Could the next Muslim majority country to make peace with Israel turn out to be — wait for it — Iran? “I believe it will happen, and soon,” says Abdol Hamid Maasoumi Tehrani. It sounds farfetched, and even Mr. Tehrani acknowledges that it would be possible only after the ruling mullahs are ousted and their ideology replaced with a secular and democratic government.
He’s far from alone, though. Just last week a group of Iranians sent an eye-popping “open letter” to President Biden, demanding he maintain “maximum political, diplomatic, and financial pressure on the regime,” advocate human rights and release of prisoners, and “support Iranians’ determination in seeking a secular democratic government through a non-violent, free, and fair referendum.”
The 38 letter writers include activists, prisoners, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, a poet, film maker, teachers, students and a dentist. They claim to represent a cross-section of Iranians “demanding the resignation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (under the Islamic Republic Theocratic Constitution) and the elimination of the Islamic Republic Constitution in favor of a non-violent transition to a Secular Democratic Constitution.”
In other words, regime change.
Mr. Tehrani, a defrocked Ayatollah, wasn’t among the letter’s signatories. He’s unaffiliated with any opposition group, but he, too, told me Iran needs “a democratic government. One that respects not only one sect. All people should have freedom of speech.”
Decades earlier, when Ali Khamenei replaced Rohollah Khomeini in 1986, Mr. Tehrani predicted the new Supreme leader would be a “disaster” for Iran — and for Islam. For that prediction he was jailed for five years and stripped of his religious honorific. A lifetime of arrests and other punishment followed.
A fighter for minority rights, Mr. Tehrani now increasingly advocates ending Iran’s tendency to “invent enemies where none exist.” Following an interview in January with a veteran Israeli farsi broadcaster, Menashe Amir, Mr. Tehrani went on Israel’s top television station, Channel 12, and had a hearty chat about his desire for peace with the Jewish state.
Speaking to an Israeli audience is quite an affront to a regime that paints the Star of David and Old Glory on sidewalks for people to tread on. Mr. Tehrani told me he never hid his views, even when facing regime jailers. “I always said to my interrogators that Iran should have no problem with Israel, or any other country for that matter.”
Absent credible polling, it’s difficult to quantify the popularity of that idea. Do Iranians really hate Israel and America, after decades of indoctrination by the regime? Have they ever bought into that fervor? Or is it possible that as as anti-regime sentiment grows, so does sympathy to America and Israel?
“One of many areas where the chasm between state and society is great is anti-Americanism,” says Behnam ben Taleblu, Iran watcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Also, he adds, “the type of gross anti-Semitic vitriol on display by regime officials is essentially inorganic to the large swaths of the Iranian citizenry.”
The writers of the open letter to Biden highlight the protests that have erupted periodically and significantly widened in the last four years, culminating, they write, in an “absolute majority” of Iranians that boycotted last year’s parliamentary election. Iran’s internal upheaval, they add, “in conjunction with the signing of the Abraham Accords signals a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East” that has weakened the Islamic Republic’s regional influence.
Their letter is best seen as a wake up call for Mr. Biden.
Think of it this way: the president seeks a return to a nuclear deal meant, ostensibly, to address the danger of the ultimate weapon in the hands of tyrants wishing to destroy the Jewish state. Wouldn’t ending that very belligerency be a more worthy idea? Helping Iranians who crave democracy, and even advocate joining the Abraham Accords, would do more to promote peace and stability than a failed pact that at best would merely delay the nuclear threat.
No wonder estimates are that a majority of Iranians crave regime change and a return to the kind of mutual respect and good relations Persians and Jews that would echo the days of Cyrus the Great.
“The people want to do it but haven’t yet found the way to do it,” Mr. Tehrani says. He describes as unfortunate the fact that consecutive American presidents “tried to compromise with the regime instead of talking to the people and taking their wishes into account.”
Secretary of State Blinken reportedly has charged his new Iran envoy, Robert Malley, with gathering a diverse group of experts to chart the path ahead. The right move for Mr. Malley, a veteran negotiator with Tehran’s regime diplomats, would be to forget the Obama era endless search for elusive Tehran “moderates.” Better go include in his team some who are more attuned to the Iranian people than to the regime’s wily diplomats.
Mr. Tehrani’s interview on Israeli tv would be a good start.