What Iran needs is a Saddam Hussein.
Or at least it needs the sort of leader antiwar liberals claimed Saddam Hussein represented. Unlike the secular Saddam, Iran's president is a religious whack job. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes that the Holocaust was a myth and that Israel needs to be "wiped off the map," and - it is widely rumored - he belongs to a sect that believes in fomenting chaos and violence in order to hasten the arrival of the End Times.
None of this would be a big deal if Ahmadinejad were the president of Belize or if he were a toll booth attendant on the New Jersey Turnpike or both. The problem is that he runs a country which everyone acknowledges is fast on its way to getting nuclear weapons, exports more terror than pistachios, sits on top of vast oil wealth, and resides at the crossroads of Islamic terror.
More important, Ahmadinejad isn't alone. He is merely the head of an entire regime that, to one extent or another, buys into his nuttier-than-a-Snickers-bar ideology.
And he's solidifying power. In the last year, Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who have the final say on everything in Iran have purged reformers, "moderates" and realists from various government and diplomatic posts. Scores of Iranian ambassadors have been recalled and replaced with pliable drones or ideologues.
Now, according to many opponents of the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein was a pragmatist and a realist. He understood where his interests were and could be "contained" in his "box" through sanctions and military pressure. He wasn't a "good guy," countless liberals argued, but he could be counted on to act in the interests of self-preservation.
This analysis was eminently wrong, but the underlying principle of the argument was perfectly valid. Indeed, this was a core insight of Cold War realists and neoconservatives alike who advocated a double standard for friendly - or at least manageable - dictatorships that stayed out of the Soviet orbit. The left, on the other hand, argued that democracy should be the goal everywhere, and that America sullied itself by working with dictatorships.
In recent years a massive intellectual switcheroo has taken place, whereby the right now champions exporting democracy and the left sees folly in such ideological crusades. I realize this is a pretty oversimplified treatment of a complex argument, but it will do for our purposes.
The problem with Iran today is that its regime is closer to the Soviet-totalitarian model than the mere dictatorial or authoritarian which antiwar liberals saw in Saddam. Ahmadinejad and the mullahs are trying to ban Western music (even though "Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs" would be an awesome name for a rock band), control the Internet, and terrify the populace into agreeing with their radical version of Islam (executions are surging). The regime seeks to export terror and the ideology that sanctions it around the region. In other words, even though Ahmadinejad is particularly bad, the regime would still stink if he were to have an "accident."
Conventional wisdom holds that there are really only two options for dealing with Iran: military strikes (by us or Israel) or the usual bundle of conferences, ineffective sanctions and windy UN speeches that lead to nothing. Oh, and Iran could be barred from the World Cup soccer tournament. By all means, let's pin our hopes on that.
But there is a third option that, alas, has become less and less likely in recent years: regime change from within. Pro-democracy - or at least anti-mullah - sentiment has been building in Iran for over a decade. In recent years there have been huge protests against the regime. Soccer stadiums full of Iranians have chanted "USA! USA!" In 2004, polls of various sorts indicated that anti-regime attitudes were held by up to nine out of 10 Iranians.
Iranians are a proud, nationalistic people and would probably rally around their government - or any government - were it threatened from without. That's one reason Ahmadinejad has been rattling his sabers so much lately: It's an attempt to bolster his unpopular regime.
A coup by sophisticated and serious members of the military would be great news. Even better would be a popular uprising. And best of all would be a combination of the two. An Iran with an old-style military dictatorship charged with defending democratic institutions would be an enormous, epochal victory for the West and for the Middle East. That would go a long way toward guaranteeing success in Iraq and would neutralize the threat of the Iran's nuclear ambitions, even if they decided to pursue a bomb. After all, the argument about nuclear weapons is no different than the argument about guns. The threat is from the people who have them, not from the weapons themselves. Lots of countries have nukes; we only need to worry about the ones run by whack jobs.
Alas, while there's reason to believe the White House shares this view in theory, there's less reason to believe it's doing that much about it in practice.