February 13, 2005


Tough U.S. stance on Iran brings echoes of Iraq debate: Emerging strategy against Tehran focuses on strengthening exile groups (Robert Collier, February 9, 2005, SF Chronicle)

In place of negotiations, the administration and many members of Congress seem to be suggesting that the Iranian people should revolt. In his State of the Union speech, Bush seemed to signal such an approach, saying, "To the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

Last month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would authorize direct aid to opposition radio and television stations. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, and 49 other House members. A likely recipient of this aid would be NITV, a Los Angeles satellite station that beams its programs into Iran 24 hours a day.

"We think what is needed in Iran is not bullets but information about democracy," said Zia Atabay, a former Iranian pop star who is president of NITV and leads one of its news programs. "The United States has to provoke a democratic discussion in Iran."

Atabay's station is the most prominent foreign-based media outlet to Iran, and its views generally represent the 1 million Iranians in the United States, many of whom live in Southern California and went into exile when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1979 revolution.

Many proponents of this approach call it the "Solidarity strategy," likening it to the U.S. aid to the union-led opposition in Poland in the 1980s that eventually succeeded in overthrowing that country's communist regime.

But Iran's opposition has no equivalent to Solidarity, and its political parties, student groups and nongovernmental organizations are divided and in retreat as the government continues a gradual crackdown on dissent.

A more muscular strategy with support in Washington is modeled after Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the loose coalition of militias that did most of the fighting for the United States in defeating the Taliban in 2001.

The key tool in this strategy is the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, an Iranian guerrilla force that has 4,000 fighters housed in a U.S.-guarded military base north of Baghdad. This group, known as MEK, is supported by some Washington neoconservatives and liberals, as well as by many European lawmakers, but nonetheless has been designated since 1997 as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

The group has suspended its guerrilla activities within Iran since 2001, apparently hoping to improve its international reputation. Its backers hope the administration soon will take the MEK off the terrorist list and give it a green light to resume guerrilla activities in Iran.

"The MEK is very much hoping for a combination of Chalabi and Northern Alliance," said Abbas Milani, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, referring to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi leader who used his influence with Bush administration conservatives to help build support for invading Iraq. "They want to be picked as foot soldiers and intelligence (operatives) for the United States," Milani said.

The MEK's Paris-based civilian leadership avoids openly appealing for U.S. aid but makes clear that it sees itself as a U.S. ally.

Shahin Gobadi, a member of the foreign relations committee for the MEK's political wing, the National Council for Resistance in Iran, praised Bush's State of the Union speech. "The remarks by Bush were a very necessary and important step for distancing the West from its appeasement of the fascist dictatorship in Iran," he said. "But we hope for further, more practical steps in confronting this regime. We should be freed to help lead the opposition to the mullahs."

Most analysts say the MEK has little support within Iran, mostly limited to professionals and students, and outside Iran it is seen as a cult run by its husband-and-wife leadership, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.

The MEK has been a major source of U.S. intelligence on Iran's alleged nuclear program, producing evidence of clandestine centrifuge production that has proved accurate when checked by U.N. inspectors. Other allegations by the MEK have been proved wrong, however, and experts warn that the Bush administration is making the same mistakes on Iran as it did before leading the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"There is an eerie similarity to the events preceding the Iraq war," David Kay, who directed the CIA's search for weapons of mass destruction in postwar Iraq, wrote in an op-ed article in Monday's Washington Post. "Now is the time to pause and recall what went wrong with the assessment of Iraq's WMD program and try to avoid repeating those mistakes in Iran."

Mr. Kay seems to have missed something: democratic Iraq has no WMD programs and its government doesn't support terrorist groups. Those "mistakes" should be applied to Iran.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2005 6:40 PM

If you are right about Sistani, Iraq will be exporting democracy to Iran instead of Iran exporting mullah dominated terrorist-supporting totalitarianism to Iraq. Ah, the lamentations of the MSM will be a wonder to behold.

Posted by: Pat H at February 13, 2005 10:43 PM

It is only a matter of time before State and CIA start pushing stories about how Iraq is undermining the 'stability' of Iran, creating a 'threat' to the whole region.

The military, political and economic reality of the region is that there is no way the US will engage in military action against the mullahs unless the Iranians or their catspaws do something significant against us other than in Iraq.

Posted by: Bart at February 14, 2005 7:00 AM