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Time to Confront Iran’s Theocracy On all Fronts
by David Johnson
05 April 2004

As long as Iran is ruled by a theocratic regime there will be no specter of freedom and popular governance for Iranians, no end to the meddling in Iraq, and no relief from Iran’s nuclear and terrorist threats.

Last weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported Iran has set up a committee consisting of senior officials to coordinate the concealment of key elements of the country's nuclear program from UN inspectors. The Times adds that the committee's most pressing tasks include trying to hide nuclear evidence at nearly 300 locations around the country.

And last Saturday, just a few hours before the arrival of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection team, Tehran suddenly announced the inauguration of a uranium processing plant in the central city of Isfahan, which had begun operation "some time ago." This facility was previously brought to the world’s attention by Iran’s main opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance (NCR), as an integral part of the mullahs’ nuclear weapons program

The Isfahan site is on the IAEA’s itinerary. Concerned that concealment efforts for this plant were inadequate, Iranian officials preemptively declared it to IAEA inspectors. It appears Iranian officials are only willing to disclose nuclear secrets to the IAEA when the IAEA is about to verify the secrets they already know.

Simultaneously, a much less reported but no less significant series of events has been taking place in Iran. Iranians are showing their disdain of the mullahs on a nearly daily basis by waging protests across the country. A few weeks ago, residents in the northern Iranian city of Feraydoon Kenar took to the streets for four days. During the traditional Festival of Fire that precedes the Iranian New Year, Iranians in many major cities came to the streets, turning the festivities into an act of anti-regime defiance. Anti-government demonstrations have also erupted in several cities in Iranian Kurdistan such as Boukan, Marivan, and Sanandaj, the provincial capital. Residents there are protesting to “show their solidarity with the Iraqi Kurds, who have gained the right of autonomy after years of repression.”

On the Iraqi front, Iran’s mullahs have stepped up their campaign to increase their influence in that country. Tehran has two main objectives in Iraq: to create a client regime there and to rid itself from its Iraq-based main opposition, the Iranian Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK).

Since coming to power in 1979, the mullahs have considered Iraq the ideal springboard to export “Islamic Revolution” throughout the region. They view a pro-Tehran Iraq as a counterweight to the advancement of democracy in the Middle East. Clearly, a secular democratic Iraq would be a strategic blow to Tehran. For now, US policy makers should expect Iran to address the threat it perceives from the US in Iraq with terrorist violence.

The Tehran regime has mounted an increasingly sophisticated, multi-phased and multi-faceted campaign in Iraq. It has been flooding Iraq’s holy Shia cities with agents disguised as “pilgrims.” The mullahs have also dispatched thousands of preachers to Iraqi cities to propagate their views. They have also established dozens of quasi-political organizations under the benign pretext of humanitarianism. Local Iraqis have complained that many Iranians are paying huge sums to buy houses for Tehran’s agents who are skillfully embedding themselves in these cities. The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards Corps are involved in at least three broadcast streams being pumped into Iraq.

Iran is also hell-bent on eliminating the Mujahideen-e Khalq. Last December, the Iraqi Interim Governing Council (IGC) issued a resolution, which was the brainchild of Tehran, calling for the expulsion of the MEK from its bases in Iraq as a prelude to hand over the dissidents to Iran. Raymond Tanter and Patrick Clawson, both with the Washington Institute, argued against such a deal, saying that, “Trading the human rights of innocent people for political expediency would be a tragic move, to say the least.” According to the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the year 2002, “supporters of outlawed political organizations, such as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization, were believed to make up a large number of those executed each year” in Iran.

The Mujahedeen proponents and detractors, alike, share the view that the group “is singularly dedicated to one goal: overthrowing its ‘archenemy,’ the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The mullahs are convinced that the group is still in a position to influence the political landscape in Iran. The Washington Post described the IGC’s expulsion order as “a surprise move that could alter the regional balance of power” and a “significant political and security gain for Iran,” since there are no other “major opposition groups operating on any of Iran's borders.” Last January, the Inter Press Service quoting Asgar Nazemi, a recently retired officer of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, as saying that “in truth our government has more important issues to handle these days, that is getting the Mujahedeen Khalq Organization expelled from Iraq. Saddam’s capture or his trial has no immediate fruit for us.”
Many Washington pundits may be fascinated with the “neo-conservative” vs. the “realist” paradigm to frame the Iran policy debates, where “regime change” is attributed to the “neo-cons” and “engagement” is attributed to the “realists.” Nothing could be further from the truth than suggesting that the call for regime change in Iran is the brainchild of the “neo-cons.” Iranians by the millions have been demanding regime change for two decades. Cemeteries and secret mass graves in Iran, where political dissents are buried, are testimony to the price paid by regime change advocates inside Iran.  The student uprising of 1999 in Tehran gave us all just a glimpse of this undeniable yearning of Iranians for a secular and democratic government. Learning from the century old tradition of resisting despotism, Iranians have shown their disdain of the mullahs on a daily basis. The Iranian regime and its advocates like nothing more than pretending the call for "regime change" is a "foreign" and imported notion, not an indigenous one.

The anti-government acts of protest in different parts of Iran, the ominous cat and mouse game Tehran is playing with the IAEA, and the mullahs’ sinister campaign to undermining democratization in Iraq, all share a common thread: As long as Iran is ruled by a theocratic regime there will be no specter of freedom and popular governance for Iranians, no end to the meddling in Iraq, and no relief from Iran’s nuclear and terrorist threats. In the long run, only a roadmap that includes a solid policy of support for Iran’s democratic opposition groups and their campaign to replace Iran’s theocratic despots with a secular, peaceful democracy, will lead the United States, Iraqis and Iranians to the secure and free future they all envision. 

In the meantime, the United States should block Tehran’s drive to derail the legitimate desire of Iraqis for pluralism and democratic institutions. It should also prevent Tehran from reaching the nuclear point of no return by leading the effort in the IAEA to report Iran’s case to the UN Security Council. In addition, Washington should not entertain the idea of handing over Mujahedeen members, partially or as a whole, to the mullahs. This would be inhumane, strategically counter-productive, and against our stated policy of no deals with terrorist regimes.

David Johnson is a co-founder of the US Alliance for Democratic Iran and its Director of Operations.

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