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Our friends, the MeK (and other Persian perplexities)

July 19, 2011

The specter of Iranian power sometimes strikes a certain madness into the foreign policy commentariat. At once, Iran is a rising and potential hegemon, soon to acquire the military power to dominate the Persian Gulf, and at the same time, supposedly supremely vulnerable to internal subversion or surgical strike. This leads to a number of outlandish proposals for “solving” the Iranian problem, such as this, from Daniel Pipes:

How should Western governments deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which Washington labels “the most active state sponsor of terrorism”?

Iranian aggression began in 1979, with the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the holding of some of its staff as hostages for 444 days. Major subsequent attacks included two bombings in Beirut in 1983: at the U.S. embassy, killing 63, and at a U.S. Marine barracks, killing 241.

A main battleground in this dispute is the question of whether or not the most prominent Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MeK), should remain on the U.S. government’s terrorism list. The tough camp generally views the MeK, founded in 1965, as a lever against the mullahs and (with a minority dissenting) wants it delisted. The diplomatic camp argues that delisting would anger the Iranian leaders, hampering efforts to improve relations, or (contradictorily) would limit Washington’s ability toreach out to the Iranian street.

The pro-MeK side argues that the MeK has a history of cooperating with Washington, providing valuable intelligence on Iranian nuclear plans and tactical intelligence about Iranian efforts in Iraq. Further, just as the MeK’s organizational and leadership skills helped bring down the shah in 1979, these skills can again facilitate regime change. The number of street protestors arrested for association with the MeK points to its role in demonstrations, as do slogans echoing MeK chants, e.g., calling Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei a “henchman,” Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “dictator,” and shouting “down with the principle of Velayat-e Faqih” (that a religious figure heads the government).

Now, Pipes won’t mention that in 1981 the MeK/PMOI embarked on a series of bombing campaigns to assassinate just about anybody in the government – an act that most Iranians saw as treasonous and vile in light of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country. Indeed, in 1986 Iraq became the headquarters and primary patron of these plucky freedom fighters, and at this point they lost virtually all legitimacy within Iran itself. It participated in a last-ditch effort by Saddam to order its paramilitary force to invade Iran in the close of the Iran-Iraq war which devastated the movement.

Nor will Pipes mention another time when the people of a country rose up against their brutal dictator, in 1991. When the Kurds of Iraq, having lived through the brutality of Anfal and the nigh-genocidal gassing, rose up against Saddam, did the supposedly freedom-loving MeK join them? No, it served as an instrument of state terror, helping an Iraqi army still smarting from its wounds in Kuwait to put down Kurdish rebels. Yes, they broke news of the Iranian nuclear program in 2002, but only in 2003 when it became clear that Saddam’s regime would not survive the latest war did it abandon Iraq in an attempt to set up a new headquarters in France. Naturally, the new need to appeal to Western sensibilities led to a great deal of rhetoric about the democratic bona fides of the MeK, and a reduction in the virulently anti-Western, anti-capitalist, anti-American rhetoric which characterized its previous ideological preferences.

There is something ironic in members of the American right who embrace an organization with an undeniable history of terrorism, including anti-American attacks, endorsing a personality cult sustained by a brew of Islamic and socialist rhetoric whose primary ally and compatriot had been, for years, Saddam Hussein. Yet there it is.

Pipes notes that the Iranian government arrests protesters on suspicion of MeK involvement, and takes this as evidence that the group must be widely influential in the Green movement and vital to its success. However, as Matt Duss notes:

Attempting to establish the MEK as a genuine force in Iran, Pipes claims that “the number of street protesters arrested for association with the MeK points to its role in demonstrations.” No, it doesn’t. What it points to is the extent to which the Iranian regime wants to associate all reformers with the MEK in order to discredit them in the eyes of Iranians who might otherwise be sympathetic to their ideas (The picture at upper right shows a pro-regime demonstration with a picture of MEK leader Massoud Rajavi morphing into Mir Hossein Mousavi. This is not intended as a compliment.)

Supporting the MeK would be one of the obvious ways, along with bombing Iran (a tactic with inherent failings the MeK made obvious in its own early 1980s attacks) to unite the Iranian street and Greens with the regime. Supporting the MeK, an object of common disdain by Iranian leadership and protesters both, as Daniel Larison shows, would simultaneously undermine the Green movement and US-Iran relationship by encouraging a climate of paranoid national resistance to a foreign terrorist conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Even if the PMOI has truly abandoned its intentions to use terror and qualifies for removal from the FTO list, such a removal would serve absolutely no strategic benefit for the United States, and, if incorporated as part of a strategy to seek subversion or regime change in Iran, would contribute to a disastrous deterioration of relations, undermining of Iran’s opposition, and enhancement of Iranian regime security.

On the other hand, rumors about an Israeli strike on Iran continue to fly. Although many are fully aware of the danger Iran can pose to US security through its operations in areas such as the Strait of Hormuz, less widely acknowledged among Iran hawks is the utter certainty of facing those threats if we decide to launch an offshore attack on the country, as Ali Gharib explains. Furthermore, as Paul Pillar, via Daniel Larison, explains, the aerial attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could easily backfire and lead to an acceleration, hardening, and increasing weaponization of the Iranian nuclear program, as Israel’s strike on Osirak did.

Finally, there is the news of the Iranian navy’s plans to sail into the Atlantic, after making previous hysterics-inducing stops in the Red sea and Mediterranean. Now, never mind that the Iranian navy is optimized for littoral combat in the Persian Gulf, as previously noted, and explained in this piece. Iran will make some port calls with countries with vaguely pro-Iranain policies and even weaker militaries, but nothing of real strategic significance will change.

Presumably Iran hawks who insisted that bombing Iran during the height of the Green movement will produce regime change have had these preposterous hopes dashed with the reality of US military operations in Libya. Even though a large portion of Libya’s population was in armed revolt and Libya’s security services are a mere shadow of their counterparts in Iran, an international coalition failed to produce desired political effects with airstrikes. Needless to say initiating overt warfare against Iran now is an even worse idea than when the idea was last suggested, as US military commitments proliferate and its forces stretch thinner.

The bizarre ideas Iranian politics hatches in the minds of men underscores just how much of a missed opportunity US policy towards the county has often been. Had the Shah’s regime given way to a constitutional monarchy or a republic not led by either anti-American radicals such as the MeK or the theocrats which actually did take it over, the US would have had a much more dependable partner than those regimes it ended up strengthening its ties with. One can only hope that whether through change to the internal politics of Iran or the external politics of the US, some ability to reach a strategic accommodation might appear. In the meantime, the US would be better off avoiding descent into Iranian threat inflation or harebrained attempts at regime change or a disarming strike that characterize all too much of the foreign policy debate surrounding it.

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