Buying time for Iran’s Green Movement

Christian Whiton Christian Whiton was a senior adviser in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.
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The mounting protests in Iran leave little doubt that the Tehran regime has entered its final decade. The mass expression of public dissent expected today coincides with the day 31 years ago when the Iranian revolution was launched. The Islamist theocracy that resulted commenced a low-intensity war against the United States and our allies, which has continued to this day and could soon get worse.

This newest round of protests demonstrates that the Green Movement is a sustained political force. It has overtaken the issues and candidates of last year’s elections and has expanded beyond its original core of urban secularists to include traditionalists beyond Tehran. Iranians of all walks of life are taking mortal risk to seek an alternative to the unaccountable, corrupt regime that reigns over them.

The fact that the protest movement is not pro-American is less relevant than the fact that it presents the best prospect of dramatically altering the current regime. Few occurrences would be better for American security. Unfortunately, no one can predict accurately the timing and extent of the coming change. New movement figures are likely to emerge in the next year or two, but even then, there will be too many variables to determine the regime’s endpoint or the nature of its replacement. In the meantime, we need to respond to the unacceptable and growing threat posed by Iran, which will only become more severe when the desperate regime obtains a nuclear capability.

After all, this is a government that has waged an aggressive proxy war against the U.S. and our allies across the Middle East and Central Asia. One of its opening acts in 1979 was the taking of U.S. diplomats as hostages. It directed the killing of 241 American servicemen in Beirut in 1983 and has caused incalculable other damage with its premier proxy armies in the Levant, Hezbollah and Hamas. In Iraq, the Iranian government was involved in many and possibly even most of the American casualties incurred. It infiltrated its agents, fueled the insurgency, and supplied the know-how and materiel for explosively formed penetrators that dramatically increased U.S. troop mortality. Iran also trains and equips elements fighting us in Afghanistan.

In Congressional testimony last February, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Maples referred to foreign-supported terrorists in Iraq and said that Iran’s “Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qods Force, continues to provide training and support, and DIA has not yet seen evidence that Iran has ended lethal aid.” During the hearing, Maples also spoke of the Taliban’s access to foreign arms and fighters, and said intelligence is showing Iran is becoming more active in supporting the Haqqani network, a militant group based in Pakistan that has been attacking U.S. and Afghan forces.

In summation, the Tehran regime is still killing Americans in multiple geographies.

Where does all of this leave U.S. policy? First, we need to recognize this regime is waging war on the U.S.—with no signs of abatement. Second, we need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, which would lead to an expansion of the regime’s current misconduct. Third, we need to aid and buy time for the Green Movement to alter Iran’s government.

It appears unlikely that the Obama administration will succeed in convincing the Chinese and Russians to allow the UN Security Council to enact sanctions against Iran. Even if sanctions are approved, enforcement is only as good individual UN members want it to be, and it is unclear if even crippling sanctions would stop the regime’s nuclear program.

If the Obama administration is serious about preventing a nuclear Iran—which would mean an Iran even more willing to wage proxy wars—then it must put military options on the table. If it is not serious about this, the administration should explain to the American people and our allies how it intends to deal with a nuclear Iran and its rampaging proxies.

Finding ways to assist the Green Movement is difficult but important. It is true that many Green Movement participants do not want the involvement of the U.S. government. Furthermore, the leadership and goals of the movement appear to be in flux. But dissent movements rarely succeed without some form of international support, and regardless of the protestors’ stated preferences, U.S. security interests compel us to get involved.

At the most basic level, the U.S. can raise the cost for the Iranian government to suppress violently its people. The administration could do this by leading a broad, sustained chorus of international condemnation of any regime-supported violence. The U.S. should also use this period of evolution in the Green Movement to explore direct and indirect covert support. Just because today’s Movement participants deprecate U.S. involvement, it does not mean that avenues of moral and material support to newly emerging leaders will not be welcomed or effective in the years ahead—even if unrequested. We should proceed for the sake of our own security. In the end, a successful policy will need to set back the regime’s nuclear program by a number of years in order for the Green Movement to run its uncertain course.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a principal at DC Asia Advisory in Washington, and president of the Hamilton Foundation.