Turning Iran's Political Warfare
Remarks by Christian Whiton
Iranian American Community of Northern California
Capitol Hilton, Washington
November 19, 2011
Thank you Congressman Kennedy for that introduction. It’s an honor to be here with such distinguished company—Governor Dean, Secretary Ridge, General Keane, Mr. Ben-Veniste, Mr. Dershowitz, and Ambassador Joseph—to discuss one of the most serious threats facing the United States today: the government of Iran and its proxies.
It has certainly been a busy couple of months for the tyrants who govern Iran today.
Last week, the IAEA reported that Tehran has continued to work on a nuclear weapons program. The findings were unambiguous. It reflected a dramatic turn for the IAEA, after which no one can credibly deny Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
A month earlier, on October 11, the U.S. disclosed a plot by agents of the Iranian government to kill the Saudi ambassador here. The plot involved hiring operatives of Mexican drug cartels—actually undercover U.S. agents—to kill the ambassador at a Washington restaurant, possibly to include the collateral deaths of congressmen and other notables.
These activities came as no surprise to those of you who are gathered here. More than thirty years after the revolution that opened its path to power, the Tehran regime continues to use terrorists as instruments of national policy. It has been tireless in seeking to expand its reach and influence abroad. And it continues to be the primary adversary of freedom in the Middle East.
Tehran has also been particularly effective at waging political warfare—and that is where I will focus my remarks.
Political warfare can be defined as the spectrum of national power tools that falls between diplomacy and outright war. The idea is to get the political outcome a government wants to achieve somewhere beyond its borders—and to do so using means more effective than just talking to diplomats, but less costly than war. It can involve financial, cultural, military-related, intelligence-related, and information-related activities.
Tehran understands this and has been utilizing political warfare more or less since the inception of the Islamic Republic. As the main nation-state progenitor of the Islamist ideology, the Iranian government is interested in the export of Islamism and also in supporting governments that are friendly to its many ambitions.
I think this is an important element to grasp for policymakers in the United States. By necessity, analysts here have focused much attention to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. This is obviously an issue of extreme concern. It is also a national security challenge which neither this administration in the White House, nor its predecessor has successfully addressed.
However I believe, from the perspective of U.S. security, the greatest likely threat is not in a possible Iranian first strike or the proliferation of a nuclear weapon to a terrorist network—either of which could be suicidal for Tehran—but in the added impunity a nuclear arsenal could provide the regime to engage in the subversion activities at which it is so adept.
Unfortunately for us, a nuclear breakout would be a windfall the Tehran regime at a time when it should otherwise be feeling particularly insecure about its future.
Outside of Iran, Arab Spring shows the limited appeal of clerical rule as practiced inside the Islamic Republic. It has again exposed the lie that residents of the Middle East do not desire freedom and accountable government in the same way we do in the West. It should again signal to policymakers in Washington and allied capitals that in the Middle East, there is not just a choice between dictators and strong men on the one hand, and the Islamists on the other. In fact, there is a wide body of reformers—liberals, moderates, call them what you like—that wants what we want and constitutes a more liberal alternative to what has prevailed in so many parts of the Middle East.
And then there is the Green Movement inside Iran, which as you know represents a new and broader level of intensity in the opposition to the government. Together, these constitute building blocks that could roll back Tehran’s reach and promote the decay of the regime from within. History has now provided an opportunity to take friends away from the Iranian government abroad and expedite its decline at home.
So it would be sadly ironic if, at a time when the Iranian government should be fearing for its longevity, a nuclear breakout were to give the regime a new lease on life and allow it to do more of what it already does—but with added impunity.
We have seen a preview of this already. As I have said, Tehran is adept at political warfare. Through various means, Tehran, its proxies and its allies have managed to use political transitions and what some saw as the dawning of democracy to undermine democracy. Recent examples include governments compromised by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, and the Sadr bloc and its fellow travelers in Iraq. In each case, Tehran has done yeoman’s work in using democracy to poison democracy.
And that won’t be the end—especially if a nuclear Iran intimidates our allies and perceives a new lease on life at home. We should reasonably expect Tehran to attempt repeat performances as other political transformations occur. Seminal elections are on the horizon in Egypt and Libya, and recently took place in Tunisia. The battle between reformers and Islamists in the Middle East may be the major political feature of this decade.
My suggestion is that free nations fight back. We should counter political warfare with political warfare. We should push back on Tehran, using peaceful means, in order to advance our national interest in expediting the internal decay of the regime, as well as helping those in Iran who share our values and our desire for a civilized order.
This is something at which the U.S. used to excel. During the Cold War, we helped indigenous political movements and indigenous voices appeal to their countrymen to defend freedom or to free captive nations. The bad guys were helping their friends, so American presidents of both parties thought it was important that we help ours. Perhaps the most active in this were the Democratic president at the beginning of the Cold War, Harry Truman, and the Republican president near the end, Ronald Reagan.
What would a peaceful political warfare program against the current Iranian government include? Some features might be:
First, we could help dissidents inside Iran and free Iranians outside of Iran with communications tools and other resources that are critical to any political movement. We can also link them with others who have dealt with political organization in repressive situations before—especially those who did this in Central Europe in the 1970s and 80s.
Second, we could apply stronger financial actions against banks and other companies that do business with the regime, including the likely fatal blow of fencing the banks off from dollar-denominated transactions. Actions like this put a major crimp in the money operations of the North Korean government in the last decade—before the measures were unfortunately traded away for nothing.
Third, we could make the disruption of telecommunications work for those seeking freedom rather than those working against it. It is almost certain that Tehran has employed cyber warfare, including assaults on tools like Twitter. The free world could return the favor by identifying and empowering the friendlies who can turn activities like this back on the regime—especially at moments of democratic opportunity when political turbulence emerges.
Fourth, let’s take similar nonviolent steps to help the Syrian opposition, in close coordination with our Turkish and Jordanian allies. A free Syria would deny Tehran of its best ally and deeply impair its communications with Hezbollah and other regional Islamists.
Fifth, while the main point of political warfare is that it is not real warfare—it’s nonviolent—it is nonetheless either augmented or undermined by military posturing. Tehran is pleased that U.S. forces will depart neighboring Iraq by the end of the year. We should look for ways to offset this loss of capability so that Tehran is no better off.
I should note that we lack the capabilities to do much of this today. Tools like the U.S. Information Agency are long gone. Our intelligence agencies are long out of the business of concerning themselves much with foreign political outcomes—or influencing those outcomes. (The CIA seems on its way to becoming a second Air Force.) Our taxpayer-funded tools originally meant to spread liberal ideals and governance—like the National Endowment for Democracy—do precious little to support front line dissidents.
But especially as the efforts of the current and past U.S. administration to talk Iran out of its nuclear program founder, and amid the inspiring demand for freedom on display across the Middle East, we have an opportunity to reconsider our approach and improve our policy. As Winston Churchill once reportedly remarked, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”
Thank you for having me here today.