By Jubin Afshar
April 02, 2006
Iran figures to be the most urgent foreign policy crisis on the agenda for the international community in 2006. With the rise of an overtly belligerent foreign policy under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian regime has quickly made a carefully calculated move to project its virulent Islamic fundamentalist ideology to Muslim countries throughout the Middle East and beyond. If successful, this would have perilous repercussions for regional as well as global peace and security.
As Europe contemplates how and why its policy of “critical” or “comprehensive” dialogue (often criticized as appeasement) came to such a dismal end, it would be both prudent and wise to reflect on some principles in dealing with a religious, totalitarian regime such as Iran’s.
The regime in Iran came to power in 1979 after a popular revolution swept away the Pahlavi’s corrupt and repressive dynasty that ruled Iran with an iron fist for half a century. The clerical establishment led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stepped into a power vacuum created by the Shah’s brutal suppression of the democratic opposition, and misappropriated the uprising’s promise of democracy. Soon Iranians, who aspired for liberty from the Western-oriented despotism of the monarchy, were subjected to a religious, totalitarian rule which Khomeini theorized as the Rule of the Islamic Jurisprudent. Khomeini’s regressive, anti-democratic, and perverted Islam, manipulating a return to the country’s religious roots and traditions, soon proved to be capable of brutal mass murder, terror, and unbridled fanaticism.
Khomeini and his loyal successors lack a coherent social, economic, and political agenda that can resolve a modern society’s yearning for progress, prosperity and justice. Consequently, this regime is characterized with a dynamic thirst to foment crises and conflict in order to perpetuate itself. It also needs conflict to divert attention from its internal failures and injustices and as a pretext to suppress and control any and all legitimate dissent.
The control of the clerical establishment over the power structures of the current Iranian state is not a temporary feature of the theocracy but its defining principle. As long as this control continues and the regime rules Iran, the region and the world will continue to see an export of fundamentalism and sponsorship of destabilizing terrorism, that portends a bleak future and the danger of engulfing the whole world in the flames of conflict and war. All other regional issues are subordinate to the issue of democracy in Iran and not vice-versa.
Take Iraq for example. Many US policy advisers wishfully predicted that a democratic Iraq will moderate Iranian behavior and foment change in Iran. Now, however, it has become crystal clear that as long as Islamic theocratic rule reigns in Iran, Iraq’s nascent democracy is in danger of being derailed by Iran. The road to democracy in Iraq passes through Iran and not the other way around.
Now that the world community has finally realized that the Iranian regime cannot be appeased, engaged, or moderated, it has a difficult choice to make. With diplomatic options being met with intransigence by the Iranian regime, the world must ponder how to thwart the calculated escalation Tehran has embarked on.
The regime will only respond to firmness and pressure and only when its grip on power is threatened. The West should not launch a foreign war on Iran as has been suggested by some. War is a natural extension of failed appeasement and fails to address the root of the problem. The military option is also as dangerous as impracticable and wrought with danger of miscalculation. No foreign military option and no amount of foreign pressure can remove clerical rule from Iran. Only an indigenous opposition movement can. The Iranian threat must be met with support for an Iranian option, and unless that happens, the danger will not be contained.
Unfortunately, too many years have been wasted chasing delusions of reformers within the Iranian regime, and too many opportunities to support and strengthen the Iranian opposition have been squandered. Fortunately though, an organized resistance movement has persevered and weathered the political storms of the last 27 years, standing practically alone on the frontline to Islamic fundamentalism.
The Iranian Mojahedin (PMOI), and the political umbrella organization and parliament-in-exile of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), are the most viable and democratic allies the West has in Iran and not merely an “enemy of my enemy” as some would have it. The PMOI is an indigenous Iranian opposition movement formed in the 1960s to oppose the Shah’s corrupt dictatorship. They have sailed through rough waters and shown character and determination in their pursuit of democracy and liberty in Iran.
Its leadership was decimated by the Shah’s SAVAK in 1971; all but one were executed. Their organization outside of prison was shattered by the misappropriation of the Muslim organization’s name and emblem in a Marxist coup that resulted in the murder of few remaining Muslim leaders not captured by SAVAK. The power vacuum and Marxist offshoot caused a backlash among rightwing Islamists – kept in check until then by the Mojahedin’s progressive Islamic character. The regressive and latent Islamic fundamentalist tendency in Iranian society veered off to form a political front that was to be dominated by Khomeini, and was propelled to the forefront of the anti-Shah struggle, enabling it to steal the revolution from the Iranian people.
