Ten years ago, the Arab Spring gave hope to people of the Middle East that they could take more control of their lives away from repressive regimes. Those in the West hoped that new governments would be more aligned with their interests, even without adopting Western-style democracy. Such dreams were dashed when Islamists and new authoritarians took advantage of the moment to seize control. The prospects of that “spring” turned into a lasting “Middle East Winter.” The one glimmer of hope was Tunisia, and that fragile democracy now also has turned authoritarian.
Though the Middle East Winter began in the Arab world, the primary culprit for its continuance is an expansionist Iran. As a senior Bharani diplomat said this month, “If you look into the crises across the Middle East, you will find one red thread that would go across all those crises. You would find an Iranian finger.”
There could have been a Persian spring in 2009, when millions of Iranians protested in the streets. The prospect of success may have been slightly more significant than in Arab lands, because the Iranian people are among the most Westernized in the Middle East, according to a 2012 article in The Atlantic: “The Iran We Don’t See: A Tour of the Country Where People Love Americans.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration abandoned the Iranian people, choosing rapprochement with Iran’s Supreme Leader over the desires of the citizenry.
The demise of Iran’s repressive Islamist government should be something for which every human rights activist hopes. But too many have pollyannaish fantasies of what the Islamic Republic could be with just enough appeasement. They must be blind to its true nature — a terror-supporting, human rights-abusing state that jails, tortures and even executes gays, journalists, foreigners and anyone who challenges the state.
Over the past 10 years, the region has experienced monumental changes: the rise and waning of ISIS, the ascendency and domination of Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, the displacement of millions of people in Syria — and that just scratches the surface. With this gloomy picture, it is no wonder that both Democrats and Republicans have no appetite to confront Iran, which is likely to become a member of the nuclear club sooner or later.
A Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Iran experts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh points out, “It would be less strategically damning and probably more intellectually honest for [President] Biden and his senior advisers to admit, at least to themselves, that the White House isn’t going to stop Tehran from getting the bomb.” The authors may be right. Despite a generation of presidential rhetoric that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable, it appears the U.S. can do nothing to stop it — and Iran knows it.
More significantly, the writers called for the U.S. to “support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.” That is shorthand for the only realistic American policy to make the region safer and advance our security interests: regime change, initiated by the Iranian people and supported by the West. Suppose the Iranian people rise up under the pressure of extreme economic sanctions over the long term. If that happens, the U.S. must help the people with rhetorical support and whatever they need to defend themselves. No American troops would be required.
A nuclear Iran, controlled by the Iranian people, could be a more manageable partner that might prioritize their people’s well-being over regional hegemonic aspirations. They likely would be more amenable to negotiating a nuclear deal that restricts the use of weapons in exchange for economic inducements.
The Abraham Accords, ushered in by the Trump administration, provide hope for real change in the Middle East to counter Iran’s aggression. Unfortunately, the Biden administration appears too preoccupied with trying to “normalize” Iran, the region’s most dangerous player — it’s the wrong approach and will guarantee a Middle East nuclear arms race. This approach also is likely to supply Iran with billions of dollars to further entrench itself in its neighbors’ lands. The Islamic Republic’s constitutionally mandated plan is “to export the revolution throughout the world.”
America’s adversaries probably have interpreted the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a green light to make provocative moves without fear of retaliation. The expectation of a complete American withdrawal of forces from Iraq and Syria, and the recent removal of U.S. anti-missile defenses from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, may also invite Iran to further advance its interests. Iran recently has escalated its maritime attacks, and trying to negotiate with an unrepentant regime will produce a flawed nuclear deal.
We should be unafraid to say the obvious: The end of Iran’s jihadist government is the best hope to end the long Middle East Winter. The U.S. must support the Iranian people so that they can choose new leaders in an election that is not rigged. That means continuing, and increasing, economic pressure on the current government. The goal is to achieve regime change in Iran without American boots on the ground — the best bet for our long-term security interests.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.