Sure, every decent, right-thinker longs for regime change in Iran. The country's rulers bludgeon their own people, hurt American interests, lie-and could pose real security threats. But talk of Washington stopping Iran's nuclear march by overthrowing its regime is more for American than Iranian ears. None of the proposed policies-tougher U.S. rhetoric, more economic sanctions, and/or a military strike-is at all likely to work. Nor do get-tougher proponents credit the fact that most Iranian moderates oppose leaps in American toughness. It usually lands them in jail and unites Iran against America. There is a better U.S. policy-not much better, but better-to strengthen our friends in the Gulf region and try to weaken the Revolutionary Guard regime with quiet and practical persistence.
The first alternative: Be more assertive about U.S. values and more damning of Tehran's. I like Secretary of State Clinton's calling Iran's ruling Revolutionary Guard a band of "military dictators." They are, and her words single them out without compromising friendly Iranians. I like President Obama's condemning Tehran's use of violence and torture. It's important to repeat our values from time to time. Friendly Iranians don't want us to forget them.
But to beat up constantly on Iranian bad guys, to daily sing the praises of America's virtues, and to chant "regime change" won't help Iranian reformers and certainly won't topple the dictators. This kind of chest-thumping allows the dictators to portray friendly Iranians as stooges of the American Satan-and it works. That's not just my opinion; it's the belief of the Iranians we want to help. I met with a group of about 25 Iranians not long ago, thirtysomethings who run democracy/human-rights organizations and newspapers in their country. They all said loudly and clearly that they didn't want Americans preaching for them and against the government. They said that when Congress passed a multimillion dollar bill for their support, Tehran's thugs shuttered their newspapers and jailed democracy advocates. Moreover, our Iranian hero, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential election "loser," argued carefully not for regime change, but for "reform, not for vengeance and not for seeking power." So far as we know, he and other reformers want a reformed democratic Islamic state, not regime change. In any event, it's plain that the strongest U.S. rhetoric won't convince Tehran to stop its nuclear program nor lead to regime change. And we should heed that point until our Iranian friends tell us otherwise.