By now, it should no longer be necessary to rehearse the evidence as to the danger Iran represents to Western interests. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, its violence in Iraq and elsewhere, and its sponsorship of terrorism (even conspiring with al-Qaeda) are all well-documented, not least by the US government.
While Libya and Syria are rightly condemned for profound abuses of their citizens, there seems to be silence from Western governments on Iran, with the main opposition group remaining on the State Department’s terrorist list and denied US protection in Iraq. While it is important for democratic politics and the human rights of those who must live under such regimes that there is honesty about the foreign policy choices that the West is making, let us stick with realpolitikand focus firmly upon US foreign policy interests.
For thirty years, US administrations have clung to the wishful thought that there is within the Iranian regime a man or faction with whom it can do business. This policy has failed, not least because the Iranian government is wise to the search and is able to bargain and stonewall with US administrations and continue on as before. Witness former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Louis Freeh, recent anecdote about his having taken to the then US National Security Adviser the “strong evidence” of Iranian governmental responsibility in the deaths of 19 US airmen at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on 25 June 1996. The response was, ‘”Who knows about this?” The FBI were told to keep open the investigation as the President had declared that the guilty would be found, but the Administration wanted to hear no more of Iranian responsibility. There was, Freeh said, “confusion” in US policy-making towards Iran.[i]
At such a critical time for Middle Eastern politics, it is timely that US policy towards Iran is fundamentally reviewed. The choices the US has made in its designated enemies in the region has had profound ramifications for global security. The failure to hold Iran to account for its international actions, as noted by Freeh in the case of the Khobar Towers, and the West’s choice of enemies in the past, has allowed Iran, whatever internal contradictions might be undermining it, to increase its regional power. Given the current mix of circumstances in the Middle East and South Asia, it has never been more important that the West gets its policy towards Iran right.
We can leave on one side the overwhelming evidence of Iran’s violence towards its own citizens, and the arguments as to the moral imperative that imposes upon the free, and simply ask, what is in the US interest? The test of the effectiveness of the 30 year old effort to find a modus vivendi with the Iranian regime is the extent to which Iran has moderated its international behaviour. The evidence from the US Treasury Department of Iranian co-operation with al-Qaeda, the violence in Iraq and the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons all point to failure. It is time to ask, does the US Administration really believe in its stated foreign policy preference for stable democracies with which to engage?
In any case, since the search for engagement with the Iranian theocracy has failed, then, if the US desires changed Iranian behaviour, it really has only two choices for the future: engage Iran militarily and impose a different regime, or remove the obstacles to democratic politics in Iran, beginning with the removal of People’s
Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK) from the State Department’s terrorist list. The latter path is altogether less costly and more likely to produce a stable government, its democracy indigenously built and this sustainable.
The test for a new policy towards Iran, one that serves the US interest, is how the US government chooses to construct and treat the main Iranian opposition group, the MEK. That this group is central to the future democratic (and secular) politics of Iran can be evidenced in a number of ways. First, it was the MEK that first provided the intelligence revealing Iran’s nuclear programme. If an opposition group can access the most secret of state secrets, it is well and truly embedded in society at all levels. Second, the fact that the Iranian regime is spending resources in Washington to try to maintain the MEK on the terrorist list is symptomatic of the centrality of the MEK in Iran’s negotiations with the US. As such, this tells us something about the importance of the MEK in the Iran’s calculations about regime security and thus, again, it tells us something about the embeddness of the MEK in Iranian society.
Recognising the failure of US policy towards Iran, a growing number of the great and the good in US political and cultural circles have begun to speak openly about the centrality of the MEK to a more useful approach to the region by the US. Their evidence-based approach (see Freeh above) has also led them to see the MEK as it is – as a powerful and legitimate resistance movement, not a terrorist organization. This emerging consensus around an alternative approach to Iran has caused alarm to the theocracy. Since this consensus is built upon evidence, Iran’s approach to the debate has been to try to discredit, among others: former Joint Chiefs of Staff, a National Security Adviser, an Attorney General, CIA Directors, US ambassadors to the UN, a Secretary of Homeland Security, a White House Chief of Staff, a Marine Corps Commander, an FBI Director, and a State Department Director of Counterterrorism. Iran defines them as ‘words-for-hire’ rather than as the experienced, responsible and patriotic individuals that they are in reality.
Finally, removing the MEK from the State Department’s terrorist list would give the 3,400 unarmed Iranian exiles at Camp Ashraf in Iraq some chance of safety from Iraqi forces that have besieged and murdered at the behest of Iran. This group handed over its weapons to US forces in the early days of the Iraq War. They were accorded the status of “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Removing the MEK from the list would remove any excuses the Iraqi government has for its outrageous abuses there. Protecting these people is of central importance not only to the US’ moral authority in the world but to a more effective policy towards Iran. The centrality of the MEK in Iranian society means that, the future foreign policy consequences of a further outrage at Camp Ashraf will be as significant a barrier to future relations with the new Iran as the American Embassy hostage-taking was to US relations with the old.
An evidence-based approach to US policy-making towards Iran means de-listing the MEK and protecting Ashraf’s residents as vital first steps. Such an approach leads away from the ‘confusion’ which Freeh noted towards effectiveness in dealing with a most dangerous state.
Dr Sharam Taromsari, formerly lecturer in International Relations and Middle Eastern Security, Consultant on Middle Eastern affairs