Iranian Regime Change’s Unusual Suspects
The recent delisting of the MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list aside, it’s depressingly unsurprising that the group is now being bandied about to receive a label as the “legitimate opposition” of Iran.
Larison explains here:
Of course, this has been what many of the MEK’s American advocates have been calling for all along. The completely false claim that the MEK represents the legitimate Iranian opposition was one of the principal reasons many of these advocates gave for removing the group from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. It’s absurd that any informed person could seriously believe an Islamo-Marxist totalitarian cult represents a legitimate, much less democratic, alternative to the current Iranian regime. This is the falsehood that many of the group’s advocates promote.
The totally bizarre and evidence-free manner in which American policymakers have frequently attempted to identify partners in a regime change effort against Iran requires some elaboration here. I do not have any objections to the idea of the U.S. developing assets, say, to counteract the IRGC’s Qods Force or conduct active measures to advance limited interests inside Iran, but the lobbying campaign for the MEK basically relied on a huge amount of extremely dubious lobbying by an FTO along with a massive overstatement of their utility and misstatement of their activities, making it basically the worst poster child for such efforts imaginable. I suppose I can see some practical utility to working with the MEK to collect intelligence, though I have no idea how reliable it is, but using the MEK to foment a popular revolution against the Iranian government is basically fantastical, and generally not just requires but encourages completely distorting the state of Iranian politics. Unfortunately, that is par for the course with much of the advocacy of active efforts to overthrow the Iranian government.
For example, there is now a broad-based line of argument, from both progressives and conservatives, that 2009 was some sort of missed opportunity to support the overthrow of the Iranian regime. Readers of this blog already know my assessments of the feasibility of that, but Americans have insisted on consistently swallowing the MEK and the Iranian regime’s mutual rhetoric – despite the Green movement’s leadership denying as much – that the MEK was a critical element of protests in 2009.
The Green movement, after all, did not challenge the constitutional legitimacy of the Islamic Republic but actually began as a protest in support of one longstanding prominent regime figure against another for a position which does not occupy the central policy-making role in Iran. The MEK’s grievances with the Islamic Republic are far more wide ranging, ideologically and practically. It’s not hard to see why American policymakers would like the Green movement to be more like what the MEK depicts itself as – a wholesale effort to tear down the Islamic Republic and replace it with democracy. But leaving aside the question of whether the MEK’s avowed democratic creed deserves Western credence (that they were living on real estate granted by Saddam Hussein should already clue us in that the answer is quite likely no), the emphatic disavowal of the MEK from Green movement figures and Iranian reformists generally does not seem to register with the MEK’s proponents in the United States.
Recognizing the MEK as the legitimate opposition of Iran, in addition to almost certainly angering more influential reformist and opposition groups within the country, would also be a huge boon to the Iranian regime. While the MEK overstates its role in Iran’s opposition in order to enhance its own credibility to foreign backers and propagandize within Iran, Iran does the same in order to justify, among fence-sitting Iranians, a harsh crackdown. With the MEK as the “legitimate opposition” of Iran, the regime could far more credibly portray any group pursuing an anti-regime agenda as U.S. collaborators with a hated organization that has a long history of terrorism inside Iran.
Unfortunately, many would-be U.S. policies towards Iranian opposition movements are based on similarly misguided views about Iranian domestic politics that appear to prioritizing angering the Islamic Republic than weakening it or constraining its capabilities. Ali Gharib highlights Congressman Dana Rorabacher (another fan of the MEK) and his attempts to promote not one but two separatist movements within Iran.
Rorabacher introduced legislation making the argument that:
that the Azeri people, currently divided between Azerbaijan and Iran, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country if they so choose.
The problem being, as Gharib notes, that Azeri secession is a non-starter among Iranian Azeris, and that U.S. legislation supporting this fanciful idea would almost be fodder for regime propaganda to oppose even mild measures for Azeri autonomy.
Most Azeris in Iran, Nader told me, are part of the fabric of national society: Persian and Azeri “cultures are so interwoven.” Many of the Islamic Republic’s elites are of Azeri ethnic descent, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the main opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi.
