How to Topple Iran's Ayatollahs

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Why, despite the growing danger posed by Iran's nuclear program, have the United States and other nations restricted themselves to negotiations, economic sanctions and electronic intrusions? None of those tactics has been particularly effective or produced enduring changes.

The main argument against military action is that it would set Iran's nuclear program back only a few years, and that Tehran would retaliate directly and via surrogates, drawing the U.S. into another unwinnable war. Many fear also that Iranians will rally behind their regime with nationalist fervor, dashing hope of regime change for decades and turning Iran's largely pro-Western population against the West once again, to the mullahs' great benefit.

These concerns are based on worst-case scenarios that assume Iran has the resources to rebuild quickly, to retaliate without being thwarted, and to get the average Iranian to rally behind a regime hated for its violent oppression of dissent, stifling social codes, economic failures and isolationist policies. Yet Iran's government is already weakened by very public infighting between its much disliked ruling factions.

We should not conclude that a nuclear Iran is inevitable. Instead we should think about another way of confronting the threat. The real goal of air strikes should be not only to target Iran's nuclear facilities but to cripple the ayatollahs' ability to protect themselves from popular overthrow.

The mass uprisings in 2009 - known as the Green Revolution - have dissipated because few protesters saw any hope of mustering the force necessary to defeat the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij paramilitary forces who brutally enforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's authority. Yet dissatisfaction and resentment still run deep across all social groups and economic ranks, even among civil-service bureaucrats, rank-and-file military men, and elected officials.

This means Western air strikes should hit other military production facilities and the bases of the IRGC and Basij. A foreign takedown of those enforcers would give Iran's population the opportunity to rise again. As a popular Tehrani female rapper notes: "No regime can hang on through intimidation and violence. We are ready and waiting. The regime thinks it has put out the fire. We are the burning coals under the ashes."

The IRGC's claims that it can retaliate significantly are largely bluster. The Iranian Navy's fast boats and midget submarines in the Persian Gulf could be eliminated through pinpoint strikes, as could army artillery batteries along the Strait of Hormuz-thereby removing any threat to the region's maritime trade, including crude oil shipments.

While the nuclear program may not be completely destroyed, sufficient damage will occur so even facilities deep underground would require several years of restoration. Most importantly, once the power of the Basij and the IRGC to enforce the regime's will upon the people has been seriously compromised, it would not be surprising to see large segments of Iran's population casting off the theocratic yoke.

The Libyan rebellion's successful ouster of a 42-year dictatorial elite is but one example of successful regime change. Another is the ongoing attempt by Syrians to end a nearly half-century dictatorship. A few months ago, few would have believed those revolutions would occur. Moreover, an Iranian uprising will be directed against Islamists, not by them. Were Iran's theocrats gravely weakened or swept away, Iran's sponsorship of terrorists and dictatorships would come to a halt-making groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and leaders like Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Il and Hugo Chávez more vulnerable.

A new Iranian nation would require economic aid and political guidance-from the U.S. and Europe-to develop representational governance. That would be a worthwhile investment. Crucially, even if a post-theocratic Iranian state gradually rebuilds its military and resumes its nuclear program, the weapons would not be in the hands of a regime so hostile to much of the world.

Regime change remains the best option for defusing the ayatollahs' nuclear threat, and it can best be achieved by the Iranian people themselves. Disabling the theocracy's machinery of repression would leave it vulnerable to popular revolt. Through such decisive actions, the U.S. and its allies could help Iranians bring the populist uprising of 2009 to a fitting culmination.

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