The Iranian Political Game
There is snake pit of lies centered around the futile notion of a “Grand Bargain.” There is a dangerous delusion that has been permeating in D.C. now for some time of reasoning with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Snake charmers usually use the trick of enchanting snakes that have no fangs. An unpopular Iranian regime, (especially a nuclear-armed Iranian regime) is an untamable three-headed snake with vicious fangs that not only attacks its enemies and its own kind alike but spreads its venom to its neighbors and beyond. There has been a push by certain self-prescribed Iran experts to shed light on the conundrum that is the Iranian struggle. Instead of being “Progressive,” the ideas presented are actually “Regressive.” Instead of looking to the future with new, innovative, and proactive solutions that will benefit the U.S. and Iran’s people in the long term, they advance policies that rely on failed old world paradigms, Cold War-Era ideas of containment, and backwards logic that benefits only U.S. rivals.
If we look at those who have advocated this idea of the “Grand Bargain,” they all have one major thing in common. They have consistently tried to tie the idea of standing firm against the Iranian regime as being analogous to inciting war with Iran. This is a fallacy.
While there may be some who advocate the option of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, a vast majority of those who oppose bargaining and therefore appeasing the regime are fundamentally against war and military action with Iran. In the same way a magician uses misdirection to distract an audience while creating the illusion of something remarkable happening, there is the trick of misdirection and externalization of conflict being employed to distract policy makers from the true reality at hand. This element of misdirection has been utilized by Trita Parsi, Flint and Hillary Mann Leverett, as well as Zbigniew Brzezinski to court the Obama administration away from policies that would be firm on Iran in favor of those that end up helping the Iranian regime while gaining nothing for the U.S. on the nuclear front and simultaneously sacrificing the human rights of the Iranian people. To be clear, supporting a firm stance against the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, hegemonic rhetoric, and military and financial support for terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda, does not mean that this stance advocates a military strike in any way shape or form.
Advocates of a “Grand Bargain” maintain that engagement with the Iranian regime is the way to produce results by offering to lift sanctions and make assurances that the United States would not support regime change. We tried that. It failed. In the same way that “constructive engagement” failed in bringing an end to Apartheid in South Africa, engagement with Iran has also resulted in failure. A joint effort by both Democrats and Republicans to put sanctions and pressure on South Africa with set preconditions to lift the sanctions brought about the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which despite being vetoed by President Regan, became law by Congressional override and was vital to ending apartheid in South Africa. Not just in this administration, but in several past administrations, negotiating with the Iranian regime has been attempted. Instead of accepting the overtures of the United States and other UN nations to negotiate, Iran employs methods of stalling or ignoring UN resolutions which mirrors the path North Korea took before acquiring Nuclear weapons. In fact, the Iranian regime ignored UN Security Council resolutions regarding the Iranian nuclear program and were therefore forced to resort to sanctions. Currently, Iran is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons capability with reports indicating that with 20% Uranium, it could take Iran a year or less to build a nuclear weapon.
Opponents of taking a firm stance with Iran said that if the United States shows support for the Green Movement or makes a stronger statement on the stolen elections that the regime will once again externalize conflict and point to the U.S. and Britain as fomenting a coup d’état to oust the regime. The U.S. stayed silent and watched as the human rights abuses occurred and people were killed on the streets. The now poignant image of Neda, who was shot point blank by a government assassin while standing on the street, was witnessed by the world. What was the Iranian regime’s response? They blamed the street protests and opposition on the United States and Brittan anyway. They continued to move forward with the enrichment of Uranium, ignore UN orders, and suppress their own people. The advice given to stay out of the conflict because it would enable the regime to blame the U.S. for internal strife was bad advice. The people took to the streets, in videos still available on you tube, with chants of “Obama, you’re either with us or with them.” This clear call to U.S. leaders to take a firm side with the Iranian regime or the people was met with a deafening silence and a de facto alliance with the Iranian regime which produced no gains for U.S. interests. The past century in Iran has been marked by the struggle toward democracy from the parliamentary push, election of Mossadegh, and ousting of the Shah. It is clear that the Iranian people are neither in support of this current Islamic regime, any derivative of this regime, nor any other theocracy.
It is essential to understand the context in which certain policies are being advocated. Trita Parsi, an Iranian raised in Sweden and head of NIAC has been widely accused of supporting policies that in the end only advance the interests of the Iranian regime. NIAC is currently in a lawsuit in which this organization, though classified as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, has been accused of lobbying on behalf of the Islamic republic. Internal documents, which have come out during discovery, show Mr. Parsi’s dismissal of registering as a lobbyist because it would impede his ability to raise tax free donations or gift contributions as well as make him ineligible for federal grant money eligibility. Mr. Parsi worked for the now disgraced Congressmen Bob Ney who pled guilty to charges of conspiracy and making false statements in relation to the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal and served 17 months in prison. While working in Congressman Ney’s office, Mr. Parsi, a little known Congressional aid acting on behalf of Congressman Ney submitted a fax to the White House which was in Farsi that he received via the Swiss Embassy from the Iranian government seeking to reach a “Grand Bargain” with the Bush Administration. The Bush administration declined. Mr. Parsi has advocated dialogue and engagement with the regime and pushed the idea that not doing so is a de- facto support for war against Iran. Even after President Obama spoke directly to the Iranian people and the Iranian government during his Nowruz speech, overtures that Mr.Parsi himself recognized as openly trying to engage with the regime, were met with repugnation by Iran’s leaders, Mr. Parsi continued to push for the fruitless policy of engagement.
