Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The secretary of state insists that the United States does not support regime change in Iran, but rather a change in the behavior of the Iranian regime. Speaking on Voice of America’s Radio Farda, our official Farsi-language channel to the Iranian people, Secretary Mike Pompeo said the United States supported Iranians, wherever they were, who were fighting for greater freedom, so long as they did not advocate an end to the Islamic regime itself.
Pompeo told (Radio Farda) that, while he supports many Iranian opposition groups in the United States and Europe, he does not back calls for regime change in Tehran.
"We don't want them advocating for regime change, either…We want them working on behalf of the Iranian people, ordinary Iranian citizens who want nothing more than to live their lives, to be able to take their hijab off, to be able to go to work and raise their families and worship in the way they want to worship."
The major problem with this policy is that totalitarian regimes, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, can’t be reformed. Remember “Communism with a human face”? We never saw it. Instead, we saw the Red Army crush Alexander Dubcek’s reformists in the streets of Czechoslovakia. Ditto for Mikhail Gorbachev, whose glasnost was widely believed to signal the transformation of Soviet Communism. It didn’t, and the Soviet system wasn’t transformed until Gorbachev was removed, and his successors abolished the Communist state. Italian fascism and German Nazism were both defeated on the battlefield, and abolished, not transformed.
As Ayatollah Khamenei’s order to restart the country’s nuclear weapons program just demonstrated, you cannot get changed behavior from this regime. Indeed, if Pompeo were to induce the Iranian tyrants to make the changes he calls for—ending support for terrorism, terminating nuclear enrichment, withdrawing Revolutionary Guards forces from nearby countries like Iraq and Syria, ending the requirement that women cover their hair, tolerating non-Islamic religions and the like—they would effectively be changing the regime from a theocratic fascism to something else.
Totalitarian regimes’ actions stem from two closely linked main causes: ideological doctrine, and the desire of the tyrant to remain in power. Iran’s expansionist foreign policy, which started soon after Khomeini’s seizure of power in 1979, rests on the politico/religious conviction that the Islamic Republic is destined, and entitled, to rule the world. The virtual takeover of Syria by the Guards was ordered directly by Supreme Leader Khamenei as part of that mission, as is the expansion of Hezbollah throughout Latin America.
The destruction or domination of America is central to the regime’s ideology, and is chanted all the time by thousands of people. “Death to America!” is doctrinal, not just a street rally, and this regime cannot abandon it without abandoning its essence.
Khamenei’s notorious personal wealth is a primary target of the Iranian demonstrators, many of whom are starving. Here, too, the supreme leader’s behavior can’t be changed without fundamentally altering the nature of the regime. The supreme leader uses the money—estimated at several billion dollars—to control the nation’s businesses and to bribe his would-be challengers. This is reminiscent of Ceausescu’s “royal” palaces, designed to awe the masses in an otherwise poor country, and of Hitler’s use of an official architect to enhance the visible glory of the Third Reich. The spectacular mausoleum in Tehran dedicated to the memory of the Ayatollah Khomeini is the same sort of symbol of ideology and power.
Such regimes are intensely resistant to changing their behavior, and it would be a dramatic event indeed if the Islamic Republic’s leaders were to abandon its well established policies without a significant purge of its ruling class, and the emergence of new leadership, dedicated to a very different sort of government. If Trump, Bolton and Pompeo can pull it off, more power to them. But don’t count on it.