On November 4, Americans will go to the polls to chart a new course,
regardless of who wins the White House. Change is on horizon, as are a
multitude of foreign policy challenges, perhaps chief among them how to
deal with the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran.
The next administration will confront Tehran’s quest for nuclear
weapons, subversion and terrorism in Iraq, and regional reach. The
immediacy of these foreign policy challenges suggests the current
administration should also be dealing with them in a responsible
manner, even in its waning days.
Although the ongoing economic crisis has overshadowed the U.S.
political landscape in recent weeks, heated discussion about an
effective Iran policy has inevitably incorporated itself into the
presidential debate. The global consequences of a nuclear-armed,
theocratic regime with an extremist, expansionist ideology are lost on
no one, and both candidates have publicly stated that they will not
tolerate a nuclear-armed regime in Iran. This realization is the most
fundamental to charting a new Iran policy.
Other pillars of a new Iran policy must
be built based on the hard-learned lessons of the past. After nearly
three decades of dealing with the terror-prone regime in Iran, it is
patently obvious that the ruling system (meaning all factions thereof)
is bent on expansion of the velayat-e faqih rule beyond its borders.
The means to this end are WMDs and terrorism.
It is also self-evident that Iran’s Velayat-e-faqih regime is
intrinsically and politically incapable of the kind of behavioral
changes the free world demands. The ayatollahs’ strategic red lines are
drawn based on a unique perspective on their own self preservation.
They know, even if the West does not, that they cannot thrive by acting
as a normal state; their survival depends on being in a state of
In practical terms, this translates into a multi-faceted apparatus
of domestic suppression, an unyielding pursuit of nuclear weapons, and
an unrelenting endeavor to establish a client state in Iraq. These
strategic interests are fundamentally at odds with international and
regional interests. Nevertheless, any compromise by Tehran is
tantamount to capitulation; these are red lines that cannot be crossed.
And so we reach the crux of the question: Is the free world to
capitulate to the whims of an increasingly isolated theocratic regime
at war with its own people and the outside world? Or, if it is the
other way around, how can the ayatollahs’ regime be compelled to cross
its red lines?
Negotiation, while clearly the most desirable means of resolving
international conflict, has time and again proven futile in the case of
Tehran. Successive American administrations and their European allies
have been down that road, each time only to reach a dead-end. A glance
over the history of US-Iran relations since 1979 reveals multiple,
presumably well-intentioned attempts at negotiation –- direct,
indirect, unilateral, multilateral, private, public, conditional, and
unconditional. They all failed, and the theocratic regime grew bolder
in its behavior and demands. Perhaps more importantly, each attempt
reinforced the ayatollahs’ view that in the final analysis, Washington
and its allies would be back, with more incentives and renewed
eagerness to negotiate.
On October 9, 2008, Voice of America quoted U.S. Defense Secretary
Robert Gates, saying that since 1979, every U.S. administration had
reached out to Iran’s leaders, in one way or another, and every one of
them had failed. Mr. Gates noted that “The reality is that the Iranian
leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of
time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about
having a different and better kind of relationship.”
The futility of these negotiations was compounded in 1997 with the
blacklisting of Iran’s main and most organized opposition, the People’s
Mojahedin (PMOI/MEK) as an incentive to the ayatollahs. According to
many Middle East experts, this is the only opposition which the mullahs
see as a threat to their survival.
Only when the Iranian people get the opportunity to form a
democratic, secular, and non-nuclear government, Iran will return to a
“normal” state. The Iranian people have a history of rising against
despots of various stripes. They also have a nationwide resistance
movement –- albeit blacklisted and shackled by the United States and
European Union — at the center of a rising popular desire for
On October 23, 2008, the Luxembourg-based Court of First Instance of
the European Communities annulled the EU’s blacklisting of the MEK. The
ruling is the latest in a series of favorable court verdicts, and
coincides with the ongoing review of the group’s status by the U.S.
State Department, due to be completed before mid-January 2009.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the ruling adds “fuel to
accusations that the bloc has used its terrorist list to appease the
Iranian government,” because “Iran has made the PMOI’s international
terrorist designation a diplomatic priority.” The New York Times added
that “The group is regarded as potentially the most important force in
the Iranian resistance.”
Now that several high courts have ruled, many members of Congress
have stated that there is no legal basis for the continued blacklisting
of Iran’s main opposition. In the meantime, Tehran has stepped up its
quest to acquire nuclear weapons, violent intervention in Iraq, and
domestic suppression of its population.
Therefore, it is a strategic and moral imperative for the current
U.S. administration not to punt the Iranian problem to the next
administration. The Bush administration should step up pressure at the
UN Security Council with new sanctions targeting the regime’s terror,
nuclear, and financial structure, curb Tehran’s influence in Iraq, and
reach out to the Iranian people by removing their main opposition group
from its blacklist. As for the next administration, whoever it may be,
it must build on this much overdue policy correction and look to Iran’s
people and its democratic opposition as a partner in seeking stability
and tranquility in the region, as Iranians seek democratic change in