News coverage of the large and growing anti-regime protests in Iran this week has included warnings by Iran “experts” insisting that the vocal support the protesters are receiving on social media from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is counterproductive.
Israeli and US statements of support for the Iranian people and their desire to rid themselves of the regime that oppresses them will only weaken them, experts warn. But several counter-indications make clear that these warnings should be disregarded.
In 2009, when millions of Iranians took to the streets in the Green Revolution, then-US president Barack Obama refused to support them. Like today’s experts, Obama argued that it would be counterproductive for the US to support the protesters as they demanded the overthrow of the regime that had just stolen the presidential election. Obama claimed that the US is so hated that the regime would use its support of the protesters to discredit the demonstrations.
In the event, Obama’s silence demoralized the revolutionaries who asked again and again why he refused to stand with them. Perhaps more importantly, by refusing to stand for the men and women of Iran who risked death to stand up to America’s bitter enemy, Obama gave Iran’s dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his henchmen a green light to brutally repress the revolution. Which is exactly what they proceeded to do with nary a whimper of protest from the Obama White House.
Another problem with the position that Netanyahu and Pompeo and other senior Israeli and American officials should keep their counsel on the protests is that it is not at all clear why they think the protesters hate Israel and the US more than they hate the regime.
In the eight years since the regime suppressed the Green Revolution, it has not appeased the public nor earned its support. Indeed, by many accounts, public opposition to the regime has only grown with the passage of time. It doesn’t take much to get the public in the streets. And in general, when Iranians take to the streets, they don’t demand tax reform. They demand an end of the regime.
The slogans being shouted in Tehran’s grand bazaar this week – “Iran out of Syria,” “Iran out of Lebanon,” “I will die for Iran not for Syria or Lebanon,” and “Death to Palestine,” are not calls for a change in policy per se. They are a rejection of the Iranian revolution.
It is true that these protests may be insufficient to bring down the regime, but that too is no reason for Israeli and US leaders to vocally support them. If anything, it is a reason to expand their efforts to destabilize the regime.
The Iranian regime is murderous and retains the financial capacity to buy the loyalty of security services and therefore have its orders obeyed when it tells its militia to violently repress the women demanding an end to its misogynist policies.
But from mass protest to mass protest, the regime’s legitimacy is eroded. And there is every reason to believe that the current demonstrations will only grow in the coming months as US economic sanctions barring Iran from participating in global markets are implemented.
Given the balance of power favors the regime, and that as protests grow the specter of mass repression increases, what else – short of war – can be done to weaken the regime?
In a word: AMIA.
Twenty-four years ago, on July 18, 1994, at Iran’s orders, Hezbollah terrorists in Argentina bombed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or Jewish mutual aid association in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people were murdered and more than 300 were wounded in the worst terror attack in Argentina’s history.
Twenty-four years on, despite abundant proof that the Iranian regime stood behind the massacre, no one has been charged, let alone punished for their actions. This despite the fact that murdered Argentinean prosecutor Alberto Nisman proved that Khamenei and then-Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani made the final decision to carry it out in a meeting of the Iranian Security Council’s Special Operations Group in August 1993. Due to Nisman’s work, frequent presidential candidate and top Khamenei advisor Mohsen Rezai and former defense minister Ahmad Vahidi along with three other former senior Iranian officials have been the subject of Interpol warrants since 2006. Vahidi and Rezai have traveled abroad since then but they have never been arrested or detained.
Instead, the only person who paid a personal price as a consequence of the investigation of the AMIA bombing was Nisman, the indefatigable Argentinean prosecutor who investigated the attack for 11 years. In January 2015, The evening before Nisman was set to present his findings to the Argentinean Congress, he was shot in the head in his apartment and killed.
Among Nisman’s findings was proof that then-Argentinean president Cristina Kirchner de Fernandez and then-foreign minister Hector Timerman were complicit in whitewashing Iranian involvement in the bombing.
Fernandez insisted that Nisman had committed suicide. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, it took an Argentinean court until December 2017 to find that he was murdered.
Nisman’s murderers, like the Iranians responsible for murdering 85 innocents at the AMIA building, are still at large.