Meanwhile, Flint Leverett was working for the Bush administration and his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, served on the Iran desk of Bush’s National Security Council staff. Leverett has been invited to visit Iran, which is especially interesting considering most Americans, especially former members of the CIA like Leverett, who seek to enter Iran are denied entry on suspicion of being a spy. In 2003, Leverett’s wife, Hillary Mann received a fax from a Swiss diplomatic intermediary offering to bargain with the U.S. and thus began the rhetoric of the “Grand Bargain.” Most recently, the Leverett’s have voiced their opinions on their own website “Race for Iran” where they post their opinions without any real fact or merit. For example, one of their most unsubstantiated articles entitled “Ahmadenijad won: Get over it” is riddled with inaccurate statements and naïve assumptions.
It is no surprise that Leverett’s opinions run completely counter to that of his former boss, Richard Haas, who is current President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haas has stated that his expert opinion is that the Green Movement is real, engagement will do nothing but buy time for the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon, and the U.S. should take a harsher stance on the human rights violations being committed. Haas headed the State Department’s planning staff and Leverett worked under Haas. As one of the most respected experts on Iranian and foreign policy in general, Haas has pointed out the reality of the Iranian situation in numerous articles that have been published in Newsweek, The Times, and by CFR.
Zbignew Brezezinksi worked under Jimmy Carter’s administration during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic in power. Jimmy Carter’s statement that Iran was an “island of stability” in the Middle East when the government cracked under pressure only 2 years later is indicative of the short sightedness and misreading of Iran’s internal domestic situation which defined Brezezinski and Carter’s analysis. This same misinterpretation is occurring today with Brezezinski’s assertions that the Islamic regime is here to stay and we should deal with them. Brezezinksi was behind the planning of Operation Eagle Claw which was meant to free the American hostages during the Iran hostage crisis. The plan failed resulting in the death of eight American servicemen in a refueling accident after the plan was aborted due to a sandstorm. Brezezinski wrote an endorsement which appears on the back cover of Trita Parsi’s book, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of the U.S., Iran, and Israel.” The book is an expanded version of Parsi’s thesis to which Brezezinksi was his dissertation advisor. In addition, between 2002 and 2007 NIAC, the organization Parsi is head of, received a little under $200,000 from NED (National Endowment for Democracy) which Brzezinski was a board member of.
In 2007, John Limbert, former board member of NIAC and former State Department Iran policy expert under the Obama administarion met with Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the UN, a meeting arranged by Trita Parsi. This meeting, along with Limbert’s association with NIAC, has become a political liability for him. In his book, Negotiating with Iran, Limbert advocates a policy of engagement with the Iranian regime. In 2009, before the release of his book in an interview with Radio Free Europe, Limbert notes that he was wrong when it come to the revolution in 1979 and admits he “called it wrong really from the beginning and in the direction that it went.” Limbert advocates patience with the regime who he thinks will eventually come around. His book outlines 15 steps necessary in negotiating with the Iranian regime. Step 5 is entitled “Understand that the Islamic Republic’s priority is survival and its leaders’ priority is to stay in power.” He goes on to note, “Iran’s leaders see themselves surrounded by enemies seeking their removal and the Islamic Republic’s overthrow. The leaders of Iran will do what they believe they must do to ensure their and their regime’s survival. Facing this wary view of the world, American negotiators have both a problem and opportunity. On the negative side, American negotiators will encounter an assumption of bad faith and a wall of suspicion and mistrust from Iranian counterparts. On the positive side, a discussion can progress if negotiators can reassure the Iranian side that agreement will not destabilize the Islamic Republic and may, in fact, allow it to survive.”
Limbert acknowledged that fact that the Iranian regime is surrounded by enemies, namely the Iranian people, seeking the removal of the theocrats in power and the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The question is not “if” but “when.” The classic example is that of the Mossadegh in Iran in the 1950’s. The Iranian people demanded a voice for a long time and slowly the Shah was accommodating their demands by allowing the Prime Minister to be democratically elected. When Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil (which was solely in the hands of Britain in the form of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company called “Benzin Pars” within the country but was actually known as BP – “British Petroleum”), a plan was created to oust Mossadegh in a coup d’état and reinstate the Shah. When this happened, oil remained Nationalized. The people’s frustration with their hopes for democracy fomented for another 27 years until the 1979 revolution which began as many dissatisfied factions joined together against the Shah and showed their opposition by street protests, merchant strikes, and burning the oil fields. In a sweeping move, the loudest faction took control of the movement under Khomeini. The theocracy that resulted is widely seen as much worse than the Shah’s regime. Now, more than 30 years later we see real dissent fomenting again.
