Can Sanctions Bring Down The Mullahs?

Why Marxist thinking won't bring down a murderous tyranny.

Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

I don’t believe that sanctions are good enough, although, as I have said, the Iranian regime is so hollow it could crash at any time. At my advanced age, I still don’t believe I have seen an oppressive regime fall because life in its land had become unbearable. 

Look around the world, and pick your favorite failed dictatorship.  My short list runs from Pyongyang to Caracas, via Tehran and Havana. They are all under sanctions.  Their people are miserable, and detest the regime.  In some places, there are demonstrations, even huge ones. Yet, from North Korea to Venezuela, the regime isn’t headed for the exits.  It cracks down.  In some places, such as Venezuela and Iran, the people continue to demonstrate and call for regime change.  In others, like Cuba and Iran, there is bitter silence.  Yet the oppressive regimes impose their will.

In the modern world there are no end of uprisings and attempted revolutions, most all of which fail.  The most recent batch constituted the “Arab Spring,” which did indeed produce the downfall of a handful of dictators, but not the democratic revolution so many believed was under way.  Now we see wobbly Latin American dictators—Ortega, Maduro—but no revolution.  Indeed, in the old Soviet Empire, leaders like Orban are openly advocating anti-liberal and even anti-democratic alternatives to the Western model. 

So what does it take to produce serious, successful, viable regime change? 

I believe that regime change is a political event caused by political passion, not economic misery.  Those of us who studied the French, American and Russian revolutions were taught that the revolutions broke out when the economy was improving.  The same may be said for fascism and Naziism

President Trump, along with many pundits and top advisers, seem to have embraced the notion, dear to the hearts of pidgin Marxists everywhere, that a failed economy produces either a change in tyrannical behavior or the downfall of the regime itself.  It’s an easy model to adopt, as its popularity amply demonstrates, but it’s clearly wrong.  If it were true, North Korea would be in the midst of revolution and/or radical policy change.  Which it isn’t.  As for Iran, the economy—indeed, the whole regime—is a near-total ruin, and hundreds of thousands of protesters fill the streets, but the regime simply ups the human ante.  Under Rouhani, the tempo of (officially acknowledged) executions is up by fifty percent (and the real figure is surely higher).

The ruling class seems not to believe its heavenly blessed domination has ended.  There is still an intense internal struggle for the profits and perquisites of power,  from kickbacks and payoffs to luxury homes and foreign travel.  We will be able to smell their doom when and if it comes;  they will defect to the opposition or flee the country.  Perhaps that is under way, but it isn’t manifest, as it was when the Soviet nomenklatura bailed out on Gorbachev’s mess.  Don’t forget that Gorbachev’s mess was nothing compared to the current Iranian disaster.  The ruling elites became convinced that Gorbachev was not up to save Communism, while the Iranian elites still think they can win.

As for the Iranian people, in whose hands the destiny of the Islamic Republic lies, they have long believed that nothing of consequence happens in the world without the connivance of the “real” forces, which in their minds means Russia, the United States, and Great Britain, in the incarnations of the KGB and Putin, the CIA and Trump, MI6 and the Queen.  The Iranians generally believe that the Brits and the Russians side with the regime.  They are encouraged by Trump, but they are put off by Trump and Pompeo’s denial they are working for regime change.  If the Americans are really on the side of the demonstrators, they think, they MUST be for regime change.

The pessimism about Trump was broadly reinforced when he proclaimed his willingness to meet with Rouhani and talk things over.  If you’re an Iranian risking your life in the streets, the only thing to discuss is the date of the end of the Islamic Republic.  Trump’s openness to talks with the regime is not what they want to hear.  They want echoes of their own “death to the dictator” coming from the Oval Office.  They haven’t heard that.

It follows that we are not doing all that we should if we want an end to the Iranian tyranny.  If we’re going to stick with purely economic measures, we will certainly increase the misery of the Iranian people, but we will not encourage the political passions that are required to bring down a murderous tyranny.  And that requires support for the dissidents, better broadcasting, and more aggressive rhetoric.  The first step is to talk directly to them, which, so far, we’re not doing.