The time has come to bring justice to the AMIA victims and their families. And the time has come to highlight the role that Khamenei and his henchmen played in conducting the mass murder. To this end, the Trump administration should give the Argentinean government a short period of time to either file indictments and begin trials of the Iranian officials responsible for the operation based on Nisman’s findings, or transfer responsibility to a more capable tribunal.
In parallel, the Trump administration can sign an agreement with Israel – that may be open to other governments as well, and Congress can pass legislation establishing the operation of a joint US-Israeli tribunal with jurisdiction over unsolved international terrorism cases that did not directly target US persons, territory or installations abroad.
Aside from everything else, a bilateral or multinational tribunal comprised of justices from liberal democracies would serve as a foil to UN tribunals controlled by anti-Western judges. In addition, by setting up the tribunal to operate outside the US, Congress can avoid the abysmal recent ruling of a federal court to the effect that terrorists who murder US citizens are constitutionally protected from being sued in US courts unless they specifically targeted Americans.
As for the UN, in 1992 and 1993, the UN Security Council passed harsh economic sanctions against Libya to force then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to extradite two Libyan nationals suspected of carrying out the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988 that killed 270 people. Due to the sanctions, in 1998, the Libyan government extradited the suspects to Britain for trial. Gaddafi later apologized for the bombing and paid compensation to the families of the victims.
The Lockerbie model can be applied to the AMIA bombing as well. Security Council action against Iranian leaders can massively increase their international isolation. Depending on the structure and target of the sanctions, Iranian citizens can be subjected to significant restrictions on international travel and Iranian diplomatic missions can be shut down. The more powerful the sanctions, the more effective they will be in both deterring foreign governments from cooperating with the regime and causing Iranian nationals to be disgusted with the regime.
This brings us to the Lockerbie bombing itself. Nisman’s findings relied in large part on information presented by Iranian defector and former intelligence officer Abolghassem Mesbahi who served in Germany until he defected in the 1990s. Mesbahi reported directly to then-Iranian president Rafsanjani. Four years ago, Mesbahi revealed in an Al Jazeera documentary that Iran, not Libya, was responsible for the bombing. The attack, he said, was carried out by terrorists from Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, headquartered in Damascus. Mesbahi’s allegations are substantiated by information collected by investigators at the crash site in Lockerbie and by evidence of similar bombs discovered in an apartment in Frankfurt rented by terrorists in the PFLP-GC weeks before the bombing.
Reports at the time claimed that in 1990, then-US president George H.W. Bush and then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher chose to ignore the leads and follow less compelling evidence pointing to Gaddafi because the US wanted then-Syrian President Hafez Assad to join the US-led Arab coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The case against the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was always controversial. Megrahi went to his death in 2012 protesting his innocence. And on May 3, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission decided to review his conviction “in the interests of justice.” A review request was submitted by his widow hoping to clear his name.
Of the 270 of the victims of Flight 103, 179 were Americans – 35 were students from Syracuse University coming home for Christmas after completing a semester of study abroad in London and Florence. It goes without saying that if Iran was responsible for their murder, the American people, and their families, have a right to the truth. Following the information presented by Mesbahi, and the information already gathered by FBI investigators at the time of the bombing, the US should open a new investigation of alleged Iranian responsibility for the attack. The investigation should be public, and the names of Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the attack should be widely publicized.
Similar actions should be taken by other governments whose citizens have been murdered by Iran in acts of international terrorism.
The deeper the regime is implicated in acts of mass murder, the less able its leaders will be to justify their continued grip on power. The more Khamenei’s personal role in recognized worldwide, the less capable he will be to wield power and command obedience. Branded as murderers at home and abroad, Khamenei and his henchmen will find it harder and harder to suppress demonstrators demanding that they end their sponsorship of Syria’s genocidal dictator Bashar Assad and the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas and surrender their power.
The lesson of Obama’s actions in 2009 and everything we have learned since then teach us that the Iranian people hate their oppressive, corrupt, and murderous regime far more than they hate Israel and the US. And the more the Iranian people know about the regime, the more they hate it.
So too, the more the world knows about the butchers in Tehran, the less likely world leaders and business leaders will be to cooperate with it.
The time has come to make clear what we are talking about when we note that Iran is the “largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.”
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