The Historical Lack of Assertiveness in Iran Policy is Based on Ignorance
I believe that the United States should lead through strength and make full use of its tools for directing foreign affairs toward outcomes that make the world freer and safer for democracy. But I also recognize that not even the US is so strong that it can hope to single-handedly secure these outcomes in every corner of the globe. There are factors beyond our control which must affect our decision-making when it comes to dealing with foreign adversaries. Sometimes we properly recognize these factors, whether they support or undermine a strategy of assertiveness and direct confrontation. But sometimes we get them wrong, and US policy suffers as a result.
US policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran has suffered a great deal over the years, under both Republican and Democratic governments, as a result of collective ignorance about important factors inside that country. Washington has been shockingly prone to reaching out to the mullahs and cutting deals with them. It is a trend that was perhaps most conspicuous in the midst of the Obama administration’s negotiations over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but it did not by any means start there. Insofar as the US then tried to justify the agreement by talking up the supposed moderate credentials of the newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was only repeating a mistake that had been made earlier with regard to other false heralds of reform like Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The essential reason for these recurring, desperate effort to reach out to would-be moderates within the Iranian regime is because most Western officials either fear or actually believe that there is no other way of securing change in Iran, short of launching potentially devastating war in service of an uncertain outcome. But it should go without saying that that is not what I have in mind when I talk about the US leading with strength. Instead, I am saying that economic and diplomatic pressures on the regime – with no exceptions for its supposedly moderate leaders – can have unforeseen effects due to the internal Iranian factors that we have been overlooking.
Those factors exist not inside the regime but throughout the broader Iranian society. They stem from an organized, democratic Resistance movement and deep-seated popular resentment for Iran’s ruling clerical regime. That popular sentiment has been largely ignored by Western policymakers since soon after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, with the exception of brief moments during which those leaders paid lip service to anti-government unrest like the 2009 Green Movement. But even then, we have done precious little to actually support those activist flare-ups, apparently because we lack confidence in their potential to bring meaningful change to the country.
Currently, the Islamic Republic is going through another period of profound domestic unrest. After mass protests broke out late last December, they quickly spread to more than 140 Iranian towns and cities. And although the uprising was eventually subdued following the deaths of 50 protesters, the suppression was not complete. Demonstrations and labor strikes have continued to flare up in various localities and among various demographics ever since then, lending credence to the prediction offered at the time of the Iranian New Year celebration by Maryam Rajavi, the leader of Iran’s leading opposition movement.
“Last year ended with the season of uprising,” she said, “and the coming year can and must be turned into a year full of uprisings. And this is going to be an uprising until victory.”
Even according to the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) played a leading role in the uprising that began in December. And since then, regime authorities have continued to warn the public against succumbing to the appeal of the Resistance movement. Yet there is good reason to believe that this is a lost cause. The PMOI and its parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have continued to steadily gain support both at home and abroad ever since the 1980s, when regime authorities made earnest efforts to violently stamp out the democratic opposition.
Today, the NCRI’s summer rally outside of Paris attracts some 100,000 participants from throughout the world. Most are Iranian expatriates, but the event also boasts delegations from dozens of foreign governments, including an uncommonly bipartisan delegation from the US. Although that delegation includes some very prominent figures including close advisors to the current president, they represent only a minority of American policymakers who actually understand that there is an established democratic alternative to Iran’s theocratic regime – one that could be significantly empowered by the effects of American leadership and assertiveness.
The latest Iran Freedom rally is scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 30, and it can be expected to showcase both the effectiveness of recent protests in Iran and the political viability of the NCRI coalition. The US and its allies would be well advised to pay close attention to this event because it promises to fill in the conspicuous gaps in politicians’ knowledge about Iran.
US foreign policy in that area should be based, firstly, on strength, but also on information. When we are armed with a proper understanding of Iran’s domestic Resistance movement and its plan for a free, secular, democratic future for the country, it will be much easier to understand why the Trump administration’s turn away from outreach and conciliation was the correct course of action. It will also then be easier to set new policies that continue along that course, and to sell them to the American public and the world community as a means of giving the Iranian people their best possible opportunity to secure freedom and self-determination for themselves.
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