Iranian President Ahmadinejad at nuclear facility 390 (R).
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
"Man up” on Iran? The phrase appears to suggest preparations for military action; but being tough on Iran means acting to facilitate regime change from within.
Teheran pays more attention to domestic threats than international pressures, including sanctions or threats of military action.
There is broad consensus that the Iranian regime is a threat to Israel and the United States. Economic sanctions and threats of military action against Iran’s nuclear program are assumed to be the only tools with which to confront Teheran. But one of the lessons of the Arab revolts against dictatorial regimes is the need to pay attention to opposition groups before radical Islamists seize control during periods of domestic unrest.
This lesson was also manifest in the 1979 Iranian Revolution when a secular coalition including the Mojahedin (now more commonly referred to as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq or MEK) was able to oust the Shah but lacked a plan to stave off the Islamists, who now run the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The lesson for modern-day Iran is that now is the time for the West to give due regard to opposition organizations, particularly in the run-up to the summer 2013 Iranian elections when widespread unrest along the lines of 2009 is expected to increase.
One such Iranian dissident group is the MEK, which is illegal in Iran and under siege in Iraq. The MEK is the largest unit in the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a Paris-based organization that has considerable presence on the Iranian street and to which the Iranian regime pays the most attention because it is the main opposition that rejects clerical rule.
But members of the MEK are under Iraqi and Iranian proxy fire in Iraq at a former American military base ironically called Camp Liberty.
While waiting to be processed by the United Nations as refugees, MEK members were attacked on February 9, 2013, by “unknown” assailants – perhaps by Iran’s proxies in Iraq, such as Hezbollah of Iraq, Badr Brigade, and the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, all of which are enemies of Israel. Insofar as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the pro-Israel community should act to preserve the Iranian opposition that rejects clerical rule without endangering those dissidents with too close an embrace.
In a prior assault on Iranian dissidents in Iraq during April 2011, there was a strong reaction from US Senator John Kerry, then chairman of the senate foreign relations committee and now secretary of state.
He described that assault as a “massacre.”
Kerry called for a “thorough and serious” investigation, and emphasized, “The investigation must hold accountable the responsible parties and ensure that there will be no sequel to these horrific events.”
It is encouraging that Secretary of State Kerry’s department condemned “in the strongest terms the vicious and senseless terrorist attack” on Camp Liberty and demanded that “the terrorists responsible for this attack must be brought to justice.”
WHILE IT makes no sense for Israeli officials to take such a prominent role in supporting Iranian exiles, there is little downside for the pro-Israel community to do so. This is a critical moment for Teheran’s rulers. They are beset with political infighting, their domestic economy is hampered by international sanctions designed to curtail Iran’s emerging nuclear weapons program, the rial is in free fall, and inflation is soaring. Discontent on the Iranian street raises the likelihood of massive protests as the election season approaches.
Although illegal in Iran, the Mojahedin plays an important part in leading, behind the scenes, the peaceful protests on the Iranian street.
Unlike Teheran, the NCRI and the MEK are credibly committed to a nuclear weapons-free Iran, as indicated by their revelations of the regime’s nuclear violations since 2002. Raymond Tanter validated the major revelations with evidence from independent sources. And unlike Teheran, these dissidents are committed to a twostate solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Islamic Republic treats Israel and these Iranian oppositionists in the same way because both are committed to the rule of law rather than to rule by unelected clerics.
President Obama’s State of the Union Address on February 12 was a missed opportunity for him to outline additional steps to address the Iran threat. He assumed that the threat is only a nuclear one and that the Iranian regime is a permanent fixture of the Middle East landscape. But there is no reason why the pro-Israel community should make the same mistake.
Instead, the community could quietly act to strengthen the opposition’s hand and ensure Israel’s interests are protected when the unpopular regime in Teheran begins to collapse.
In the lead-up to Iran’s presidential elections in June, the pro-Israel community should consider the following steps: • Just as non-Jews are members of the pro-Israel community, it would be good to see Jews coming to the assistance of Iranians under siege on moral and national interest grounds.
• The authors are adopting individuals at Camp Liberty as prisoners of conscience while they await safe resettlement to third countries; this is an approach we learned as members of the pro-Israel community regarding Jewish dissidents in the former Soviet Union, and it would be nice to learn of such adoptions by the community.
• Encourage the West to pay more attention to the Iranian people rather than simply to the regime in power, given that its days are numbered in months and not years.
Not only should we seek to protect Iranians under siege in Iraq, we should also not repeat the mistakes of the summer of 2009, when the West stood by as Iranians rose up against their ruthless rulers and were crushed with hardly an objection from any quarter. Now is the time to recognize the factional feuding, economic turmoil and increasing political discontent as an opportunity to support an Iranian summer that will lead to a free Teheran that does not need an external enemy like Israel to justify a dictatorship of clerics.Raymond Tanter served on the senior staff of the National Security Council in the Reagan White House and is a frequent visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The opinions expressed are their own.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the director of the Negotiation and Conflict Management graduate program in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.