The Mullahs Are Their Own Worst Enemies

Iranian protester / Getty

Last January, six days after anti-government protests erupted across Iran, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs equated Iranian protesters with the regime forces arresting and killing them. "In the spirit of frankness and respect that is at the basis of our relationship," said Federica Mogherini, "we expect all concerned to refrain from violence and the right of expression to be guaranteed." Mogherini's statement was a slap in the face to the Iranian people, who were demonstrating against the regime that oppresses them so brutally.

It is painful to watch the remarkable lengths to which the EU will go to appease Iran. Sometimes these efforts are shameful, such as Mogherini's response to the protests, and sometimes they are embarrassing, such as when she dons hijabs in Iran. In recent months, the Europeans have tried another ill-advised form of appeasement, working to undermine American sanctions against Iran. The EU has tried to circumvent the penalties, even attempting to create new channels to facilitate payments between Iran and Europe.

So when the EU actually takes coercive action against Iran, the Islamic Republic must have done something so outrageous, so flagrant that even Brussels could not ignore it. Such was the case on Tuesday, when the EU imposed its first sanctions against Iran since the nuclear deal was implemented in January 2016. The new sanctions add Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and two senior Iranian officials to the EU's terror list over suspicions that they helped organize multiple assassination plots in Europe—specifically plots to bomb a rally of an Iranian opposition group in Paris last year, to kill an Iranian opposition leader in Denmark last year, and to murder two Iranian dissidents in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017.

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Iran had the Europeans in the palm of its hand, and could have continued to use Brussels' naivety and cowardice to its advantage in an attempt to isolate Washington diplomatically. But the ayatollahs could not help themselves—because of their paranoia, because of their twisted Islamist, anti-Western ideology. They had to attempt terrorist attacks and assassinations in Europe—not even the Middle East—to kill dissidents and others who speak out against their oppressive rule. Beyond their troubled psychology and ideology, Iran's leaders are clearly nervous about their regime's future. Otherwise, there would be no need to launch these plots.

Another new development helps illustrate the clerical regime's growing brittleness, as well as its leaders' palpable worries about an uncertain future.

On Sunday, in an unprecedented speech in parliament, an Iranian lawmaker said that Iran's foreign policy has "a lot of unnecessary costs" that can "leave us paralyzed on the streets of Tehran." Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi, a reformist politician, even cited the collapse of the former Soviet Union as a potential risk to the regime.

Iran's government does not have to go on imperialist adventures throughout the Middle East. Frankly, if it did not seek regional preeminence, the regime could probably enjoy dictatorial power at home, with the world little concerned about the Iranian people's terrible suffering. But the Islamic Republic's foreign policy is, at its core, based on ideology, which sees America and Israel as the great enemies.

As Jahanabadi noted, the Iranian people are fed up with the regime's aggressive foreign policy, which takes away much needed resources from domestic needs. There is a reason countless Iranians have been heard chanting for months "No to Gaza, no to Lebanon" and "Leave Syria and think of us."

The U.S. can exploit this unrest by seriously challenging Iran in the region, forcing it to invest more resources into various hotspots. In Syria, for example, Kenneth Pollack has written that "the Iranians are caught in a war that is more costly than they want to bear, but is too important for them to want to leave." Washington does not have to provide many dollars or soldiers—just the will to persevere and a commitment to allies—to make Iran struggle more to achieve its goals. This will further enrage the Iranian people and heighten internal pressure on the regime, which will have to choose between internal stability and foreign-policy goals.

There is evidence that this approach can work. Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heiman, head of the Israel Defense Forces' Intelligence Directorate, said last month that Iran is reducing its presence in Syria due to its unpopularity at home.

This approach, plus politically supporting certain opposition forces and imposing crippling sanctions, is how to push Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal, the Trump administration's apparent short-term goal—or how to bring down the regime altogether.

Iran can avoid this fate. It does not have to be a serial human rights violator within its own borders or wage unnecessary wars abroad. But the regime, an ideologically driven entity, cannot help itself. Iran's leaders blame Western culture and pressure, internal meddling and imperialism for their current troubles. That is wrong. To find the real culprits, they need to look in the mirror.