“Leave Us Alone,” Iranian Reformers Say
December 2006 Issue
Back in March, the Bush Administration released its new “National Security Strategy of the United States,” and regime change in Iran leaps out of it as a goal. “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,” the document baldly states in a grand exaggeration. And for all the recent talk about Iran’s nuclear threat, the document does not confine its discussion of Iran to the nuclear issue. “The United States has broader concerns,” it says. “The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism, threatens Israel, seeks to thwart Middle East peace, disrupts democracy in Iraq, and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom.”
All of these issues, along with the nuclear one, “can ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people,” the document states. “This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy.” President Bush and Condoleezza Rice may stress in public that they are giving diplomacy a try, but this document makes clear that they have something else in mind.
If the Bush Administration attacks Iran, it would be violating the U.N. Charter. And it would also be violating the Algiers Accord that the United States signed with Iran in 1981 to end the hostage crisis. Point I, paragraph 1, of that accord states, “The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs.”
Not only is the goal of regime change illegal, it is also unachievable.
“Democracy cannot be imported, nor can it be given to a people by invading their nation, nor by bombing them with cluster bombs. It must be indigenous,” says Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights advocate who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
The Administration has refused to rule out the possibility of military strikes, and even the use of nuclear weapons, on Iran’s nuclear facilities and beyond, as if the Iraq quagmire has not taught it anything. And Iran is not Iraq. Iraq was formed only in 1932 with artificial boundaries that have no historical roots. Iran, on the other hand, has existed for thousands of years as an independent nation. Hence, Iranian nationalism is extremely fierce. Military strikes on Iran would create a potent mixture that combines fierce Iranian nationalism with the Shiites’ long tradition of martyrdom in defense of their homeland and religion. The attacks would engulf the entire region in flames.
“Iranians will not allow a single U.S. soldier to set foot in Iran,” declares Ebadi, and this is a woman who has been imprisoned by Iran’s hardliners and is constantly harassed for her work on behalf of political prisoners.
Armchair warriors, such as William Kristol, have been claiming that intense bombing of Iran will lead to an uprising by Iranians. The absurd argument is that, “We will destroy Iran, but Iranians will love us for bombing them, and hate the hardliners.” Although a large majority of Iranians despise the hardliners, anyone who has the slightest familiarity with Iran’s history knows that intense bombing of Iran will not lead to their downfall. Rather, it will help them consolidate power.
“The conservatives need an external enemy in order to preserve their power,” says Mohammad Reza Khatami, a leading reformist and younger brother of the former president. By creating an unnecessary crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, the Administration has played right into the hands of Iran’s hardliners.
After Saddam Hussein and his regime were swiftly overthrown in 2003, the government of reformist President Mohammad Khatami suspended the uranium enrichment program and began negotiating with Britain, France, and Germany. The negotiations could have led to tangible results, but because they did not involve regime change in Iran, they were scuttled by the U.S. The Iranian hardliners now point to those good-faith negotiations with the EU troika and say, with much credibility, that it was the United States that prevented an agreement. The result is that the generally pro-U.S. Iranian people are now behind the hardliners when it comes to the issue of Iran’s right to the complete nuclear fuel cycle.
During Iran’s presidential elections of 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran on a platform of “bringing the oil wealth to people’s homes,” promising a robust economy, elimination of corruption, and ample employment opportunities for Iran’s young and educated people. It has now become clear that Ahmadinejad could not deliver on those promises. Knowing this, he has used the U.S.-created nuclear crisis not only for inciting Iranian nationalism, but also for distracting people’s attention from Iran’s vast economic, social, and political problems, as well as attempting to suppress Iran’s democratic movement.
“The best the U.S. government can do for democracy in Iran is to leave us alone,” Akbar Gangi, an Iranian investigative journalist who spent six years in prison for reporting on the murder of dissidents by Iran’s intelligence agents, said on a recent trip to the United States.
