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Iran needs change. We need to help--now.


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Michael Ledeen

“…to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.” –President Bush, in the State of the Union Address

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President Bush promised the Iranian people that we would support them in their struggle for freedom, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has reiterated that promise on her trip to Europe. Many of the chatterers–the same dismal theorists who didn’t believe that the Iraqis really wanted to be free–are trying very hard to pretend it isn’t so, but the president’s words don’t leave much wiggle room (although the State Department’s spokesman tried; he trotted out one of Powell’s favorite lines while Condi was away: “we don’t have a policy of regime change in Iran.” He should be locked in a quiet room, made to read the State of the Union 100 times, and then assigned to a job at Camp Fallujah).

The president’s two revolutionary speeches have had a powerful impact on the Middle East, and he should follow up quickly. The entire region is bubbling with the giddy brew of democratic revolution, and the Iranians, proud of their long traditions of self-government, do not wish to remain an anomaly, the lone tyranny sandwiched between the emerging democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq. They will be looking for the president to fulfill his vows, challenging the mullahcracy in Tehran.

The Iranian people have been standing for their own liberty for many years, as demonstrated by the terrible record of carnage they have suffered at the hands of the regime. Hundreds of democracy advocates are being tortured in Iran’s prisons. Tens of thousands have been killed in the past six years, beginning with the mass murders of protesters in 1989. Public executions are commonplace, and women are routinely executed by stoning. The psychopathic regime of Ayatollah Khamenei and former president Rafsanjani has been proclaimed the greatest predator of press freedom in the Middle East. Daily reports from Iraq testify to the enormous support from Tehran to the terrorists killing innocent civilians, government officials, foreign workers, and American servicemen and women in Iraq. As everyone knows, a steady stream of information shows that these evil people are relentlessly pursuing their dream of building atomic bombs, which they foolishly believe will protect them against the forces of freedom.

It is a measure of their madness that they have it backwards. The closer they get to the gateway to the nuclear club, the greater the urgency to bring down the regime. Most experts believe the mullahs are very close indeed, which means that revolutionary steps need to be taken quickly.

Bush fully understands that our most potent weapon against the Islamic republic is the great desire by most Iranians (more than 70 percent, according to the regime’s own public opinion polls) to be rid of their meddlesome priests, and as luck would have it there is a legitimate short-term club with which to beat the mullahs: the presidential elections scheduled for June. Nobody believes in the legitimacy of those elections; the mullahs select the candidates, and the beturbaned guardians pretend to count the votes. And even if the elections unexpectedly produced the election of a would-be reformer, no real reforms could or would result, as the failed presidency of Mohammed Khatami has demonstrated over eight years of empty promises.

The only meaningful election in Iran would be a referendum on the legitimacy of the regime itself. Let the people judge the consequences of 25 years of theocratic rule by voting it up or down. If, as the mullahs constantly claim, they are the true protectors of the Iranian people, they will be happy at the chance to demonstrate their popularity. But if, as the regime’s critics insist, the Islamic republic is already illegitimate in the eyes of the people, a referendum–duly supervised by suitable international observers–would mark the first step in a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. It would be followed by the selection of a transition government that would supervise the two phases now under way in Iraq: drafting a new constitution that would be ratified by popular vote, and then elections for the new government.

A national referendum has been proposed by numerous Iranian leaders of considerable prestige, most of whom are in Iran, including victims of torture and extended periods in jail. The list of supporters includes one unexpected name: Mohsen Sazgara, the founder of the dreaded Revolutionary Guards and one of Khomeini’s original team. It includes pro-democracy activists and some of the leading theological figures in the country. At last count, more than 18,000 Iranians of different political loyalties had endorsed it (see www.60000000.com).

Thus far, no Western leader has endorsed the call for an Iranian referendum. Now is the time. If the mullahs unexpectedly accept it, they will either receive confirmation of their claims to legitimacy, or be permitted to peacefully leave their posts. If they reject it, then no Western leader will be able to dismiss the calls for democratic revolution in Iran, and a united West can do for Iran what was done for Ukraine.

This meets all the president’s requirements as well as those of many of his critics. It spreads freedom, which is the best way to defeat the terrorists (a freely elected government in Iran will almost certainly be a mortal blow to the terror network), and it does it without dropping a bomb or firing a shot. It reasserts the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights, and reminds the world’s tyrants that their power can only be legitimate if it rests upon the consent of their people. How can any real democrat oppose it?

Well, there’s always some spoilsport splashing around in the punch bowl. A column in the Boston Globe the other day noted that “Senator Joseph Biden said that…the world needed to address…Iran’s emotional needs, he said, with a nonaggression pact.”

I think it would be better to address the emotional needs of appeasement-loving senators, frankly.

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.



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