Since 2009, several waves of riots and near-revolutions have consumed Iran. A few, like the 2009 “Green Revolution,” weren’t revolutions at all. This time the protests seem very different.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was reportedly beaten to death on Sept. 16 while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police.” Her offense reportedly had been to not cover her hair adequately.
Since Amini’s death, massive violent protests have broken out in many Iranian cities. Fires have been set in mosques, banks and police cars. Shootouts with police have taken place and unrest in the Kurdish region has been severely suppressed. At least 1,500 people have been arrested and as many as one thousand people killed. In an Oct. 3 statement, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, blamed America and Israel for the riots.
Iranians have suffered greatly since the ayatollahs came to power in 1979. Repression by the religious police and corruption at every level of government is the norm. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — Tehran’s principal terrorist arm that reports directly to the supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei — controls perhaps 80% of Iran’s economy. It does so for its own benefit and that of the ayatollahs.
We have seen what could have been real revolutions come and go in Iran. The “Green Revolution” in 2009 arose in protest of the obviously rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest, but the leaders of the movement said they weren’t trying to replace the system.
We might have convinced the “Green Movement” Iranians that the best way forward was to overthrow the ayatollahs. President Barack Obama decided not to even try. Instead, he reportedly ordered the CIA to stand down and sever all its contacts with the leaders of the Green Movement.
In 2018, more protests — far smaller than those in 2009 — were against economic corruption and, in a first, the protesters aimed their ire at the ayatollahs themselves often calling for Mr. Khamenei’s death. The regime was frightened, but the protests faded when America did nothing.
In 2019-2020, the “Bloody November” protests against economic conditions were similarly aimed at the government and its endemic corruption. Again, we did nothing.
The riots now going on seem more intent on toppling the regime. On Sept. 30, seminary students and teachers in Iran’s holy city of Qom reportedly issued a statement saying that the core ideology of the ayatollahs’ regime — “rule by the jurisprudent” — is no longer valid.
That statement, if spread beyond Qom, could doom the regime for its illegitimacy.
A few American commentators have suggested that the Iranian people are crying out for our help. That is highly doubtful but the riots show deep discontent with Iran’s economic conditions, brought about by the sanctions former President Donald J. Trump imposed when he revoked Mr. Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran.
President Biden, who still obsessively pursues a new nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, will not do anything to inconvenience, far less topple, the Tehran regime. Nevertheless, if we had a competent president, we would be trying to do so by the many covert means at our disposal.
Before we go down that particular rabbit hole, we have to determine the answers to the questions of whether Iran’s protesters are aiming at revolution and whether they would accept our help if they are.
It’s not at all clear that Iranians would accept American help or help from any Western nation. Two generations of Iranians have been chanting “death to America” since 1979 and have been indoctrinated to distrust us in every respect. Moreover, their fear of the ayatollahs and their IRGC may far exceed their desire to overthrow the regime.
Every dictatorship is inherently unstable, and Iran’s is no exception. The fear expressed by Mr. Khamenei on Oct. 3 showed that as did the statement by the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who warned that the protests aim to topple the government. That fear was further demonstrated by the regime’s blocking, at least partially, internet availability in Iran.
Whether or not the current round of protests and riots could be turned into a real revolution, we should be covertly seeking ways to do that now and in the near future.
We should begin by earning the trust of potential revolutionaries. Iran is a closed nation. It’s almost impossible to get people in or information out. We should be providing the protesters with secure communications, internet service and, at some stage, weapons. We should be training Iranian ex-pats and others to help foment and organize a revolution that would rid the world of the ayatollahs’ regime. Regardless of how hard the task maybe we should try to get them into Iran.
Moreover, we should be conducting a relentless cyberwar against Iran’s government, attacking their computer networks to discover what the regime is doing and spreading malware to damage Tehran’s ability to govern and foment terrorism. The regime is our enemy, not the Iranian people.
We can do much more but that would be a very good start. But we need a competent president who has the will to make these things happen. 2025 can’t come soon enough.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.