A former CIA agent who worked undercover as a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps for more than 10 years came out of the cold on Wednesday with a rousing call for the United States to support regime change in Iran.
Reza Kahlili appropriately made his first public appearance at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., after publishing “Time to Betray,” a memoir of his years working undercover for the CIA inside revolutionary Iran. He will address a Beltway think tank on Friday.
Even though he left Iran nearly 15 years ago, Kahlili still fears for the safety of his extended family in Iran and so appeared in public wearing a surgical mask, sunglasses and a baseball cap, and disguised his voice by using a speech modulator.
For many years he kept his secret life to himself. “I didn’t even tell my wife,” he admitted.
But now, he feels, the world is hurtling toward a devastating war with Iran unless the United States wakes up and radically changes its policy.
“The reason I wrote this book was out of frustration that even to this day, we are trying to negotiate with this regime, instead of helping the Iranians with their aspirations of freedom and democracy,” he said.
The United States continues to make the mistake that it can change the behavior of the Iranian regime through economic pressure.
“Three decades of getting something wrong is enough to realize that a change of behavior is not going to happen,” Kahlili said. “That behavior has been the result of us not realizing the philosophy of the clerical establishment, the Islamic fanatics who’ve been ruling Iran from day one. Every U.S. administration has fallen for that. They’ve thought there could be a change of behavior, and therefore they engaged in back-channel negotiations, some of them shamefully.
“I want to tell you today that any kind of hope for change of behavior is a fantasy. It’s an illusion. And it’s not going to happen. So it’s time to put an end to that.”
For 30 years, successive U.S. administrations have sought an accommodation with the Iranian regime. Because of that, “today we are heading for war,” Kahlili believes.
“The last choice we have right now is to come out of our shells and vocally support the Iranians and their aspirations for freedom. Cut all diplomatic ties with the Iranian regime; the European allies should do that. Cut all shipping lines, air space, put extreme pressure on the regime.”
Such moves will create “cracks” within the ruling elite and prompt top level officials to flee the country, paving the way for a popular uprising, Kahlili believes.
“Regime change is the only solution for the stability of the Middle East, for the future of the world, a better future. To think that we can contain these people and deter them once they obtain a nuclear bomb is another fantasy that is going to blow up in our face.”
Michael Ledeen, who has written several books about Iran and is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed that U.S. support for regime change is “a moral and strategic obligation.”
It is also “as American as apple pie,” Ledeen argued.
“America is the only truly revolutionary country in the world, and most people in the world who are living under tyranny know that and look to us for support,” he said.
U.S. support for pro-democracy forces inside Iran does not require a military intervention or covert support for the opposition.
When Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” he wasn’t engaging in a huge covert operation but giving a speech, Ledeen said.
“If the president of the United States stood up tomorrow and said, 'We stand with the Iranian people, we condemn these horrible violations of all principles of human rights – from women, to dissidents, to freedom of religion, to freedom of speech,' it would have an electrifying effect in Iran. And [President Barack Obama] is better placed than most presidents [to do that] because he’s gone all out to try to show that if you just talk nicely to them and have this conversation, you can work it out peacefully.”
Ledeen pointed to the public frenzy exhibited by the Iranian officials in recent days as reports surfaced that foreign oil companies were refusing to refuel Iran Air civilian airliners in Europe.
On Tuesday, the regime announced huge tax increases on Iranian businesses, only to rescind them by the evening because the Tehran bazaar went on strike.
“What kind of message does that send?” Ledeen said. “It shows a regime that is weak and in disarray.”
Kahlili warned that the consequences of misunderstanding the ideology of Iran’s clerical rulers could be disastrous.
“The ruling clerics, the fanatics right now in power, truly believe in the return of the last Messiah, the Shiites’ 12th imam, the imam Mahdi,” he said.
“This is not a joke. This is not a story. This is not something in comic books. They are counting the days for the reappearance.”
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both believe that their actions can hasten the return of the 12th imam.
“They believe that if they detonate nuclear bombs over Israel and the Persian Gulf, bringing horror and a breakdown in the global economy, this will result in the Imam Mahdi coming out of a whale riding a white horse, killing the rest of us,” Kahlili said.
“Our problem is that we are trying to evaluate Iran and its leaders for the past thirty years through a rational mind, because we are used to rationality here.”
Western leaders think they can find economic pressure points and incentives that will compel the Iranian regime to change its behavior, even though this approach has failed time and time again, he said.
“Our problem is that we cannot think outside the box.”
If Iran’s Islamic leaders are allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, “they will take the whole world hostage,” Kahlili warned.
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