The most famous power I can think of that seriously threw its weight behind Azeri secession was the Soviet Union. When Stalin’s troops set up the People’s Republic of Azerbaijan (along with the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad) in post-WWII Iran, it was immediately obvious that the entity was a creation of Stalin’s troops and Iran’s communist Tudeh party, despite some Azeri grievances with Reza Shah’s attempts to foster Iranian homogeneity and nationalism. When the Red Army withdrew, the People’s Republic of Azerbaijan rapidly capitulated politically and then fell to Iranian troops, with widespread public acceptance. After the People’s Republic’s leadership fled to the USSR, its leader Jafar Pishevari died in a car crash less than a year later. It was a fortuitous end to a bungled Stalinist scheme. There are few reasons to think Azeri secession would be more popular now than it was then, given that the Iranian central government was much weaker in the 1940s than it is today.
Rorabacher has also supported Baloch secession from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. While the divides between the Baloch and the rest of Iran are much starker, and there is a fairly active Baloch independence movement, they are a tiny minority within Iran and the cause of Baloch separatism has no logical appeal to Iranians who want to live in a more democratic society. As a practical matter, it would be one thing to use small ethnic separatist movements and ideological fringe groups as assets in clandestine activities – the U.S. has frequently used them, as it did in Indochina, to mixed, but not uniformly ineffectual results. But the strange hodgepodge of proxy strategies here is not a recipe to effectively challenge the Iranian regime or its legitimacy. Imagine if a country trying to undermine the U.S. government supported white separatism in the Pacific Northwest, the Second Vermont Republic movement, and the LaRouche party. You would get a group of people vehemently opposed to the current United States government with varying levels of ground presence and even some capabilities for violent resistance, but you would not get anything that would seriously challenge the U.S. government nor even a group of factions that represent any considerable slice of the American people.
Unfortunately, many prominent advocates of regime change, including those with policymaking roles, frequently appear more concerned with demonstrating U.S. resolve and defying Tehran than trying to craft a coherent strategy to enable their desired policy. Attempting to exhort and finance foreign regime change is always a relatively dubious task, but it is hard to imagine a worse way of going about it than some of the efforts described above. Lest this all be dismissed as irrelevant to actual U.S.-Iran relations, we should remember that even poorly conceived plans that are not put into action can still have incredibly negative results.
Consider, in the extreme, the case of the Morgenthau Plan. It was a combined effort to carve apart Germany into three separate states and reduce it to a punitive collective deindustrialized state, fully “sticking it” to the Germans and leaving a historical memory that would prevent future challenges to the international order. When word of the plan got out, Joseph Goebbels wasted no time in using it to evince all manner of dastardly intent on the part of the Allied forces. The negative effect of the Morgenthau plan is not simply historical revisionism, either. George C. Marshall and Wild Bill Donovan both protested the plan’s abetting of Nazi propaganda and its strengthening influence on Germany’s continued resistance to Allied advances. Wildly impractical and difficult to implement even if it was adopted, the Morgenthau plan nevertheless managed to cause significant headaches for the U.S. despite never being put into action (its influence on German reconstruction, or lack thereof, in the early years, being a separate issue). Advancing, even in initial stages, plans that needlessly antagonize the overwhelming majority of a hostile regime will play into that regime’s interests and undermine U.S. policy.
The record of using direct military action and supporting a grab-bag of separatists and opposition movements to undermine Tehran, from the beginning of the Cold War until today, is quite poor. During the opening phases of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam appealed to a divided Arabic-speaking nation in his claims to Khuzestan, while the MEK conducted wide-ranging terrorist attacks against the Iranian government and its partners, the PDKI fought against the IRGC in Kurdistan. The Green movement’s most prominent figures were all on Tehran’s side during that period of conflict. Any notional U.S. attempt at making secessionist cleavages and ideological fringe groups the centerpiece of its campaign to undermine Tehran is very likely to at least tie the opposition’s hands, if not move many Iranians into greater outright sympathy with the regime. Needless to say, mixing that with a strike against Iran’s nuclear program is not going to produce useful political outcomes for the United States. Proposed strategies for implementing an Iran regime change strategy so far seem to rely more on wish-fulfillment and provocation, without doing anything to shake the Iranian regime itself, let alone advance U.S. policies to deter or contain an Iranian nuclear breakout, stymie and undermine the IRGC or its proxies, or secure the free flow of commerce and energy in the Gulf. There are a great many policies the United States can pursue to posture against Tehran, there are far fewer which effectively counter the threats it poses to U.S. interests or advances American goals in the region.