Terrorists blur into freedom fighters
By Brian M Downing
Tensions between Iran on the one hand and the United States and Israel have eased substantially since war loomed just a few weeks ago.
Israeli politicians, generals and security experts have openly expressed opposition to attacking Iran. More recently, the hawkish coalition in power has brought in the Kadima party, a large moderate bloc whose leaders also oppose such a strike. The P5+1 talks – which include Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US plus Germany – on Iran’s nuclear program are scheduled to begin in Baghdad next week in this calmer atmosphere.
The Barack Obama administration has refused to support Israel’s “red line” of continued uranium enrichment, which would lead to an Israeli attack. Obama has presented a less restrictive red line of an actual weapons program, which would lead to an American attack.
Foreign powers should act to nudge Iran into accepting the US red line, which after all offers Tehran a victory of sorts over Israeli demands and threats. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the Sunni Gulf powers are obliging and this could adversely affect impending talks and political dynamics in Tehran as well.
The US recently deployed a number of F-22 fighters to an unnamed place in the region, probably the al-Dafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. These fighters have the latest stealth technology but have never seen combat. Iran must wonder how eager the US is to give their new planes a proper evaluation.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are discussing a political union, which would strengthen anti-Shi’ite resolve and weaken the traditional role of smaller Gulf states as balancers between the Saudi and Iranian powers who threaten to upset the neighborhood.
Perhaps the most objectionable act from Tehran’s view is the delisting of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which may come soon. At present, the US has designated the MEK a foreign terrorist organization, owing to its long career in assassinations and bombings.
Back in the days of the shah in Iran, the MEK attacked US military officers and defense contractors in the name of Marxism and anti-imperialism – prevailing creeds at the time. Able to adapt to new ideas and circumstances, the MEK fought the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regime then offered its services to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who gave them a home and a steady income. He also gave them steady work inside Iran during the murderous 1980-1988 war.
Following Saddam’s ouster (2003), Iran offered the US an exchange of al-Qaeda figures for MEK counterparts. It was all part of a wide-ranging diplomatic overture from Tehran that also put its nuclear program on the table. The State Department found the overture promising, but neo-conservatives in the White House rejected it out of hand – a blunt rejection that shapes Iran’s approach to dealing with the US to this day.
In recent weeks, millions of Americans have seen a welter of advertisements decrying the injustice of branding the MEK a terrorist organization. The ads are especially prominent on CNN, which has also allowed at least one anchor to repeatedly shade his otherwise reputable reporting in a manner supportive of attacking Iranian nuclear sites. The MEK ads present it as a democratic alternative to the mullahs in Tehran and as the victims of an unfortunate error in the State Department.
The media effort has been accompanied by supportive words from various retired generals and politicians, often made at prestigious social gatherings. Speakers are paid, often handsomely, though it isn’t clear by whom.
A clue may lie in the MEK’s current work. Its long career has brought them into the service of the Israel’s Mossad, which uses them to carry out its bombing and assassination campaigns against Iranian nuclear scientists. This in turn has jeopardized the MEK’s base camp in Iraq, which is more sympathetic to Iran than to Israel or the US – a point made in the ads.
The rehabilitated view of the MEK is not shared by Human Rights Watch or by independent Iranian exile groups. The latter persist in seeing it as a terrorist group and even as an obstacle to positive change in Iran. The leadership in Iran makes judgments in the context of their political culture, which has been formed by British and Russian occupation, the Anglo-American coup of 1953 and Iraq’s invasion that killed 800,000 Iranians.
The MEK-Mossad campaign fits neatly into the contours of this culture – and strengthens it. Further, it builds support between the regime and the Iranian populace. Many of them yearn for reform, but almost all of them share the regime’s view of abhorrent forces all around them.
The US’s delisting the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization would weaken popular support for reform as many Iranians will see reformists as echoing the sentiments of menacing foreign powers. Similarly, delisting the MEK would weaken moderates in the ranks of the mullahs and the state. Perhaps most significantly, it would strengthen and embolden Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is eager to effect its own political changes by replacing vacillating mullahs with steadfast generals.
Delisting the MEK would call for synchronization across the sprawling American bureaucracy. The MEK’s woeful designation is found in the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, Homeland Security and a dozen or more bureaus.
If one or more of them failed to delete the MEK from its terrorism roll, it might give the appearance of incoherence and even hypocrisy in US foreign policy.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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