The Path to a New Iran: Rethinking Engagement
For over four decades, the Western stance towards Iran has too often been marked by a regrettable inclination towards appeasement. Despite Western leaders articulating strong objections to Iran’s human rights violations, terrorist financing, and nuclear brinkmanship, these pronouncements have rarely been matched by meaningful action. The political strategy has predominantly attempted to treat Iran’s ruling clerics as legitimate negotiators, with a naïve hope that concessions would spur a transformation of the theocratic despotism.
The current upheaval in the Middle East has roots in this sustained misjudgment.
On October 7, a deadly war broke out between Israel and Hamas, incited by a calculated attack by Hamas militants which resulted in around 1,200 Israeli casualties and after three months of fighting in Gaza, 20,000 Palestinians dead, mostly women and children. Prior to this confrontation, Islamic extremist factions increasingly turned to Tehran, which significantly bolstered their military capabilities.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, infamous for fomenting terrorism in the region, has been instrumental in extending Iran’s influence through proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah, a key faction in the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” is frequently touted by Iran as a tool for Israel’s destruction. Intensifying border clashes to the north of Israel, aggressive actions against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, and strikes against American forces in Iraq and Syria—all conducted by Iranian surrogates—highlight the growing danger of an uncontrolled escalation. This peril escalates as the United States and its allies persist in their reluctance to apply comprehensive pressure on the Iranian regime, which stands at the heart of myriad threats to the region’s stability.
While the prospect of intervention may be daunting, conjuring fears of another drawn-out conflict in the Middle East, my military experience offers a nuanced appreciation for the potency of deterrence. It also emphasizes the essential goal of eschewing war whenever it is feasible.
For those wary of Iran’s regional infringements yet anxious about the prospects of war, it’s essential to recognize that there are other strategies to constrain Tehran’s ambitions. The past years have revealed increasing opportunities as internal discord and crises have emerged within Iran’s political structure. The September 2022 national uprising laid bare the widespread repudiation of theocracy by Iranians, who collectively envisage a secular, democratic republic—a stark departure from past and present dictatorships.
The protests that unfurled in late 2022 and into 2023 represent a pivotal defiance of the Iranian regime since its inception in 1979. The ensuing regional turmoil underscores the regime’s dependency on external conflicts and power projection to maintain control, suggesting that turmoil and instability will persist so long as its dominion survives.
Following the most recent uprising, the regime has found itself off-balance, providing a pivotal moment for Iranians to reignite their campaign for change, should the global community elect to support them decisively. This means enforcing tougher sanctions, restricting Iranian oil revenues, severing the financial lifelines to Iran’s regional surrogates, and, most importantly, offering unwavering moral and political backing for the Iranian people’s quest for regime change. This support from the West must be vocal, unified, and steadfast, sending a clear message that will resonate with both the Ayatollah and the Iranian citizenry.