Defense hawks in Washington think the people of Iran are waiting with bated breath for the regime in Tehran to collapse and wouldn’t mind a little American help along the way—whether through direct military intervention, or “naturally” as the result of grassroots protests, “with Washington backing,” of course.
There is no greater fallacy. While the people of Iran are undoubtedly frustrated with their government, they are not on the cusp of changing it, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to believe. In fact, any attempt by outside actors to change the regime would cause the people of Iran to unify around the clerics. We would end up deflating the reformist party and enabling the hardliners who have consistently warned their people that we can’t be trusted.
This ongoing mind reading of the Iranian people is pure Washington hokum with no basis in reality.
After witnessing the debacles of our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, who can blame the people of Iran for not wanting direct American military aid? As Damon Linker points out in The Week, our attitude towards unsavory regimes in other nations is all too often informed by “an incorrigible optimism about the benefits of change and consequent refusal to entertain the possibility that a bad situation might be made even worse by overturning it.”
Almost nobody in Iran supports the main group pushing for Western-backed regime change, the National Council for the Resistance of Iran (NCRI). That organization is widely seen as a front for the despised Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), an Iranian Marxist group that fought against the late Shah, was virulently anti-American, and worked with Saddam Hussein to invade Iran during the Iran-Iraq War before rebranding itself as a democratic opposition group.
Despite this being common knowledge among unbiased observers, figures like National Security Advisor John Bolton continue to promote it as an alternative for Iran.
In actuality, despite the desire among a sizable segment of Iranians—especially young people in Tehran and other large cities—for a pro-Western government, there is no well-organized, secular, democratic alternative waiting to take charge. Any organization that bills itself as such is following in the deceitful footsteps of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi leader-in-exile who sold himself in the United States as the Iraqi George Washington, but failed to garner any political support after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
History shows us that there is no quicker way for a leader or group to lose legitimacy than by seeking the aid of a foreign power. King Louis XVI of France managed to hold on to his throne for a few years after the storming of the Bastille, but was deposed after fleeing Paris and seeking the aid of France’s enemies. Iranians, like Americans, value liberty in the sense of national self-determination: they would rather be under-served by their own leaders than by well-meaning foreigners or those perceived to be puppets.
After wasting almost two decades of blood and treasure trying to rebuild countries with weaker national identities than Iran—like Iraq—U.S. policymakers would have to be detached from reality to believe that anything good could come of intervention in Iranian affairs.
The people of Iran have a long historical memory: those who sold out their nation to foreign powers, even in opposition to tyranny, have garnered not thanks but the collective hatred of the Iranian people. From the actions of the satrap Bessus who killed the last Achaemenid Persian king Darius III to curry favor with Alexander the Great, to the slaying of the last pre-Islamic Persian ruler Yazdegerd III by a local ruler to appease the invading Arabs, Iranians have long looked askance at collaboration with foreigners. Numerous 19th-century Qajar rulers failed to implement their policies because they were thought to be too close to the goals of the imperial powers of Russia or Britain. And the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, never escaped the perception that his ascent to power in 1953 was enabled by British and American intelligence agencies, regardless of his own self-portrayal as a nationalist.
Most Iranians, no matter how much they oppose their current government and politics, would not support an invasion of their own country, let alone the peaceful ascendancy of groups believed to serve interests other than theirs: it is a matter of pride and honor.
It is true that Iran has been racked by protests throughout the past year, such as January’s multi-city demonstrations and the closure of the Grand Bazaar in Tehran in June. But those were spontaneous actions resulting from blue-collar frustrations with the economy and are unlikely to lead to an outcome favorable to American interests.
If our pressure on Iran leads to regime change, the most likely alternative is probably a military junta led by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a shift away from the semi-civilian government that Iran now enjoys. The IRGC has been infringing on our geopolitical interests throughout the Middle East for decades and could take an even harder anti-American line than the current government. When confronted with invaders and foreign pressure, Iranians have always rallied around military strongmen, such as Nader Shah in the early 18th century, who threw out the invading Afghans, and Reza Shah in the early 20th century, who saved Iran from disintegration after World War I.
Washington should be careful what it wishes for. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the people of Iran are waiting for our support and intervention. The truth is much darker.
Akhilesh “Akhi“ Pillalamarri is a fellow at Defense Priorities. An international relations analyst, editor, and writer, he studied international security at Georgetown University. Find him on Twitter @akhipill.