There was/is a twitter feed by Nazanin Boniadi, that was recently published on the web. It had over 500 comments under her tweet: “Utterly confused by people who admit that the IRI is a repressive theocracy that commits atrocities, while condemning Iranians who are calling for an end to said theocracy”
As I read the comments, it became crystal clear to me that that as Iranian-Americans, we are basically split into two camps: those that want to burn the whole thing down i.e. bombs and massive upheaval, revolutionaries who want to take out the Mullahs now; and a second camp that is against war and wants more evolutionary change.
The “revolutionaries” are associated with the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabians; the “evolutionaries” are associated with the Europeans, and reformists inside Iran.
There are powerful arguments on both sides of this yearning for change. The problem, of course, is that there are many variables at play. The ‘Evolutionaries’ seem to be backed by forces that ALSO want to see the U.S. undermined and a whole new global order established. These forces are basically using Iran to undermine the U.S.! The revolutionaries on the other hand, want to see a continuation of US global dominance and plan to use Iran as a means of reasserting US global leadership.
Iran has become a power-playground or a proxy battle for dominance. None of this, has ANYTHING to do with what is good for Iran itself. Iranians are mere by-standers, victims in big boy bully battles in the sand pit of the middle east all these big-kids are playing in. It’s a recipe for a dangerous cocktail that could very well lead to a new world war. It could become ‘the’ final, tragic chapter in America’s relative decline after a series of strategic losses for the U.S.!
Unfortunately for the U.S. every single fight (i.e. hot war) it has been involved in since world war II has ended up in a net loss. The U.S. has won many battles but lost every war. It has retreated from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to name a few battles – with its tail in its hands, having wasted trillions of dollars and gained nothing.
However, at the same time, it has witnessed the complete opposite outcomes using in soft power via cold-wars. Soft power versus hard power has prevailed. Whatever losses it had on the battle field, it was always America’s culture of freedom, liberty and enterprise, resulted in the creation of a powerful set of economic and political forces, that defeated every American adversary.
Patently, obviously, or better yet: empirically, the “West Won” because other systems failed. It’s been a triumph of systems. The west has simply been better able to deliver the ‘bacon’ to its masses. As people in the east turned their heads, they compared their relative poverty with the relative affluence they perceived in America. This simple observation ‘toppled regimes for us’. Without the need for the U.S. to lift a military finger in support. It just happened, No bullets. No bombs. No bloodshed.
But isn’t the U.S. now losing its edge in this soft power game? Donald Trump and his administration have completely undermined U.S. ‘soft supremacy’. America is NOT great because of its weapons or military. It is great because of its soft assets: successful global business models, technological prowess, democratic systems, Hollywood, Michael Jackson… to name a few.
America’s foray into Afghanistan, Iraq, now Syria, and presumably soon Iran can only be characterized as major strategic mistakes. These Wars have bankrupted the U.S. Seven trillion dollars later, US has basically nothing to show for its adventurism. Repressive and bankrupt allies in the form of Israel and Saudi Arabia keep pushing the U.S. into wars on their behalf. They are pushing the US off the edge of a cliff. These ‘so-called’ allies will happily catalyze the end of U.S. supremacy, if they haven’t already done so. And, for all its hot war losses in the region, the U.S. has had NO soft assets to come in and make up for poor militarism. In effect, the U.S. has lost BOTH the hot and cold wars in the region.
Coming back to Iran, and the question of ‘revolution vs evolution’, it’s very hard to imagine that a ‘revolution’ is easily feasible in Iran, short of an all-out attack from outside Iran. Iran is 5x the size of Iraq, with a well-armed and well trained army and militia force (not just in Iran, but across the region) that can inflict irreparable wounds on the U.S. and its allies in the whole region. By contrast to the U.S.; Iranians forces have not lost a single war they have participated in and gained mightily from U.S strategic errors in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.
40 years of sanctions have also made Iran somewhat battle hardened. It now produces 90+ percent of its own medicines, it has plenty of global suppliers (in China, India, Russia, even Europe) who are happy to trade with it outside of the U.S. sanctions regime with willing bankers who can finance trade outside of the U.S. dollar system.
Yes, it might be hard to accept it, but the U.S. and its allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) cannot easily win a hot war with Iran. And, by the way, the Theocracy (Islamic Guards and militia) have such a stranglehold on Iran that achieving quick regime change is simply not viable. Very simply put, “Revolution”, is not a viable (low cost) option. And, anyway, every time there has been a US inspired quick regime change the costs for the nations involved have been horrific. U.S.’s net track record in Iraq, Afghanistan etc. (to name a few) and Iran too (by the way) has been horrible. Here we are 5 years later in Syria, and we have what? 4 million refugees, 500,000 deaths, and a bunch of crazies (ISIS) running around cutting people heads off armed and financed by the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia). Not good. It’s a royal abortion. (Whose idea was it?)
If it’s all left to the military, they won’t see it any other way. They only have a hammer and all problems look like nails. They see war as the only solution. And they badly want ‘revenge’ against those they perceive has having handed them defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria: namely Iran. They don’t see that it was their own exuberant rush to war, with over-size bombs, and complete lack of a post war planning that handed the U.S. with major strategic defeats. That yes, they won many battles, but lost the war. Basically no one likes the U.S. or wants to invite it to the party through the front door. So now they want to force their way in, with hot wars and revolutions! This would surely again, be at a massive cost, with no guarantee of any significant returns. Iraq redux again!!