The underlying coherence of support by analysts espousing the need for engagement is widely seen as advocating policy that works in favor of the Iranian regime while gaining nothing for U.S. security, business, or Iranian human rights interests. When met with criticism of their policy analysis, the response is always an ad hominem attack to the person asserting the question. Remarks like “that is the neo-conservative perspective” or “that is what the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK/PMOI) would say” are the classic responses (which are the exact lines used by the Iranian regime’s intelligence operatives inside and outside of country). But, like any ad hominem attack, there is no substantive response to the question at hand of who benefits from this sit and wait tactic of engagement while the Iranian regime continues to shun real efforts at diplomacy and continues to develop nuclear capabilities while brutalizing its own population.
Reformist within the regime were not able to bring about the changes that people wanted (circa protests that made the cover of the Economist in 1999). The reformist, like Khatemi, were unable to change the system because the system itself, with its supreme leader Ali Khameini, Khomeini’s successor, would not allow it. As it became apparent the system would not change, the people became more aware that regime change via Referendum (like that which removed Pinochet in Chile) would be the best option. The election scandal of June 2009 made it apparent to the world, despite the government’s attempts at blocking reporters entry into the country, stifling of internet, and disruption of cell phone service, what was happening. The government’s widespread attempts at propaganda (i.e. busing in poor villagers with promises of food and payments of cash to attend state sponsored rallies in support of Ahmadenijad) did not close to equal the number of supporters that came out in the streets to protest in support of the Green Movement.
Many people within and outside of Iran try to take credit for being leaders of the Green Movement or being connected to them. The truth of the matter is that there is no true “leader” of the movement and the people themselves are the leaders. Moussavi himself has stated that the movement carried him, he did not carry the movement. Any statements made by Moussavi are extremely watered down versions of what the people in Iran actually want. Moussavi has been met with violent opposition from the regime and his nephew was shot and killed outside his home.
The Green Movement has evolved from “where is my vote” and demands of reform have shifted to demanding outright regime change in which a secular democracy is the end goal. The slogan of the movement has become ”Esteghlal(independence), Azadi (Freedom), Jomhouri Irani (Republic of Iran)”. The overwhelming consensus among the opposition is for a secular democratic government which respects basic human rights but those people who come out and say this are then targeted and forced to fear the wrath of the Iranian regime desperately trying to keep hold of its last remaining vestiges power. One of Iran’s most respected and senior clerics, Ayatollah Kazemeini Borojerdy, who advocates separation of religion and government and has been put into prison under brutal conditions for expressing his views. Heshmat Tabarzadi, a leading freedom activist advocates the separation of religion and government as well as invocation and adherence to a constitution based on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Mr. Tabarzadi spent nine years in Evin prison following the uprising in 1999 and after expressing his views which were published in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, he was again arrested and is currently in prison. In addition, Moussavi and Karoubi have noted the right of the people to chose their future for themselves.
The idea that the current regime is here to stay and reform is an option is not only antiquated and naïve but futile . In addition, the poor comparison made by some analysts between Nixon’s opening of relations to China during the cold war with opening relations to Iran today is weak and flawed. Iran, under Islamic theocracy, does not have the ability or potential to manufacture, nor openness to capitalism that the Chinese have. Additionally, the Tianemmen square protests and uprising that came about in China occurred after relations had opened up with China, not before. Attempts at opening up relations with Iran after the uprising of the Green movement would not only hurt American credibility on the human rights front but would create disdain which mirrors back to the betrayal felt by Iranians during the 1953 coup d’etat that ousted Mossadegh. Support for the Iranian regime today would be viewed by Iranians as another blow by America to Iranian’s hopes and sacrifices for democracy. The only real option for the United States and its P5+1 partners is to support the Iranian people’s desires for a referendum that will create a secular democratic regime through a coalition of the willing for a new Iranian government that is legitimate, transparent, recognizes human rights and respects the rule of law.
It is crucial that the U.S. take a stronger stance against the Iranian regime in the form of enforcing continuous strict targeted or smart sanctions, garnering international support from its P5+1 allies, and cutting off the ability of the Iranians regimes elite to travel or finance its endeavors. This will help to secure true U.S. interests which parallels the interests of the Iranian people and foster a new time for vast economic opportunity in sectors including but not limited to construction, copyright, technology, trade, and energy (Iran has vast oil and gas resources but not the ability to refine them due to lacking infrastructure and corruption within the government elite who have a strong hold over oil).
There are few times in history when a situation arises that allows for the answer to benefit almost all parties involved in a lasting and meaningful way. It is critical that the U.S. support the will of the Iranian people who have demanded a non-violent referendum, like that which ousted Pinochet in Chile. When regime change occurs sooner or later in Iran, the U.S. will have a new ally in the region, the hegemonic posturing and race for nuclear weapons will subside, trade and economic relations can normalize, the funding and support of terrorist organizations will significantly subside. This would create a ripple effect of peace in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, ease the Israeli -Palestinian conflict as a secular democratic Iran would no longer fund terrorist groups and bolster conflict. The only losing party in a truly democratic regime taking over via the will of the people in Iran is that of the corrupt leaders currently in power and the advocates who supported them.