Scott Jacobsen interviews Armin Navabi about Iran.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How do we defeat the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Armin Navabi: Before we get into that, let’s first talk about the current government and the different perspectives people have on this government depending on who they are. From a regional perspective, the Islamic Republic’s influence has been growing over time. For years, they’ve been building very powerful networks all over the Middle East -- especially where Shias are present -- and have been promoting and selling their version of Shia Islam. Iran’s Islamic regime has a very loyal following in countries like Syria and Lebanon. And by spreading their tentacles all over the Middle East using their proxies, they have more pawns to play with than anybody else. If you’re thinking of making a move against the Iranian regime, you have to know that they are capable of making things difficult for any players running against them. This is something that the Iranian regime had worked on for years and years and it paid off big time when the United States removed Saddam Hussein. And after that, ISIS provided Iranian regime with the excuse to start intervening in other countries in the Middle East. It was like a gift from the United States to the Iranian regime.
Jacobsen: How does religion play into Islamic Republic's meddling in it's neighboring countries?
Navabi: Khomeini did not want the Iranian Islamic Revolution to be only about Iran. His intention was for this movement to become an Islamic movement all over the Islamic world. Unfortunately for Khomeini, nationalism and Sunnism were barriers that his revolution never managed to break. Initially his revolution scared Sunni monarchs and other leaders but eventually, most Sunnis saw his revolution as a Shia revolution and even in majority Shia Iraq, most people did not join his movement against Saddam as he hoped.
The current regime managed to get closer to Khomeini’s goal of exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution without sacrificing a fraction of blood and resources that Khomeini did. The Iranian regime has learned how to play this game much more efficiently.
Jacobsen: How did the Sunni countries react to this?
Navabi: Consider this. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tried to export Wahhabism after Iran’s revolution, in competition to Iran exporting their version of Shia Islam and loyalty to the velayat-e faqih. Yet many Wahhabi groups across the world are now against the Saudi monarchs. If Sunni extremists caught Bin Salman today, he would probably be tortured and beheaded. Many people within Shia groups like Hezbollah and others would give their lives for Khomeini. Khomeini managed to successfully become the Supreme Religious Leader for many Shia groups inside and outside of Iran, not just a political leader. Not as successfully as he hoped but still.
The Iranian regime played a major role in defeating ISIS. Wherever Iran’s regime is meddling, it is doing so with the permission and invitation of their government. Iran’s regime often points out that their meddling was by request of the countries they meddle in, unlike the US. And that they are only meddling in their own region, again unlike the US. They needed the Iranian regime’s support. No other regime was willing to provide ground troops the way the Iranian one did. To Saudi Arabia, it looks like the Iranian regime is building a Shia Empire or a Shia Crescent all around Saudi Arabia. With the fall of Iraq, the Iranian regime’s stay in Syria, and the election of Hezbollah in Lebanon, nobody denies the amount of backing and support the Iranian regime has in the region. Once the Iranian regime moved into these countries for the excuse of defending them against ISIS and other Sunni militia, they do not want to leave. The Iranian regime now has a direct route to the borders of Israel.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are afraid of the Iranian regime. This is why these countries are now cooperating and also why they are both lobbying the United States to take a stronger stance against the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia with all its high-tech modern weapons purchased in some of the greatest arms deals in history from the United States could not defeat the Houthis in Yemen. If they can’t defeat them, what are the chances against the Iranian regime? And Israel with all its military might could not defeat Hezbollah. Yet Hezbollah is just one of the Iranian regime’s proxies. Israel and Saudi Arabia have strong militaries and better weapons. What they don’t have is support on the ground, and that’s what the Iranian regime knows is the most valuable weapon and has invested in for years. The US and its allies have too much interest in areas where the Iranian regime has influence. This makes any military move against the Iranian regime very difficult.
