McCain's Mistake

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

The regime in Iran isn't about to fall.

As Barack Obama goes through one of his most difficult periods as president, you might wonder what it would have been like if the other guy had won. We will never know, of course, but in one area, John McCain provides us with some clues. He would have tried to overthrow the government of Iran. In a speech on June 10, later published as a cover essay in The New Republic, McCain urged that we "unleash America's full moral power" to topple the Tehran regime. The speech highlights one of the crucial failings of McCain's world view, one in which rhetoric replaces analysis, and fantasy substitutes for foreign policy.

By now, it's become something of a mantra among neoconservatives that we missed a chance to transform Iran a year ago. Reuel Marc Gerecht, writing in The New York Times, compares Iran's Green Movement to "what transpired behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s" and accuses Obama of being passive in the face of this historical moment. Bret Stephens, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, imagines that a more forceful Western response could have set off a revolution.

I have been deeply supportive of Iran's Green Movement. I wrote glowingly about it, highlighted it on television, and showcased its advocates. But I do not think there is much evidence that it was likely to overthrow the Iranian regime. To believe that, one has to believe the government in Tehran is deeply unpopular with a majority of Iranians, holds onto power through military force alone, and is thus vulnerable to a movement that could mobilize the vast majority in Iran who despise it. None of this is entirely true.

The Iranian regime has many, many opponents, but it also has millions of supporters. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have actually lost the presidential election of 2009, but it was a close contest in which he got millions of votes. What little polling has been done in Iran, coupled with the observations of people who have been there, all suggest that the regime has considerable public support in rural areas, among the devout, and in poorer communities. NEWSWEEK's Maziar Bahari, who was jailed by the government for four months on trumped-up charges, believes that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the single most popular political figure in Iran. …