Khomeini effectively filled a power vacuum that the Shah had created with the imprisonment of the Mojahedin. After Khomeini tightened the fundamentalist grip on the post-revolutionary power structures in Iran, the Mojahedin brushed aside initial suggestions to share power with the anti-democratic Islamic fundamentalists and moved decisively and courageously to bring the issue of democracy to center stage. In doing so they defended the rights of all political movements and minorities to participate in the political process.
The move cost the organization and its sympathizers dearly. Thousands were arrested and scores killed in the events that led to the fateful day on June 20, 1981. Khomeini ordered the regime’s Revolutionary Guards to engage anti-government demonstrators with lethal force; thousands were arrested and hundreds executed summarily. The day was a watershed in post-revolutionary Iran that led to a de facto civil war which drove the Mojahedin underground.
The Iranian Resistance – as the forces gathered under the umbrella NCRI organization are called – began a domestic struggle in Iran, and an international campaign to oust the ruling theocracy that continues to this day. In the process, the West has either watched ambivalently, or proscribed them. It has also used their presence in exile in the West as a pawn in failed attempts at a grand bargain with the Islamic fundamentalists in Tehran. Such attempts have gone as far as bombing PMOI bases in Iraq as part of a quid pro quo with the mullahs. In doing so the West has effectively hobbled the most effective, and well-organized force that opposes Islamic fundamentalism, and shares democratic values and a dedication to a democracy based on the separation of church and state, while at the same time commanding respect within the Muslim Iranian society.
The Mojahedin and NCRI’s focus on women’s rights, in the face of the Islamic fundamentalist onslaught against what is considered to be the inferior sex, is of significant importance in their struggle against the Tehran regime. Nothing irks the the mullahs more than women in leadership, and that is precisely why the Mojahedin have attached so much importance in encouraging and building their organization around the leadership of qualified women in their movement. At the helm of this highly significant struggle is Maryam Rajavi, the charismatic President-elect of the Iranian Resistance. She poses the greatest political, ideological, and cultural threat to the ruling theocracy in Iran who eschews her vision of a democratic Iran, where women would be on equal footing with men in all arenas of social, political and economic life.
Now that Iran’s nuclear file has been reported to the Untied Nations Security Council, it is imperative for the world community and the US and Europe in particular to carefully assess the options. A correct appraisal of the regime’s course of action can be gained by assessing its past behavior, its guiding principles and nature, and its domestic and international dilemmas.
The regime’s elite under the leadership of Ali Khamenei, made a strategic choice in the June 2005 rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. The regime, faced with rising domestic opposition and dissent, and with the specter of developing democracies on its borders and a growing international consensus against its virulent Islamic fundamentalist ideology, made a strategic choice to go on the offensive in order to save itself from an inevitable downward spiral. In doing so it put an end to the Khatami era and consolidated power in the hands of its most loyal faction. The rise of Ahmadinejad and Iran’s new foreign policy posture epitomized this choice and it was defined as a belligerent advance of fundamentalism, and sponsorship of terrorism, and intensified domestic repression, by the NCRI in June 2005.
As the U.S. Administration and the Europeans ponder their next step on Iran it is useful to note that the Iranian people are the sole guarantors of the least cost route to democracy in Iran and peace in the region and the world. Iranians are nationalistic with an Islamic culture which they value. Foreign intervention or war would not resolve the problem of legitimacy and the Iranian people’s sovereign determination of their own destiny.
In contrast to Iraq, a legitimate, popular and capable alternative that is committed to democracy exists. The Iranian Mojahedin are Muslims who have engaged in an open, courageous, and enlightened discourse within the Iranian Diaspora, and inside Iran. They adhere to a platform put forth by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which calls for free elections, democratic system of government, minority rights, respect for human rights, and a free market economy. Precisely because of their consistent opposition to the ruling regime, they sway the largest following not only among the Iranian Diaspora but also, contrary to the regime’s propaganda, among the Iranian nation in Iran.
Faced with dangerous and unpredictable military options, the West would do itself and the Iranian people, and the wider Middle East, good by recognizing the Iranian people’s right to resist, and by allying itself with the Iranian resistance movement. In that light, it should abandon the last vestiges of a policy of appeasement and conciliation with the Iranian clerical dictatorship and revoke the terrorist designation of the Iranian Mojahedin. The Mojahedin is not just “an enemy of my enemy,” but an ally of all those who favor democracy for Iran and peace in the region. They are poised to be the most viable actor that could enable the Iranian people to realize their democratic ideals in Iran and peace in the wider Middle East.
Jubin Afshar is Director of Near East Studies at Near East Policy Research, a research and foreign policy analysis firm in Washington, DC