This analysis leaves only one way out of hell: via evolutionary change. In total contrast to U.S. militarism, people around the world DO welcome American products and services: McDonalds, Starbucks, Apple products and yes Hollywood Movies! Like or not, the US has always had a back-door ticket to every party. Go to an illicit party in Tehran, and you’ll hear someone playing “Hotel California” on an Iranian santour… and maybe some bootleg booze!
It’s ironic that for all the soft-income Trump generates by peddling his brand, he seems to be the one advocating for a hot, physical war with Iran! It’s also ironic, that Iran’s mullahs have been winning the soft-war game against all foes, by simply peddling religion – i.e. their brand of Islam, the Shiite faith in places like Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, etc.
Their allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon have something like 60 percent of Lebanon’s popular vote. Shiite parties in Iraq have just won 60 percent of the vote there too. The mullahs are winning the soft-war game! The U.S. has NOT really used its soft-war tactics to defeat the Mullahs at all. Its been hot war after hot war – dictated by its military, instead of putting up hamburger stands and providing jobs. Iraq still does not have a power grid. Major American companies have no serious business there! Afghanistan is being overrun again by the Taliban and continues to ship out record volumes of opium almost 20 years after the U.S. invaded the country. The U.S. has done nothing to stabilize these countries and provide jobs. U.S. involvement has NOT been value-added. Meanwhile, Iranians are building clinics and schools.
So, if we want the Mullahs out, and a hot war is NOT an option, AND if the Mullahs are winning soft-war battles in the region, the only way to win the greater ‘regional’ war, is to undermine the Mullahs with their ‘core’ religious messaging at home and regionally.
So how can this be done?
It’s very simple, and here is the rub: this can ONLY be done by normalization of relations. Open trade routes to Iran, have Iranian-American visit Iran en-mass and by simple osmosis, with every Kentucky fried Chicken, every Coke, every Starbucks coffee cup, every Ford vehicle on the streets in Tehran – Iran will be integrated in the West and Iranians themselves will eventually undermine the Mullahs. You get more bees with honey than a fly swatter. Evolutionary change via mass contact is surely the best way to transform the situation. Trump’s travel bans on Iranians, Republican ‘humiliation’ of Iranians (check out Lindsey Graham’s comments) is the exact opposite strategy! US isn’t really making friends there.
I recently heard Iran’s Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, say that the reformists have failed, and that evolutionary change is NOT possible with Iran. She is right. American inconsistency, American regional mistakes in Syria and elsewhere and blasphemous anti-Iranian rhetoric by some in the U.S. have made evolutionary change impossible. Its an American failure, not an Iranian one. The U.S. was never really committed to evolutionary change in Iran. Every day, in Tehran hardliners are saying: we told you so. The war mongers on both sides seem to have the microphones. It reminds me of the run up to the war in Iraq. Normalization has become impossible – the atmosphere is poisoned.
U.S. and Iran are in a nasty post-nuptial divorce style bickering game, where both parties are making life much harder for the other. My suggestion is, we need a cooling off period. The spats need to stop. And, I suggest, the U.S. starts off by taking one major grudge Americans have off the table – Iranians never took U.S. embassy employees hostage, it was the Republican Party (Reagan’s camp) that kept them hostage to humiliate Carter. And Americans need to fully recognize their own misdeeds with respect to Iran. Once that happens, Iranians too, can own up to over reacting in their hatred towards the “Great Satan”. The two countries need some ‘counseling’! And they need to clear the air.
But let’s be clear, for now, a hot-war, or revolution is a losing proposition. Iran’s $30 Billion dollars or so of foreign imports is simply not worth Trillions of dollars of American treasure and even more importantly American lives.
I too want the Mullahs out as soon as possible. But right now, I can’t even travel to Iran. How can anyone inspire change from outside? How can we inspire change through antagonism? I am sure ordinary Iranians will cut the regime’s throat, with Apple computers.
Soft power, applied properly, can lead to regime change. The U.S. needs to be much more sophisticated. Otherwise, it will not only suffer a tragic ‘Vietnam’ style defeat in Iran, but more importantly, create the framework for China and others to rise beyond the U.S. in global economic and political leadership.
One last point, before I sign off. The concept of a ‘revolution’ assumes someone is bringing radical change (i.e. a new offering) to a new audience (new users). But, Iran has already had democracy and elected governance. Iranians vote, and use ballot boxes – today. The fundamental issue is the Mullahs control elections and candidates. Iran needs evolutionary change – not revolutionary change. What we want to bring about is something Iran has already experienced.
To conclude, the Trump administration is making a big mistake! Trump’s complete strategy, if you can call it that, is a bankrupt one. Negative posturing, humiliation and threats will lead to nothing. Nothing good will come of it. In the long-run, there is no better Ally for the United States in the region than Iran. Its a fundamental fact. American ‘supremacy’ completely depends on its competence in drawing Iran back into its fold of key allies. Iran is far too important strategically to be lost!
US policy makers need to be more sophisticated and wise. Does the U.S. really believe its hardened sanctions on Iran will produce a change in relations? (Really?) What if it doesn’t work? What is the back up plan? (There is none). Meanwhile, the U.S. will forego an alliance with its more important regional ally that can unilaterally determine the relative role of the U.S. vis-a-vis China, Russia etc. Its too important to be ‘screwed with’. Too important.