Jhe Islamic Republic of Iran poses a serious challenge to both the United States and the region.
Two decades after exposing Iran’s then-secret nuclear enrichment program, Tehran is close to a nuclear weapon, even by its own admission. Its Revolutionary Guards support the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, the Houthis and various Iraqi militias. The regime openly engages in hostage diplomacy. Meanwhile, US Iran policy has become a political football, with partisanship trumping any honest assessment of what works and what doesn’t.
But there are three strategies, sometimes openly embraced and sometimes percolating just under the surface in internal political debates and think tanks, doomed to failure. If the United States really cares about controlling the growing threat of the Islamic Republic and allowing the Iranian people to embrace a moderate future, then it’s time to come to a consensus on what not to do.
First, it is time to withdraw all support from the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, also known as the MEK. At best, the group is a creepy cult; at worst, it is a terrorist group. What it is not and has never been is popular or democratic. Maryam Rajavi, leader of the group and “president-elect” of its political front, is the closest Iranians have to the late American conspiracy theorist and peddler Lyndon LaRouche. Iranians living inside Iran may not agree on much, but they despise the MEK based on its terrorism and its past alliances with Ayatollah Khomeini, then, after falling out with him, Saddam Hussein.
The fact that the group sometimes reveals intelligence is not a measure of its influence or infiltration within the Iranian system. First, his intelligence is often mistaken. Second, even if true, it simply represents how the Israelis, Saudis, or perhaps even the CIA are using the group to launder information to the public so that the true fingerprints of those who gathered it are not exposed. . Any endorsement or membership of the MEK is a gift to the Islamic Republic, as it allows the regime to rally an otherwise apathetic public around the flag.
Second, forget any division of Iran along ethnic lines. Iran is an ethnically diverse country: Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Lors and others. But that does not mean that it is an artificial state that is collapsing. While many states arose in the context of ethnonationalism in the 19th or 20th centuries, Persian statehood predates several millennia. Attempts to instigate ethnic separatism in Iran by the Soviets after World War II or in Iraq in 1979 failed, but in each case the backlash resulted in a stronger Iranian dictatorship. True, some Azeris might chant slogans at football matches and Arabs rally against the regime’s corruption, but in each case the broader motivation is antipathy toward a corrupt regime rather than a desire for independence. Consider Tabriz: it may be ethnically Azeri, but it’s also an ancient capital of Iran, the traditional seat of the crown prince, and the epicenter of Iran’s constitutional movement. Bringing Iran into the international community means winning over Iranians of all ethnicities and sects, without signaling to them that the goal is the destruction of Iran.
The final strategy guaranteed to backfire is endless diplomacy.
Proponents are wrong to say that “maximum pressure” didn’t work. Such a claim, however, is not proof that financing the Iranian regime is wise. Because of the Revolutionary Guards’ stranglehold on the economy, any windfall from sanctions relief bolsters the more reactionary elements of the regime. More importantly, the engagement for its own sake ignores the Islamic Republic’s motivations: both ideological and tactical. For the White House, diplomacy could be about finding a win-win solution. For Iran, this is an asymmetrical war strategy to distract the adversary while the centrifuges spin and the terrorist groups arm themselves.
There is no magic formula for resolving disputes with Iran, nor shortcuts. It will take bipartisan solidarity, a credible military threat, maximum pressure and strategy to break the Revolutionary Guards’ rock-solid hold on society. But first, it’s important to let go of strategies that do more harm than good.
Michael Rubin (
) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner Confidential Beltway. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.