has even taken on hard-liners such as Mr. Ahmadinejad. In response to Ahmadinejad’s statements related to the Holocaust, Khatami countered, “We should speak out if even a single Jew is killed. Don’t forget that one of the crimes of Hitler, Nazism, and German National Socialism was the massacre of innocent people, among them many Jews.”
It will legitimize and popularize Iran in the Middle East. George H.W. Bush's administration went to great lengths to prevent Israel from responding to Iraqi Scud attacks during the 1991 Gulf War. The logic was pretty compelling: Iraq was in defiance of the international community and U.N. Security Council resolutions, and a 34-country international coalition had formed to enforce the global good. The last thing needed was for Saddam Hussein to turn his invasion of Kuwait into an Arab-Israeli confrontation. The same applies here, to some extent. Sanctions may never prevent the Iranians from acquiring a weapon, but they do have some impact; and Iran has become greatly isolated. An Israeli attack could undermine all that good work, particularly in the wake of this year's Arab revolutions. An Israeli attack might be quietly welcomed by the rulers of some Persian Gulf states, but it would be viewed on the Arab street as another example of Israeli aggression and U.S. double standards. The Arabs would love to see the Iranians taken down a notch or two; but Israel's involvement is going to complicate the post-strike environment and almost certainly undermine any U.S. effort to clean up the mess that will be left behind.
An armed attack on Iran would be an immediate political gift to Iranian hard-liners, who are nourished by confrontation with the West, and with the United States in particular. Armed attack by a foreign power traditionally produces a rally-round-the-flag effect that benefits whatever regime is in power. Last year a spokesperson for the opposition Green Movement in Iran said the current regime “would really like for someone” to bomb the nuclear facilities because “this would then increase nationalism and the regime would gather everyone and all the political parties around itself.” Over the longer term, an attack would poison relations between the United States and generations of Iranians. It would become an even more prominent and lasting grievance than the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988. American war proponents who optimistically hope that an attack would somehow stir the Iranian political pot in a way that would undermine the current clerical regime are likely to be disappointed. Even if political change in Iran occurred, any new regime would be responsive to a populace that has more reason than ever to be hostile to the United States.
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In determining their own political future, it is suggested that all forms of violence are avoided by those attempting to promote democracy in Iran, but it should also be stressed that the United States refrains from employing violence. While common knowledge and the research of prominent figures like Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon link instances of violence with clear negative side effects, recent historical events including the Iran–Iraq war help predict a potential Iranian reaction to military aggression today. Just as Iranians rallied around the flag of their young Islamic Republic when invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, fierce Iranian nationalism coupled with (what political scientist John Mueller has coined) the “rally round the flag effect” could cause the masses to support their nation if attacked. Despite the fact that many Iranian youth desire democratic reform and better relations between Iran and the international community, these potential agents of change would likely be sucked into the war effort, having their opportunities to educate themselves overshadowed by their duties to serve their families, friends, and country. A 2012 publication of the Iran Project, a think tank, upholds the idea that unifying the population behind the theocratic government is a potential cost of a military strike. Furthermore, directly threatening Iran with military strikes and regime change also gives Iranian leaders more of a reason to seek a militarized deterrent to maintain their sovereignty. In fact, it appears as though the threat or enactment of a military strike carries the potential of being more complex than successful, and would have a profound negative impact on not just the United States and Iran but the Middle East as a whole.
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A military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure could set back the program, but probably not prevent its recovery, unless the attack were somehow to topple the Iranian government and bring a very different ruling group to power. A military strike carries significant political and military risks. If time bought by setting back the Iranian program through military strikes would be used to good effect -- that is, if in the interim other disputes in which Iran is directly or indirectly involved were solved, or if Iran became a liberal-democratic mirror image of a Western democracy, preventive attack might look attractive. But there is no reason to believe that this will be the case, and the reverse is more probable. Small or large attacks on Iran will inject energy into Persian nationalism, strengthen the regime's argument that the West is a threat, and leave Iran with a grudge that it may express by deepening or initiating relationships with other states and groups hostile to U.S. purposes. Even regional states with something to fear from a nuclear armed Iran probably would not welcome a preventive attack, simply because the region is already so roiled with violence, much of it attributed to mistaken U.S. policies.
Shirin Ebadi, Iran's leading human rights activist, explains why on attack on the country's nuclear program is just what the mullahs have been yearning for. [ More ]