Politics & Policy

Boxed In on Iran

A "third option": support the dissidents.

The Iranian regime’s policy of intimidation and humiliation of the U.S. is paying off–but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants even more.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently announced that the U.S. is prepared to join other countries in holding direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, on the condition that Iran first stop disputed nuclear activities. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, had said a few days earlier that if the mullahs abandon efforts to enrich uranium, they can remain in power. It certainly looks as if nuclear weapons have bought leverage for a terrorist regime.

Some say the U.S. policy hasn’t changed, that this is just a tactical move; others believe there is a real acknowledgement of the regime’s legitimacy. In either case, one thing is clear: The policy is demoralizing for the Iranian dissidents.

Let’s say the Islamic regime eventually accepts the U.S. offer, after the U.S. meets all of the regime’s conditions–which include the lifting of sanctions, removal of Iran from the list of terrorist regimes, the release of frozen assets, acceptance in the WTO, more aid from the World Bank, and (above all) a guarantee that there will be no U.S. attempt at regime change. The strategy will have succeeded in bringing a member of the “axis of evil” into the approving embrace of the world community. Nothing could be more devastating to the democracy movement in Iran: Those who struggle for a secular democracy in that country would find themselves betrayed and facing a brutal regime that is now formally supported by the entire world.

But what if Iran rejects any and all U.S. offers? The U.S. has shown the world community that it has exhausted all the peaceful avenues. Then what? The Iran problem would be referred to the U.N. Security Council–which, if successful, will only force the brutal regime to accept the incentives that it rejected when offered by the U.S. What an achievement! Under this scenario, too, a brutal terrorist regime will join the world community; and it will end in a similar betrayal of freedom-loving Iranians.

Another possibility is military intervention of some kind. The Iraq experience has shown us some of the difficulties of this option; and Iran would be tougher than Iraq. In the event of a military strike by the U.S. or Israel, the Iranian regime would consider itself a victim of aggression, attracting the sympathy of the world community and crushing the Iranian opposition harder than ever. By standing against U.S. aggression, they would become the champions of the people–gaining greater support from terrorist groups and moving toward regional hegemony. This scenario, too, would be tragic. Iranians’ fight for human rights and dignity against a religious dictatorship would suffer a devastating blow.

Neither of these two U.S. policy extremes–making friendly overtures to the regime, and attacking it militarily–is in the interests of the Iranian people or of the world community. The rhetorical “regime change” stand of the U.S. has been masterfully portrayed by the regime’s supporters as the U.S.’s intention to resolve the conflict with Iran by force. By manipulating the current antiwar sentiment of American public, they have promoted the other extreme, the policy that advocates befriending the regime.

Ironically, the U.S. rhetorical stand of “regime change” that pro-regime forces are exploiting has never manifested itself in any meaningful action against the interests of the Iranian regime. The so-called sanctions mainly exist on paper. U.S. companies have been doing business with the regime. The U.S. market is full of Iranian goods: huge amounts of carpet, pistachios, caviar, and other products. It should be noted that the regime and its financial institutions have a hand in every deal; this has made a mockery of the sanctions.

On the diplomatic front, even though the U.S. has not had a formal relationship with the regime since the hostage crisis 25 years ago, back-door diplomacy has been under way; the terrorist regime has been legitimized in many ways, including being consulted regarding the Afghanistan and Iraq situations.

In spite of the U.S. law that considers any sort of association with terrorist regimes a crime, pro-regime lobbying groups and individuals have been openly rooting for friendly relations with the Islamic regime that is on the State Department list of terrorists. The American Iranian Council (AIC) has been in the forefront of such efforts and has continuously hosted high-ranking members of the regime in the U.S. Under the disguise of cultural exchange, the regime has organized many meetings, conferences, and exhibitions in the U.S., and even operates TV and radio stations here. The sponsors of the AIC, listed on its website, include all major U.S. oil companies.

President Bush and many others have used the words “Standing with the Iranian people” to describe the U.S. policy. Unfortunately, this expression still exists only at the verbal level; it has yet to be embodied in actual policies. My organization, the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran (MEHR), has been actively involved in defense of political prisoners and asylum seekers–and we have tried for months, in vain, to persuade the State Department to grant some sort of visa to a known political prisoner whose situation has been addressed in the State Department and Amnesty International reports. What sort of standing with the Iranians is this?

The State Department grant offered to Iranian dissidents is contingent upon changes in U.S. policy and can stop at any moment. This makes any serious planning by the dissidents impossible; credible individuals and groups are deterred from committing to a program to which its grantors are themselves not fully committed. Moreover, a big chunk of the State Department grant is going to radio and TV programming through Voice of America and Radio Farda–which have been promoting supporters of the regime, including Houshang Amir Ahmadi, who heads the AIC and was a presidential candidate in the recent Iranian elections.

The natural outcome of this type of “regime change” and “standing with the Iranians” is exactly what we are witnessing: The U.S. is humiliating itself to prove that it is not for the military option. And to do this, it has fallen into the other trap, the trap of befriending one of the most brutal dictatorships of our time.

The Iranian regime is a danger to the life and security of not only the Iranians but also the entire world. It cannot change and must be removed. This cannot be achieved by foreign invasion. There is a third option that, if adopted, can eliminate the danger of the regime. The details of this “Third Option” have been discussed elsewhere in a piece that basically argues that the Iranian people are capable of changing the regime if the regime is not supported by the West, and especially not by the U.S. One of the main reasons that many Iranian people who are against the regime are not active is that they are clever: They evaluate their balance of power against their enemy. They see that they are facing not only a brutal regime that is heavily armed, but an entire world that is falling over itself to support their oppressor.

Adopting this third option will come at no cost to the American people. It merely asks the U.S. to stop recognizing this regime, making financial deals with it, and legitimizing it. A smart sanction against the regime will show the Iranian people that the world community is with them and is willing to weaken their enemy. This will encourage the people to arm themselves with the weapon of nonviolence and civil disobedience and, by toppling this terrorist regime, eliminate the dangers it poses to the world.

–Mohammad Parvin is an adjunct professor at the California State University and founding director of the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran.

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