When the United States was fighting ISIS, they did not have a plan for what happened after the defeat of ISIS. But the Iranian regime seemed to be a step ahead. The US’s support for groups like the MEK as an opposition to the current regime seems to suggest their lack of understanding of the lack of support for them among the Iranian people. Saudi Arabia also seems to be taking actions first and evaluating the consequences later. From their actions against Qatar, their war on Yemen and the kidnapping of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, every decision they make against the Iranian regime seems to be making the Iranian regime stronger. In Lebanon, the way Hezbollah responded to their prime minister being kidnapped was very strategic.
The greatest weakness of the Islamic Republic is the level of dissatisfaction of the Iranian people with their government. Many Iranians think that their government cares more about exporting their Islamic revolution in neighboring countries than their own people. The protests in Iran are about a wide variety of issues, including human rights violations, unemployment, and high prices. The problem for the government is that protests or any other form of dissent against the regime undermine the legitimacy of their religious authority in the region, which is the foundation they build their network on. For the regime's brand of Shiaism to sell, it needs to portray its Islamic Republic as an ideal system. If the Iranian regime can’t maintain the illusion that it enjoys the support of its own people, their legitimacy will be questioned. This is the Islamic Republic’s Achilles’ Heel. This is why the Iranian government constantly tries to sell the idea that their people are happy with their government; and even if there are protests, there are mostly legitimate concerns that will be addressed and not a demand for regime change.
The US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have more powerful armies, but what they don’t have is manpower, loyal followers in the region and the connections that the Iranian regime enjoys. But the Iranian regime will lose its ability to maintain and grow this network if it doesn’t present an image of legitimacy at home.
However, this is not a weakness that can be used against the government. Not without the level of trust these countries have among the Iranian people. There are some Iranians who ask for foreign support. But many other Iranians who are against the Islamic regime do not wish to see any foreign involvement.
Jacobsen: How is the United States intervening? How should the US intervene?
Navabi: Many protesters say that if the US government supports the uprising of people in Iran against the Iranian government, the Iranian regime will use this to sell the narrative that these protests are not the legitimate concern of the people but a few bad actors that are agents of foreign governments who are mostly motivated by their own agenda. Many Iranians remember how in 1953 the British intelligence and the CIA orchestrated a coup against Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh who was nationalizing Iran’s oil against British interests. The West has a history of supporting dictators against democratically elected leaders for the sake of stability in the region. They picked stability over democracy but ended up getting neither.
Supporting authoritarians that share your interest over democracy and human rights might seem like a good idea in the short run. But in the long term, your support makes you lose credibility, which is exactly what you need to build loyal supporters and a reliable network on the ground. Democracies prove to be other democracies’ best allies. Authoritarians often become US allies, but they are not as stable. And putting them in power comes at a cost; the cost is that people remember. If they ever get to choose their own leaders, they might not pick ones that the US would consider an ally. The problem is that lobbyists and politicians often don’t look at the long-term costs given that their careers don’t last that long. Another problem is that if you have a record of supporting dictators, not many people will believe your narrative when you try to intervene in another country in the name of supporting human rights and freedom.
Democracies are reliable allies and worth the long-term investment. Democracies produce richer economies. Richer economies become better trading partners. Trading partners are less likely to go to war with each other. When trade industries become more influential in a country’s politics than war industries, all sides win.
Jacobsen: What are some examples of the US backing authoritarians, dictatorships, and tyrants?
Navabi: We don’t even have to go back in history to find examples. Let’s focus on today. When the US supports Saudi Arabia’s massacre of the Yemeni people and allows the oppression of Saudi citizens by their government and supports Saudi Arabia’s appointment to the Human Rights Council, it loses credibility. It makes it apparent that the United States only fights human rights violations when it serves its interest and that its agenda is not really to alleviate the suffering of people.
This makes it easy for countries with even the worst human rights records to point to the double standard and give the impression that any accusation of their human rights violation cannot be trusted. The solution would be to fight against human rights violations consistently. But it’s unreasonable to expect any country’s government to take actions that don’t serve any of their own country’s interests. So the challenge for us human rights activists is to argue that being consistent with your human rights records does serve your country’s best interest. And we do that by bringing up this credibility factor.
