Outside view: Misunderstanding Iran - United Press International

By MOHAMMAD MOHADDESSIN
UPI Outside View Commentator

PARIS, May 31 (UPI) -- Euphoria over the outcome of the talks between Washington and Tehran has given the die-hard proponents of conciliation with the Iranian mullahs a glimmer of hope. As illusory as they are, these expectations reveal a blurred understanding of the state of affairs in Iran and the essence of the Iranian mullahs' foreign and domestic policy.

A fundamental question needs to be answered in order to see through the fog that hangs over the policy on Iran: Are we witnessing the emergence of a regional power or the demise of a troglodyte theocracy?

Tehran's unscrupulous apologists project it as a stable and powerful state. The all-too-familiar argument is that the mullahs, owing to their interest in a stable and unified Iraq, would inevitably retract from their aggressive posturing. This logic leads only to one policy implication: Engage the mullahs in dialogue and encourage the regime to change its behavior.

In practice, pursuing such a policy, as has been the case for the past 16 years, has only strengthened the most radical and belligerent faction in the ruling elite, and effectively made the West and the Middle East vulnerable to the Iranian regime and Islamic fundamentalism.

Far from a position of strength, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's decision to propel an obscure, but ruthless, Revolutionary Guards' commander to the presidency in 2005 was a shrewd, yet inevitable, attempt to prevent the state as a whole from going down the abyss. The crippling effects of internal divisions, the seismic shift in regional geopolitics which saw the fall of the Iraqi government to the west and Taliban to the east, and, above all, the dangerously rising tide of public discontent made it plain to the supreme leader and his retinue that they had to close ranks and shore up their defenses in order to survive.

On the nuclear front and Iraq, Khamenei sprinted forward at full throttle, cognizant that without either, his regime's chances of withstanding the winds of change would be remote at best. During four years of nuclear talks, Tehran defied at least 12 ultimatums to stop its enrichment program, including Security Council resolutions 1696, 1737 and 1747. It also rejected a very generous package of international incentives in June 2006, in addition to the American offer to engage in direct talks in return for suspension of uranium enrichment activities.

If the mullahs had gained a degree of permanency, they would have used this golden opportunity and agreed to negotiate. That would have seemed particularly plausible considering that the U.S.-led coalition had eliminated Tehran's two primary external nemeses, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, and caged its main internal threat, the opposition People's Mujahedeen.

Yet, keenly aware of the regime's vulnerability, the ruling clerics adamantly refused to bargain. Nowhere was this more evident than in remarks by the supreme leader in March 2006. "Any retreat will be followed by other chalices of poison. Our path is an irreversible one," Khamenei insisted.

Tehran's adamant refusal to resolve the nuclear standoff confirms the view held by many that for the Iranian leadership obtaining nuclear weapons is a strategic decision and a key accomplishment that would empower the regime to emerge as the hegemon in that part of the world.

On the home front, the new round of crackdowns nationwide has been the fiercest of its kind in recent history. It ironically reflects the regime's growing isolation inside the country. The citizenry's daring defiance of the mullahs, including several major uprisings in April and May, in addition to nearly 5,000 protests and strikes across the country last year, has prompted senior officials to express trepidation over losing control of the situation.

What are the options?

The West, in search of lucrative commerce with Tehran, has spared no effort in engaging the so-called pragmatic or "reformist" elements within the ruling elite. Central to 16 years of conciliation was hobbling Tehran's only effective and organized opposition, the People's Mujahedeen, by branding it terrorist.

This policy netted billions for the Europeans and gave the ever-cunning mullahs the opportunity to make giant strides in their nuclear ambitions and spread their fundamentalist tentacles in the Middle East, thus increasing the chances of another war. The Iranian people, meanwhile, suffered both in terms of their livelihood and liberties at home and abroad.

With this misguided policy dead in its tracks, the alternative is not a foreign military intervention as that would be neither feasible nor desirable with calamitous regional and global repercussions.

A third option, which entails reaching out to Tehran's organized democratic opposition as the catalyst for change, offers the only effective and viable approach. Commenting on antigovernment protests a couple of years ago, a Tehran-based European diplomat made a remarkably accurate observation. "The pent-up anger is still there, beneath the surface. But for it to seriously take off you need a catalyst, you need a cause, you need organization and leadership. It's a big task," he said.

The empowerment of the Iranian people, therefore, requires an end to the policy of hampering the main opposition movement. By appeasing the mullahs, the Clinton administration and the European Union did exactly the opposite.

The annulment of the terrorist designation of the People's Mujahedeen by the Court of the First Instance of the European Communities last December rendered the terror tag on the PMOI illegal and illegitimate. The West should now move swiftly to rectify a colossal policy blunder. It could ill afford to let this opportunity slip away by continuing to engage in fruitless dialogue with Tehran.

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(Mohammad Mohaddessin is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran. He is the author of "Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Global Threat.")

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)