Israeli media are reporting that a small and unconventional Iran office in the Israeli Ministry of Defense will be shut down. The 30-year-old office has been headed by 83-year-old Uri Lubrani, who was de facto Israeli ambassador to Iran in the 1970s and famously predicted the fall of the shah. While the closure of the office may seem a minor bureaucratic matter, it also speaks to the demise of an idea that gained currency in some Washington circles just a few years ago and then faded: that the United States might support a plan of regime change in Iran.
Lubrani and his aide Itzhak Barzilay, who both served in Israel's embassy in Iran in the 1970s, ran the small office on a shoe-string budget in an outpost of low buildings on the Defense Ministry's Tel Aviv compound, overshadowed by two gleaming ministry office towers.
The unit (technically known as the Lebanon coordinator unit, perhaps because of Iran's role in Lebanon) had in later years just four people and ran on a budget of just over a million dollars per year, according to Haaretz. "The main purpose of the unit was to maintain links with the Iranian community and political organizations, and follow the media in Iran."
When I visited the unit in September 2006 to conduct an interview shortly after Israel's war in Lebanon, Lubrani's small warren of offices looked like something out of the 1970s — a bit dusty, low budget, and low tech. Lubrani and his staff spent their days thinking of ways to counter the Tehran regime by cultivating Iranian dissidents and Iranian ethnic minority groups and supporting efforts to encourage some sort of democratic regime change in Iran. They kept track of and sometimes provided assistance to Iranian dissidents who came out of Iran on their way to the West, stayed in touch with Iranian exiles in Europe and the United States (some who they had known in the shah's day), and funded a Farsi-language Israel Radio program broadcast on shortwave into Iran. Lubrani's office may have also conducted other small-scale propaganda and recruitment activities among the exiles, no doubt dwarfed by the efforts of Israel's and its Western allies' clandestine security services.
A member of Lubrani's staff pulled out charts showing Hezbollah's growing missile range deeper into Israel, and a map showing Iran's non-Persian ethnic minority groups in their regional hubs — the Kurds, Lur, Azeris, Khuzustani Arabs, Baluch, etc. — constituting almost half that country's population. Asked by a reporter if the map indicated a policy to provide covert support to Iran's ethnic minorities to destabilize the regime, the member of Lubrani's staff moved to conclude the interview.
(The Lubrani staffer also said that they had warned Bush-era Pentagon civilians in advance that the Iraq war was a mistake that would leave the region vulnerable to a predominant Iran, but said that the Pentagon civilians were "so arrogant" and dismissed such warnings. Such concerns were also not shared by Uzi Arad, who has become Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's national security advisor.) Another Lubrani aide at the time had a role in developing anti-Hezbollah propaganda leaflets to be dropped into Lebanon.
In recent years, one of the Lubrani group's outreach efforts was also to try to convince the Bush administration to get behind a regime change effort targeting Iran. After all, Israel's fingerprints would be political suicide on an Iranian dissident or group. Washington's support to organize, unite and fund such an effort was seen by the Lubrani group and some Iranian exiles as essential.
Consequently, Lubrani's group came through Washington the summer of 2004 for meetings with Defense Department and NSC officials, when the United States was a year into its occupation of Iraq and George W. Bush was running for reelection. At the time, some influential hawks still actively nurtured the hope that Bush would not stop with Iraq and Afghanistan and would go on to support regime change in Iran.
"The success of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq not only will surround Iran strategically, but ideologically as well," wrote the American Enterprise Institute's military analyst Thomas Donnelly in a 2004 piece promoting regime change "by other means" in Iran (pdf). "In the final analysis, supporting and expanding the forces of freedom in the region offers, for now, our best hope for containing Iran and diluting the value of its nuclear deterrent."
Such aspirations withered in Bush's second term, which became dominated by the increasing violence of the Iraq insurgency and the gradual sidelining of the hawks who had championed the Iraq war, some arguing that it would be relatively easy and cheap.
By late 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was announcing that U.S. policy toward Tehran was not regime change, but behavior change, and the strategy for achieving it would be multilateral diplomacy. Barack Obama's election in 2008 further clarified the direction of things. His New Year's message to Iran in March recognized the Islamic Republic as the government of Iran — one he has said repeatedly he is prepared to engage. U.S. officials have made clear they intend to try diplomacy with Iran.
How serious did the Lubrani group believe a campaign of democratic revolution or destabilization by Iran's disgruntled ethnic minorities and dissidents cultivated from the outside could be? Or were such activities merely seen as a trip-wire that would prompt Western military action to overturn Iran's regime and take out its nuclear facilities? It's hard to say. Farsi speakers who had served in Iran and cultivated ties with Iran's shah-era security services, Lubrani and Barzilay, his aide, seemed to believe that beneath Tehran's clerical regime was an Iranian population that was not inherently hostile to Israel.
Yet, their project was not without a degree of cynicism. Discussing one dissident whose story had come into question, the staffer to Lubrani said that many of the Iranian "dissidents" he had encountered would jump off a building for $10,000. Authenticity or charity were perhaps not the point.
"Lubrani and his team were the last group of prominent Iran analysts of a major country that believed that the empowerment of the Iranian people was the best short-term and long-term Iran policy," said Pooya Dayanim, an Iranian Jewish pro-democracy activist in Los Angeles. "As an analyst who predicted the Iranian revolution, I think his words and plans deserve serious consideration." Dayanim predicted that Defense Minister Ehud Barak will keep Lubrani around in some capacity, despite the unit's closing. "They have no one like him."
"The demise of that office does have another important implication: With [Lubrani] gone, there are essentially no Israelis left with any interaction with Iran prior to '79 or any deeper knowledge of the Iranians," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, and author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. "You have increasingly a generation of Israelis who only know Iran — and the Israeli perspective on Iran — from the 1990s and forward. Their education is not any real dealings with Iran, but the Israeli talking points on Iran." (A problem Washington — which broke off official diplomatic relations with Tehran in 1979 — shares to some extent.)
But it's also true that Lubrani's influence had been waning for a long time, Parsi added. "A key thing that many Israelis don't talk about is that by the mid-1990s, it no longered matter whether the mullahs would run Iran or not. Iran would be a rival nevertheless — either since religious elements would ensure that the next Iranian government wouldn't be friendly with Israel, or simply because Iran's rising relative power could challenge Israel's position in the region."
With that calculation, Lubrani's analysis became less relevant, according to Parsi. Many pro-American Arab regimes also fear a change to the power balance in the region that might be brought about by a U.S.-Iran rapprochement.
Lubrani was informed two months ago that the contracts of staffers in his unit would not be renewed. But his office's demise hardly means Israel has embraced Washington's commitment to negotiate with Iran. It is perhaps one more signal that the West's path of trying to negotiate with Iran or ratchet up the pressure to change its behavior on the nuclear and terrorism front is likely to be dominated by conventional coercive diplomacy, rather than efforts to destabilize the regime.
"We are not in a regime change mode," Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said at a hearing on Iran earlier this month. "Just as we abandon calls for regime change in Tehran and recognize a legitimate Iranian role in the region, Iran's leaders must moderate their behavior and that of their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas."