Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy has been defined by an ideology promoting revolution, designed to transform the Middle East. Under its Islamist regime, Iran has fought America, Israel, and much of the Arab world, in opposition to the national interests of Iran and the Iranian people. The Islamic Republic may be dominant in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but Iran, itself, has been devastated by decades of policies that have led to its international isolation, and economic and ecological collapse.
Under sanctions because of the regime’s behavior, Iran is unable to update its energy industry or even sell much of its oil. It is also experiencing water and food shortages, despite being, potentially, one of the richest countries on earth. While Iranians go thirsty and hungry, Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime has spent billions of dollars on wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, that don’t serve the national interests of the Iranian people.
However, Iranians are not destined to live under an expansionist revolutionary regime. For more than one year, the people have come into the streets to demand an end to the Islamic Republic’s costly involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and beyond, shouting, “My life is for Iran, not for Syria and Lebanon.” Another popular slogan is, “The real enemy is here (in Iran), they lie when they say it’s America.”
The nationwide campaign of civil disobedience holds much promise, especially if it receives global support, as the anti-Maduro movement has in Venezuela.
For Iranians are no longer eager to accept false reforms or superficial diplomatic engagement that prolongs the regime; they are demanding the end of a political system which actively works against their interests.
Facing deep popular dissatisfaction and an economic implosion, the regime’s elite, including members of the Khomeini and Rafsanjani clans, increasingly speak of the regime’s collapse and overthrow by the Iranian people. In anticipation, many of the elite have moved their wealth and families abroad.
The freeing of Iran from the Islamic Republic’s grasp could not only lead to the revival of Iran as a successful nation, but could also dramatically transform relations with the US, Israel, and much of the Arab world.
In order to succeed, Iran must shed its revolutionary ideology and pursue policies that prioritize economic growth, foreign investment, environmental preservation, and peace with neighbors, coupled with a truly defensive foreign policy.
A free and democratic Iran would not benefit by continuing its dangerous enmity with several nations, including Israel, where both countries can cooperate in areas that are mutually beneficial to them, such as resolving Iran’s water crisis and combatting extremism.
First and foremost, a free Iran should abandon its support for sectarian revolutionary groups, such as Hezbollah. The Lebanese group is an extension of the Islamic Republic in the Levant. If Iranians are to free Iran from Khamenei, they must also free themselves from the regime’s tentacles across the region.
A free Iran would have little use for the Assad regime or Shiite militias that dominate Iraq, or violent Palestinian groups, such as Hamas.
Iran’s abandonment of its revolutionary ideology and regional proxies could dramatically improve relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
Iranians and Arabs have been rivals for a millennia, but the present dangerous rivalry between the two peoples is largely due to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary agenda.
Iranian-Arab relations should be defined by open markets, trade, investment, and cooperation in saving the region from economic devastation. But that doesn’t mean that Iran would become weak and defenseless. As Iran grows economically, it will have to naturally rebuild its dilapidated conventional military force and replace equipment purchased from the US in the 1960s and 1970s.
However, it makes little sense for Iran to pursue weapons of mass destruction in the absence of a credible threat; the nuclear program has cost Iranians hundreds of billions of dollars, much of it due to sanctions and Iran’s international isolation.
Iran will always be a major power in the Middle East; its history, size, and economic potential make it destined to be a key regional and, perhaps, global player.
Iran and its neighbors don’t have to agree on everything; but cooperation and competition must be pursued peacefully in promotion of the welfare of Iranians. Only freedom from the Islamic Republic can make a peaceful and prosperous Iran a reality.
Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington. He tweets @AlirezaNader.