Hoping for regime change in Iran

Published in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, March 9, 2018.

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Might more be done to advance an Iranian counter-revolution? Israeli master diplomat Uri Lubrani certainly thought so, and he was not naive. America should aggressivley use economic sanctions to expose and punish the regime’s tyrannical behavior. Pushback against Tehran’s gains in Syria would help too, as would a tidal wave of sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards. 

The legendary Uri Lubrani died this week at age 91. His foremost desire was to see the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran overthrown, and he passionately believed that Israel and Western powers could and should do much more to bring this about. Lubrani’s passing is an opportunity to revisit this important issue.

Lubrani was a fixture in the Israeli foreign affairs and defense establishment since day one, and I was fortunate to know him. He smuggled Jewish immigrants into British-Mandate Palestine while serving in the Hagana, and fought in the War of Independence. He was bureau chief to foreign minister Moshe Sharett, and Arab affairs advisor and bureau director to prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion. He served under every administration since then, all the way through to Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Yaalon.

While serving as ambassador to Ethiopia, he orchestrated Operation “Operation Solomon,” which brought 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In the 1980s he was coordinator of operations in Lebanon and made ultimately unsuccessful efforts to repatriate captured Israeli airman Ron Arad.

Most notably, he served as Israel’s head of mission in Tehran from 1973-1978, the final years of the Jewish state’s warm relations with Iran before the fall of the Shah. His claim to fame was that he foresaw the fall of the Shah six months before it happened; but nobody believed him, including CIA analysts.

Ever since then, Lubrani embarked on a one-man campaign to foment regime change in Iran. He wrote articles and briefs arguing that this was possible and should be a priority program, and he presented his arguments to anyone in Washington and Jerusalem who would listen to him. He fervently felt that Iran’s nuclear program and revolutionary ambitions threatened the entire world, and that the only way to stop the Ayatollahs was by supporting change from within Iran.

When the Green Revolution rocked the streets of Teheran and other major cities following the corrupt Iranian elections of 2009, Lubrani was joined by many other experts and officials who felt that an opportunity was at hand to reinforce the protestors and bring about an end to the regime of the Ayatollahs.

But Barack Obama, who was president of the US at that time, was deaf to the pleas of the Iranian protestors, and to free-Iran advocates like Lubrani. Instead, Obama already was secretly promising goodies to the Ayatollahs in exchange for a nuclear deal.

Lubrani was out of commission when the latest round of social-political protests rocked Iran beginning last December, but you could hear echoes of Lubrani in the ensuing public policy debates. Could this lead to regime change in Iran; should America and other important actors weigh-in with moral and perhaps material support for the protestors; or would such Western “interference” only delegitimize the protestors and ultimately backfire?

Sure enough, the usual suspects (mainly former Obama administration officials) argued that Washington should stand back and do no more than pray for the protestors. They noted that the Islamic republic’s apparatuses were vast and sturdy, the Iranian machine of oppression was well-oiled and brutal, and Teheran’s regional and international alliances were impressive and empowering – so the likelihood of overthrowing the regime was slim. Wishful thinking, at best. And anyway there was Obama’s signature “achievement” – the JCPOA nuclear agreement – to protect and defend.

Other analysts, however, noted a qualitative difference in the recent protests, and saw opportunities to weaken the regime. As opposed to economic and corruption protests of the past, this new round had a nationalist edge to it; meaning that the demonstrators were calling for a return to the Iran of before the Islamic revolution. “Stop investing in Syria, start investing in us,” “Clerics, go home, free the country,” and “Death to Khamenei, we want (Shah) Pahlavi” – were some of the protest slogans.

Consequently, notable Iran experts like (former CIA agent) Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and (former State Department official) Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations have argued that it is in America’s interest to see the Iranian regime’s internal conflicts intensify further.

Specifically, they see a worsening struggle developing between President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei which threatens the governing edifice of the Islamic Republic. The result of the factional fighting is paralysis at a time when the theocracy is facing popular disaffection, economic decline (with unemployment among young people at 40%), and imperial overstretch.

Gerecht and Takeyh argue that the US can help crack the regime. They say that President Trump should use his bully pulpit and economic sanctions aggressively to expose and punish the regime’s tyrannical behavior. Pushback against Tehran’s gains in Syria would help too, as would a tidal wave of sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards. “Iran is a volcano,” they assert. “We want it to erupt.”

The Trump administration has taken some advantage of the unrest to back up its portrayal of the Iranian government as a “rogue regime” and an “evil dictatorship” not supported by most Iranian people. The State Department used its Farsi-language Twitter and Facebook accounts to offer support for the protesters, despite warnings from Iran and other countries, such as Russia, not to get involved. And US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that “All freedom-loving people must stand with the cause (of the Iranian protestors).”

That’s a lot more support than the Iranian protestors got in the Obama era, but as far as I can tell, it remains merely rhetorical.

Speaking at the annual AIPAC conference this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu also sounded a note of support. “As we counter Iran’s aggression, we should always remember the brave people of Iran…. (including) students that are tortured and shot for advocating freedom. We stand with those in Iran who stand for freedom. I believe that a day will come when this horrible tyranny will disappear…and at that point, the historic friendship between the people of Israel and the people of Persia will be reestablished.”

Fine words and a fine sentiment. But again, might more be done to advance an Iranian counter-revolution? Uri Lubrani certainly thought so, and he was not naive.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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