The most effective intervention is one that the majority of the people of a country welcome. But that requires credibility. To gain that credibility, one must be consistent in his or her support for certain values. This is something that Iran’s government understands and does that well with their brand of Shiaism. The US played the same role with capitalism against communism during the Cold War. They understood well that this was a battle of ideas and not just of military might. They could have used the same strategy with a new brand: support for human rights, free speech, and secularism. But they dropped the ball on that and it would take years to fix it even if they wanted to.
Jacobsen: How can the US and other nations support human rights there and elsewhere for that matter?
Navabi: There are many options and most are cheaper than military intervention. One option is to support particular human rights and various enlightenment values. Providing easy anonymous access to social media goes a long way toward giving the people in any country the tools to fight for their own rights. Social Media companies should stop banning and removing anti-Islamic content with the goal of protecting Muslims’ religious sensitivities. The content that some policymakers in Palo Alto consider a threat to minorities are voices of dissent against oppression from the majority in Islamic countries. The PC culture is a Western trend but it has global consequences. In the name of protecting victims against abusers at home, we could silence victims globally. Access to these tools is essential. Military intervention gives you unpredictable results and managing what happens after is usually more difficult and costly than the intervention itself. Supporting dissent is less invasive, less expensive, and more effective force for change.
Jacobsen: Can military intervention be a good support?
Navabi: Military intervention can be beneficial if done right. However, it is not the solution for the Iranian regime. This war is not a cost that the people of the United States, Iran’s neighbors or many Iranian people (#NotAll) are willing to pay now. The Iranian regime is much more powerful than when Saddam's regime was in power.
You also have to consider the agenda of the people who have an influence on such decisions. Would the war against the Iranian regime really be because of the security of your country’s citizens? Or are there other factors independent of the tax-payers’ best interest? How much of an influence are Israel, Saudi Arabia, and military lobbyists having on such decisions and do American want to pay for such a war if it is serving their interests? When groups like the MEK are influencing people such as John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, there doesn’t leave much room for doubt that at least some - if not most - of the support for war against the Iranian regime has nothing to do with supporting Iranian people.
Any form of military intervention for the purpose of regime change without planning for what comes after is doomed to fail. When it comes to the Iranian regime, there aren’t that many good options for what comes after a regime change. What usually fills a power vacuum are the most organized and well-funded groups. As the West discovered already, it can end up with something worse than the regime they helped remove. Many people in Iran support a military intervention from a foreign regime, but many others are against it.
And the people who are against such intervention include many Iranians who are against the Islamic Republic. Such an intervention will either bring into power another authoritarian regime or a democratic one. The authoritarian regime that comes into power can be another Islamic anti-Western regime. A democratic regime is also not guaranteed to be pro-West. The images from the Iranian protests might suggest otherwise, but we shouldn’t underestimate the anti-Western sentiments many other Iranians still have, especially if such a regime is coming into power right after another military intervention in Iran.
Intervention against the Islamic Republic in Iran needs to be a long-term plan and without military involvement. The support of the people for your intervention is important. Without it, you’re either going to get a democratic regime that is against you or a dictatorship that supports you against the will of its people. The way I look at it is by evaluating every group and their goals and interests. And then look at the paths each one of these groups can take in achieving their goals. What is the opportunity cost for each path they can take?
We have to look at different sources of influence and interest groups in Iran:
1.The Islamic Republic’s main sources of power and influence:
a. Hardliners, Conservatives & the IRGC
b. Moderates and Reformists
2.The Iranian people:
a. Pro-regime anti-reform
b. Pro-regime pro-reform
c. Anti-regime pro-Western intervention
d. Anti-regime anti-Western intervention
a. People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran or the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK)
c. Secular democrats
f. Ethnic minority autonomy groups (especially Kurdish)
Each group’s members often exaggerate the commonality of their views among the Iranian people. Without reliable polls, it is hard to determine the truth. Most people agree secular democrats and monarchists are the most popular oppositions, and that the MEK remains the most hated one. Many people underestimate the support for the government. Much of this underestimation comes from observation of the protests.