Iran has a wide spectrum of reformist and democratic groups that are all against U.S. intervention in Iran’s internal affairs and its goal of regime change. They favor political evolution and have made it clear that, for many reasons, they will not work with the United States. Many wonder aloud why the U.S. did nothing when the reformist Khatami was elected in 1997. Washington could have lifted its economic sanctions against Iran that hurt only ordinary Iranians, but it did not. After Khatami’s government helped the U.S. defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, President Bush responded by listing Iran as a charter member of the “axis of evil.”
The Bush Administration is hard-pressed to find any Iran-based political group to work with. So, it can only work with groups in exile. One is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq Organization (MKO), a cult that is listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization but supported by the neoconservatives. Iranians despise the MKO for acting as a spying outfit for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The second group consists of Iranian monarchists, who are a spent force, a relic of a dark past.
As with Iraq, the Administration has also been trying to manufacture intelligence to incriminate Iran. There is now an “Office of Iranian Affairs” at the State Department that is a duplicate of the Pentagon’s “Office of Special Plans” for the invasion of Iraq.
Just as the Pentagon used unreliable Iraqi exiles to hype the case for that war, so, too, the neoconservatives are enlisting such Iranian curveballs as Manouchehr Ghorbanifar, Alireza Jafarzadeh, Ali Safavi, and Mohammad Mohaddesin. Ghorbanifar is an arms dealer who played a key role in the Iran-Contra affair, and has ties with the neoconservatives—in particular, Michael Ledeen. The others have connections with the MKO. Similar to their Iraqi counterparts, they have been making outlandish claims about Iran’s nuclear program, almost all of which have been proven by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be false.
In their search for Iranian Ahmad Chalabis, the neoconservatives have been looking to Abbas Fakhravar, who falsely presents himself as a leader of Iranian students; Akbar Atri, an Iranian member of the Committee on the Present Danger; and Rob Sobhani, who has connections to Iran’s monarchists. None has any credibility in Iran. Fakhravar and Sobhani are not even known there.
“The Chalabis do not bring democracy to their homelands,” Gangi said in October when he received the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
The propaganda offensive already has begun, fueled by the $56 million that Congress has appropriated ostensibly to bring democracy to Iran. U.S.-funded radio and satellite TV networks are beaming programs into the country. But Iranian monarchists have, for years, been broadcasting into Iran, with no impact. Similarly, the Persian programs broadcast into Iran by the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe, while listened to, are widely discounted, simply because Iranians do not believe that foreign-funded broadcasts are objective.
Then there are the exaggerated news, outright lies, and unsubstantiated claims that Iran’s enemies plant in newspapers around the world. A recent story in the New York Post by Amir Taheri, an Iranian monarchist and neoconservative, about Iran’s parliament debating a law for regulating a special dress code for Iranian Jews turned out to be completely false.
With his deplorable statements regarding Israel and the Holocaust, President Ahmadinejad has not helped the situation any. But within Iran’s political power structure, important decisions regarding its foreign policy and national security are not made by its president. Iran’s official policy is to recognize the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, if the Palestinians also accept it.
Much has been made of Iran enriching a minuscule amount of uranium at 4.8 percent that is far from serviceable in the making of nuclear weapons. By contrast, Brazil enriched uranium to a 20 percent level and limited IAEA’s visits to its enrichment facilities. South Korea, Taiwan, and Egypt have all been caught by the IAEA trying to secretly enrich uranium or design a nuclear bomb or engage in experiments without declaring them to the IAEA. But where is the U.S. outrage at such violations? And Israel, of course, already has about 200 nuclear weapons, and Pakistan, Iran’s neighbor to the east, is also armed with nuclear weapons.
Such hypocrisy has angered Iranian reformists and human rights advocates. “In fighting nuclear proliferation, all countries must be treated equally,” Gangi said in The Washington Post. “The Iranian people do not accept double standards in this matter.”
Nor will they accept aggression.
Muhammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California who has written about Iran’s nuclear program and its political developments. He has also worked with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi in helping to communicate to U.S. audiences what is going on in Iran.