As someone who has favored for years a policy of regime change in Iran (see, e.g., here, here, here, here and here), what stuns me about the commentary over the last couple of days is the perception that the regime has done something shocking with this election. The regime isn’t any different today than it was the day before the election, the days before it gave logistical assistance to the 9/11 suicide hijacking teams, the day before it took al-Qaeda in for harboring after the 9/11 attacks, the day before Khobar Towers, or every day of combat in Iraq. Throughout the last 30 years, this revolutionary regime has made war on America while it brutalized its own people. The latter brutalization has ebbed and flowed with circumstances, depending on how threatened (or at least vexed) the regime felt at any given time.
Serial American governments, however, have shunned moral clarity and shunned their own fatuous rhetoric — rapprochement,” “engagement,” “cultivating ‘moderates,’” “democracy promotion,” “the Bush Doctrine,” back to “engagement” again – in pursuit of what our foeign policy geniuses have been so certain is the grand bargain with Iran that has been within reach any day now for the last 30 years. The Clinton administration obstructed the FBI’s investigation of Khobar because highlighting Iran’s complicity in the murder of 19 members of our Air Force would have been inconvenient for its overtures to “reformer” Khatami (while the real power, the mullahs, happily plowed full speed ahead — death to America style — building their nukes and abetting our enemies). The Bush administration was flat incoherent, with the president correctly calling Iran an implacable terrorist regime while his State Department treated them like they were any rational government — eschewing sticks and continuing to entice them with more carrots every time they mocked the last batch of goodies.
Perhaps the worst part of all this was allowing the antiwar (and, specifically, antiwar in Iraq) crowd, aided by our foreign-policy gurus, to equate regime change with invasion in the public mind. Regime change in Iraq became the official policy of the U.S. in the late 1990s, years before the invastion of Iraq. We could have and should have made regime change in Iran official American policy long before that — certainly by 1996. Had we done that, we could have had a clear policy, denied the mullahs legitimacy in every particular, squeezed them in every way (particularly economically), sanctioned governments that continued to deal with them, supported the dissidents, and attacked them militarily (with or without a full-scale invasion) when they sponsored terrorist camps, supported and harbored al-Qaeda, killed Americans in Iraq, and built their nukes.
I agree with Jonah that John is off-base in suggesting that there is a current of opinion on the Right which holds that demonstrations in the streets mean a government is illegitimate and must fall. But I disagree with what I take — perhaps mistakenly — to be the implication that something has happened in the last few days that ought to change our view of the legitimacy of this government. This was never a “democracy.” It was a farce. The elections never meant anything in terms of legitimacy. The mullahs controlled the outcome of the elections through and through. Until now, it has been enough to exercise veto power over who could stand for election — but the fact that they were doing that was confirmation that, if the vote went bad and they needed to take the next logical step of fixing the vote count, they would fix the vote count. The fact that the bank robbery occurs at high-noon for all to see doesn’t make it more of a robbery than one conducted in stealth.
I’ve always thought the first duty of government is the security of the governed. I’m not sure I’m on board with Jonah’s distinction that legitimacy is a duty — I think that’s more of a status, going to the question of whether you really have a government rather than to what government must do. But in any event, it seems to me that this regime is now engaged in exactly the sort of thing it has been engaged in for 30 long years. If we were finally going to do what we should long ago have done, and make regime change our policy, I’d be ecstatic. But let’s not overlook that we have treated this regime as a legitimate government through atrocity after atrocity. That will make it much easier now for Obama to do what he wants to do in any event — overlook this most recent atrocity and go on with business as usual: empowering this terrorist regime at the expense of American national interests and the desperate hopes of Iranians who cannot overthrow the mullahs without our help.