While the enthusiasm people have for the Islamic Republic is significantly less than early revolution years, it is entirely possible that more than ten million people in Iran fully support the government today. There are also many Iranians who abhor the government yet are against an attempt to topple the regime given their observation of what happened in Iraq, Syria, and Libya and the price the people there had to pay for regime change. Yet there are many other voices that demand regime change by any means necessary.
One interesting small but fast-growing group are anti-Islam anti-democracy ethno-nationalists that support the government and see Shia Islam as a hidden version of Zoroastrianism. They consider all of the Middle East to be part of the Persian empire that should one day be recaptured. They think Iran's religion should one day go back to Zoroastrianism; that Islam and any other Arab influence on Iran’s culture needs to be erased. Even though, they believe the current government is not ideal (given that it’s both Islamic and a republic); they also feel there is no better option until they manage to reintroduce Iranians to their ancient Aryan heritage.
They consider the main enemies of Iran to be advocates of secular democracy and ethnic minority groups fighting for autonomy. Given that foreign intervention by Western powers emboldens both these groups, they spend a lot of their activism discouraging Iranians from asking for help from the international community. They often use examples in history to convince Iranians that foreign intervention has never been in the best interest of Iran. This message is finding a lot of appeal in young anti-government Iranians that have given up hope on both reformists and opposition groups that have been promising the toppling of the government for the past forty years. One key figure that is leading this movement is Omid Dana who advocates for these ideas on his fast-growing outlets including his YouTube channel under the name Rodast.
Jacobsen: How can we address all these groups?
Navabi: We need to ask what are the goals and ideal scenarios for each one of these groups and interests and how are they trying to achieve it. Then you need to see which groups and interests you belong to. After that, you need to see which other groups and interests you share the most goals with or at least which groups and interests’ path to their goal also serves yours. You need to look for the pathways of mutual benefit in order to work together as an informal coalition. You might find multiple options, but then you have to analyze the opportunity cost for each. Not every good option is the best option. The best way to predict the next moves is to assume parties are rational but have different values and interests. Then put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what you would do to survive.
For example, the goal of some of the most influential interest groups in the US government is to reduce the Islamic Republic power in the region. The goal of human rights activists is to reduce human rights violations. Human rights activists might rely on the support of the US government for their goal. They would have to argue that giving voice to human rights activists in Iran will damage Iran’s legitimacy in the region. But then you would have to consider what impact this would have on anti-intervention Iranians. Would human rights activism be associated with an excuse for intervention and make it more difficult to bring attention to legitimate concerns?
Jacobsen: What do you recommend?
Navabi: We need to provide cover for the extant oppositions in Iran. It wouldn’t be difficult to provide the technology these groups need for them to have fast and undetectable access to social media and make it easy for the least tech-savvy people to get around government firewalls. This should be backed up with guides and tips on how to get access and remain anonymous.
This is a form of intervention that is difficult to hate even among anti-Western activists. All you’re doing is giving everyone a louder voice. You’re not adding to the voice, or meddling in their decisions. You are just providing a platform for everyone to get their message out. Including those who might be against you. By giving voices of dissent on the ground a global audience, we are encouraging activism.
Encouragement of activism in all oppressed countries gives much-needed reinforcement to the same trends that brought the West its enlightenment. Enlightenment values do not need to be exported from the West to oppressed nations. These are values that many already have been fighting for in these countries. We only need to amplify what is already there. By supporting free speech, you encourage dissent against barriers to the Enlightenment values everywhere, not merely in countries that are a threat to your interests.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, especially so in depth this time, Armin.