Part I: Key Reflections on the Military Option – Page 2
State Consolidation and Public Attitudes Toward the United States
Some of the strongest proponents of a military strike on Iran have maintained that a US bombing campaign would be welcomed by some segments of Iranian society. Moreover, these analysts and policymakers have called for a military campaign with the goal of toppling the regime in Tehran. Such regime change arguments rest on the presumption that an air and sea military strike by the United States would trigger action by antiregime elements in Iran. As US Senator Lindsey Graham explained in November 2010:
So my view of military force would be not to just neutralize their nuclear program, which is dispersed and hardened, but to sink their navy and destroy their air force, and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to fight back, and hope that people inside of Iran would have the chance to take back their government … 4
Proponents of military action have long held that divisions within Iranian society could be used to affect regime change. For example, the influential think tank Project for a New American Century drafted a memorandum in 2004 to “opinion makers” on the subject of regime change. The memo cited an Iranian-American academic’s view that “Iranian society is organized, hostile to the regime, pro-democratic and pro-American.”5
In January 2011, former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton repeated this argument, saying, “A strike accompanied by effective public diplomacy could well turn Iran’s diverse population against an oppressive regime.”6
Many of the civil society actors who spoke to the Campaign argued, however, that a military strike against Iran would strengthen the regime, even bringing many detractors to its side.
As Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a prominent human rights lawyer and a co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center said, “Iranian society’s attitude towards anyone who would advocate war under the guise of human rights and democracy would be terribly negative.”
Playwright Pedram Z. simply explained, “Any foreign intervention would lead to unity and opposition to the United States.”
Rallying Around the Flag
Several of the interviewees explained that—beyond facilitating militarization of the state and repression of government critics and the opposition—an attack on Iran would give the government a set of ideological tools that would likely be used to justify human rights violations, repress activists, divide the opposition, and stoke nationalist and religious sentiments. These interviewees highlight the natural tendency of Iranians to “rally around the flag” at times of foreign aggression and forgo opposition to the government. As theater director Behrouz Gharibpour said, “In my opinion, if any Iranian loves their country, they would seriously oppose an attack, and I belong to this group.”
Ramin G., a lawyer, believes the government of Iran would take advantage of a US attack to repress its opponents and solidify its grip on power. Moreover, he stressed that the regime would ideologically exploit an attack to garner and consolidate public support:
Standing up to America has been instrumentally used to whip up the emotions of [the regime’s] base and bring them into the streets for years. They publicly state that [the United States] is the country’s main concern and this idea has become an unconscious belief for many people, both supporting and opposing the state. In event of a war, such sloganeering would move into the realm of reality. Any opposition to the government would be considered siding with [US] imperialism. In practice, many opposition sympathizers could end up in the government’s camp, leaving the remaining opposition forces few and inactive. They will be seen as taking the foreign aggressor’s side, making it easy to label them the enemy’s fifth column and providing a justification for their repression.
The crisis stemming from a military confrontation would significantly lower the level of people’s expectations from the state because the people would have to choose between a “bad” situation, meaning the rule of a dictatorial system and related hardships, versus a “worse” situation, that would entail losing national independence and sovereignty. The majority would prefer to choose the “bad” option over the “worse.”
War is a good instrument for whipping up the society’s nationalistic emotions and abusing them for the purpose of covering up the failings of the state.
It is the people who will carry the burden, both in the short and long-term. And the ruling class, by increasing its repression and pressures, will preserve itself. Ultimately a military attack does not impact the government’s grip on power.
The emergence of a foreign military confrontation, more than being a necessity for the United States and the West, would be in line with the desires of the ruling class because the government can use the situation to unify its fragmented forces and solidify itself.
