“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
– Foundation, Isaac Asimov
Although I am not a part of the Iranian diaspora, I have seen many similarities between its history and that of a diaspora I am part of – Cuban exiles. My grandmother, aunt, and mother were born in Cuba and fled its communist government for a better life in America. Like many other Cuban exiles they hate Fidel Castro, and want few things more than to bring his regime down. How precisely to do this, however, is a point of contention – my mother favors diplomatic relations with Cuba and expanding socioeconomic exchanges to foster demand for reform. On the other hand, my grandmother and aunt oppose engagement with the regime on the grounds that dialogue would legitimize it.
During the 1960s, there used to be serious discussion of a third policy – sparking a counterrevolution against Castro. Such talk did not seem completely unrealistic at the time: Castro was still fighting anti-communist guerillas, had alienated commercial interests with his nationalization policies, and there were several Cuban groups that wanted to overthrow him. The US agreed to provide logistical support for one of these groups, Brigade 2506, to overthrow the communists. This culminated in the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961; Brigade 2506 attempted for three days to seize the port town Bay of Pigs, but were routed by Castro. They had severely underestimated local support for Castro, and were repelled by communist militias in the area. The attack backfired in the worst ways possible: Castro proved that he could hold Cuba, framed his opponents as American puppets, and garnered domestic and international support. Although the US held military sway in the rest of Latin America, Cuba has remained a thorn in its side even after the collapse of communism in the rest of the world.
The aftermath of the 1979 Revolution in Iran bore many similarities to the aftermath of Castro’s takeover. Tens of thousands of Iranians fled abroad, including royalist military officials that wanted to reinstate the Shah, and Marxists targeted by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The main leaders of these factions were general Bahram Aryana, founder of the monarchist militant group Azadegan, and Massoud Rajavi, founder of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). At the peak of their activities, the royalists had members stationed in Turkey and Iran itself and even managed to seize an Iranian naval ship in 1981. Alas, their plans never bore fruit – the death of prominent leaders, often in assassinations organized by the Ayatollah, threw them into disarray. Meanwhile, the MEK organized many reckless bombings against the Ayatollah and allied with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, which rallied Iranians to the new regime and against the MEK. Although there was no one incident like the Bay of Pigs that decisively discredited the militants, Khomeini’s accumulated victories against the exiles gave his regime new life and dispirited its opponents.
The parallels between Iran and Cuba clearly show that exiles trying to bring change in their respective homelands cannot place all their hopes on military adventurism. In fact, adventurism is generally counterproductive: In both Iran and Cuba, attacks by outside actors focused the new regimes, gave them purpose when they were struggling to define themselves, and rallied the general populace to them. Furthermore, using violence against a government often gives it license to use violence back. Ayatollah Khomeini framed his activities against dissidents abroad as defense against royalist sedition, even in cases where the activists were nonviolent and not loyal to the Shah. Even if counterrevolutionaries briefly take territory as Brigade 2506 did, they seldom possess the resources to hold it. Of course, they can seek foreign assistance towards this end, as 2506 did with the US, but this can and will be used to discredit their legitimacy.
The disastrous ends of militant exiles make clear that America should encourage change in Iran, Cuba and other post-revolutionary states diplomatically. Direct offensives invariably let brutal dictators paint themselves as victims of foreign aggression. First generation Cuban exiles like my grandmother and older Iranians tried hardline policies against the new regimes, and then isolation. Decades after both the Cuban and Iranian revolutions, this has plainly failed to bring change in both countries. By contrast, diplomacy and other direct exchanges spread new ideas and demand for reform, putting autocrats like the Castro brothers and Ayatollah Khamenei on the defensive against their own people. In countries that have been consistently failed by revolution, nonviolent evolution offers a sustainable path to a free society.