It was flattering to read Edward Luttwak’s piece in the Wall Street Journal (February 27, 2007) titled Persian Shrug. In the opinion piece Luttwak repeated this writer’s argument, expressed a year ago on the pages of the Philadelphia Bulletin that U.S. strategy with regard to Iran must involve the various ethnic minorities in Iran that account for almost 50 percent of the population.
The idea of utilizing the Iranian ethnic minorities to topple the Iranian theocratic regime developed in my mind last year during the Intelligence Summit in Alexandria, VA, where I discussed the idea of mobilizing the non-Persian ethnics with exiled Iranian ex-patriots. I then offered the idea to Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (Ret. Deputy Chief of USAF) one of the keynote presenters dealing with Iran.
The minority non-Persian ethnic groups have little love lost for the theocratic regime in Tehran. The Kurds in northwestern Iran adjacent to Iraqi Kurdistan comprise 7 percent of the Iranian population. The Kurds have had previous insurrections against Tehran and now, with their ethnic brothers in Iraqi Kurdistan enjoying virtual independence, the urge for autonomy is greater than ever.
But it is not only the Kurds who are resentful of the Persians “cultural imperialism.” The Arabs (many of them Sunni Muslims) have been in open rebellion against the Shiite regime. Based in the oil rich province of Khuzestan in the Gulf region of Iran, the Arabs account for 3 percent of the population, generating 100 percent hatred for the ayatollahs, who have been practicing ethnic cleansing in the region by displacing Arabs with ethnic Persians.
The Baluch (2 percent of Iran’s population) in Iranian Baluchistan represent another ethnic group with long and simmering grievances towards Tehran. Located in Southeastern Iran, the Baluch have more in common with their Baluch brothers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, than with the Iranian regime. They too seek cultural autonomy and dream of a free Baluchistan that would incorporate all Baluchis.
Turkman Sunni Muslims (2 percent of the population) are another disaffected group in Iran.
And then of course there are the Azeris who count for 24 percent of Iran’s people. They speak a Turkic language and strive for an Azeri nation that would join them with their brothers and sisters in neighboring Azerbaijan- a country that not only speaks their language but is freer, more secular, and growing ever more prosperous.
I pointed out to Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney that his idea of military action against Iran to destroy its capacity to weaponize its potential nuclear arsenal must coincide with an effort to remove the current Tehran regime. To eliminate the regime, I reasoned, the U.S. and its allies must use the non-Persian ethnic minorities as a weapon against the mullahs.
Gen. McInerney to his credit understood that military action must be carried out simultaneous with regime change. He asserted, moreover, that with a fatwa by a leading mullah, which declared the use of nuclear weapons against the West permissible, the Iranian regime had crossed the Rubicon. He accepted the premise of using the disaffected minorities as a weapon. Whether the Bush administration has given weighted consideration to this idea is still unclear.
Aside from minority grievances in Iran, the extremism of the Iranian theocracy and the treatment of its own people has created deep internal divisions. Students, women, and liberal thinkers and writers are harassed and imprisoned. The Iranian economy is in shambles. In spite of Iran being an oil exporting nation it has to import gas from Turkey, and, with an inflation rate of 30 percent a year and unemployment at over 20 percent, life has become much more difficult for the average Iranian.
Religious persecution of non-Shiites in Iran is the least talked about story out of Iran. The Jewish community, or what is left of an ancient and once-thriving society, is held hostage by the regime. The Bahais fled Iran following their bloody persecution. Bahai temples can now be found in suburban Chicago and in Haifa, Israel, but are absent in Iran. Zoroastrians, too, have been persecuted, as well as Christians. In more recent years the ayatollahs have dealt harshly with the Muslim Sufi movement as well. The most striking fact however, is the presence of more than a million Sunni Muslims in Tehran without a single Sunni mosque. Both the “Big Satan” America and the “Little Satan” Israel have numerous Sunni mosques, while Shiite Muslim Tehran has none.
Even among the ruling elite, a so-called anti-fascist front has begun to emerge. According to Ray Takeyh, author of Inside Iran-Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, a younger generation of activists led by reformers such as Muhammad Reza Khatami, the brother of the former president of Iran, and Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, a former mayor of Tehran and a protégé of former Iranian president Rafsanjani, oppose the current regime’s extremism. They, too, are seeking change.
These two, and other like-minded liberal and pragmatic thinkers and activists, are seeking to restore the original draft of the Islamic Republics constitution, which calls for the separation of powers, a strong presidency, and defined responsibilities for the elected institutions. They seek to reclaim the early promises of the Iranian revolution and bring democracy to the people of Iran and, to relegate the Supreme ruler (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) to matters of faith.
A much better alternative to bombing Iran as Lt. General McInerney advocates, is to consider bringing down the regime from within. As Edward Luttwak suggests, instead of seeking a “détente with the repulsive regime…it is to be true to the Wilsonian tradition of American foreign policy by encouraging the forces of national liberation within Iran.”
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