Journalist Hamid R. points out that Iranians share a collective memory of the 1953 coup, when the elected government of Prime Minister Mossadeq was toppled by American machinations. “The memory is quite alive among Iranians, and the government will [in the case of an attack by the United States] invest in resurrecting it to its own advantage through propaganda.” Hamid R. continues to explain how such an environment would divide the opposition and bolster the government:
The foremost impact of such an attack, given the level of dissent and the government’s instability, would be to create serious divisions within the Green Movement. The movement has paid a heavy price through the loss of hundreds of lives and many more political prisoners. But a foreign military attack would lead to many of the movement’s rank-and-file shifting their support to the same government that they currently oppose.
This is the foremost desire of the current government, because they know that the survival of their rule rests upon igniting nationalist and religious feelings within the population.
Any foreign military intervention would play an important and decisive role in consolidating
the present regime.
Ahmad Ghabel, a prominent religious scholar and a critic of the government, believes that even if an attack led to regime change, the new government would not have public support. He warned:
A military attack will be tremendously harmful to the people’s aspirations because our hearts and minds are not with foreign intervention. Assuming that a political change would follow an attack and the current system is replaced as a result, the new system would automatically be condemned because it had been empowered by foreign intervention. The time required for any new government to build trust with the people would be valuable time lost. Iranians have a historical memory of foreign interventions.
The only interviewee who acknowledged that a segment of the reformist camp might not oppose a military strike was journalist Alireza K. He ultimately concluded, however, that the vast majority of Iranians would back the government against a US strike. He said:
Before the 2009 election, most reformists and moderates feared a military confrontation with the United States and considered it not only against the interests of the general public, but also against the interests of the reformist camp who wanted to bring about fundamental changes from within the system.
But today, many reformists and moderates are of the belief that the Islamic Republic is not amenable to gradual change and engaging it on a reformist path is not possible. Thus, if they previously opposed a limited military strike, today, if not welcoming it, they may not
But is this option in the interests of the population? No. [In the case of a military strike] people will gravitate towards unifying behind the government. All means of communication are in the hands of the government. They utilize religion and religious principles effectively to guarantee the survival of the regime, and strengthen the opposition against the United States.
Sapping Goodwill Between the United States and Iranian Society
In the minds of many Iranians, the memory of the US–backed 1953 coup and the ensuing anti-Americanism appears fresh and relevant to today’s threats of military force. Several interviewees told the Campaign that, like the 1953 coup, a military strike would strain relations between the United States and the Iranian public, which unlike the regime includes a large segment of people with attitudes either favorable or not hostile to the United States. In recent years, many analysts have seen Iranian society’s openness to the United States as a key element in ending official US-Iran tensions, but interviewees for this report warned that military aggression would prolong tensions.
Behrouz Gharibpour, a film and theater director, also believes that a strike would invoke anti-American feelings similar to the 1953 coup and inflict long-term damage between Iranian society and the United States:
I am absolutely opposed to a military strike and foreign intervention. Any foreign power launching a strike will be the main loser because Iranians love their country and even if the conditions are not to our liking, we will not allow any foreign invasion. The United States caused many negative consequences with its support of the 1953 military coup and an attack today would have a lasting negative impact for decades to come.
Shadmehr Rastin, a screenwriter, shared this view and said, “On the off-chance that the Americans were to make such an unwise decision and attack Iran, a situation similar to the American-led coup 50 years ago [in 1953] will happen in Iran again and the United States’ image will be more tarnished than ever for Iranians.”
Legendary poet Mohammad Ali Sepanlou expands on the notion that the United States currently has goodwill amongst most Iranians that would be squandered with an attack. He explains:
A war would not serve US interests, as Iranians are the only people among the Islamic countries of the Middle East who have a favorable view of Americans. Unlike the Shah’s time when Iranians were against the United States, they have no animosity toward the United States right now. If any blood were shed between the two countries, it would be to both countries’ disadvantage.
Poet, women’s rights advocate, and renowned cultural figure Simin Behbahani expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “I expect the United States, a very powerful country in the world and one with a good name, to act against war, because war does not solve anything.”