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New options for Obama’s Iran policy

Fox News, December 14, 2008

Alireza Jafarzadeh (Foreign Affairs Analyst)

The recent rise in anti-government protests in Iran, coupled with escalating political strife within the leadership of the ayatollahs’ regime, present President-elect Barack Obama and his foreign policy team with options for a viable new Iran policy.

Tehran’s dysfunctional oil-based economy, already under a plethora of UN, U.S. and EU sanctions, is reeling from the drastic fall in oil prices. Meanwhile, Iran’s next presidential election is fast approaching in June 2009, and the political wrangling has never been more widespread.

The vicious infighting, widely known among Iranians as “the fight among wolves,” will not produce a more dovish faction as some trans-Atlantic advocates of Tehran assert. It is likely to result in a more isolated, much weaker, albeit more belligerent faction. This process presents a real threat to the ayatollahs because it coincides with a rise in anti-government protests which the regime has been unable to completely suppress, despite ever harsher measures and ever more executions and arrests.

Over the past few weeks, college students throughout Iran staged anti-government rallies which reached their peak on December 6 — Student Day. Students at Tehran’s Polytechnic (Amirkabir) University protested, under the watchful eyes of the State Security Forces, chanting “We are fighters, men and women; fight us and we will fight,” and “The student movement is prepared for an uprising.” In recent years Polytechnic has been a hotbed of ferocious demonstrations. In December 2006, students set Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s photos on fire during his appearance as a speaker.

Acts of protest on other major campuses have also been reported in recent days by sources of the Iranian resistance. Students protested at the Journalism University in Tehran, Azad University of Shahreyar, Sistan and Baluchestan University, Azad University in the southwestern city of Dezful, Boali Sina University in the western city of Hamedan, just to name a few. As usual they were met with deployments of the State Security Forces (SSF) and agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

At Shiraz University, protesters shouted “Long live freedom,” and “No matter what happens, we stand to the end.” Back in February, nearly 1,500 students defied the SSF, which had surrounded the campus and cordoned off the area as local residents gathered in nearby streets in solidarity. Students shouting “We will not live in shame” took over the administration building.

Similar protests have been staged by workers and teachers, whose economic grievances quickly escalated to specific political demands targeting the regime and its entire leadership. Workers at Kiyan-Tire factory have been on strike since April. Their recent protest rally in Tehran was attacked by the SSF, and a number of workers beaten and arrested. The protesters shouted, “Workers are ready to rise. This is your last chance.” Local residents and youths joined in support of the striking workers and clashed with the SSF units.

The regime’s savagery, including public executions, flogging, eye-gouging, and limb amputations, has not deterred the populace. Still, state-controlled media report a new suppressive measure almost every day. In March, the U.S. State Department reported that in 2007, Iran’s “poor human-rights record worsened, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses… The law criminalized dissent and applied the death penalty to offenses such as apostasy.”

In mid-November, Brig. Gen. Azizollah Rajabzadeh, chief of police for greater Tehran, announced the conclusion of a six-day security “maneuver” in the capital. Although billed as a measure to fight “crimes” and “criminals,” the maneuver clearly demonstrated the regime’s fear of the opposition. Many local residents were baffled by the anti-riot tactics and assortment of heavy weaponry, such as mortar launchers, brandished by the State Security Forces. Rajabzadeh announced that “30,000 SSF agents with 4,000 military vehicles and 50 helicopters had guaranteed Tehran’s security.”

Meanwhile Morteza Tamadon, Tehran’s governor, announced the formation of yet another security organ called the “Council for Providing Security.” According to Tamadon, “The new body consists of thirteen other security councils working in Tehran Province to ensure durable security for citizens.”

In recent weeks, the regime’s officials have been talking a lot about the “sensitive” and “critical” conditions engulfing their “system” at home and abroad. Calls by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for unity are falling on deaf ears. As usual, Tehran’s leaders have turned to belligerence and rogue behavior at home and abroad, specifically with regard to Iraq and the nuclear weapons program.

Until now, successive U.S. administrations have essentially vacillated between outright appeasement and inconsistent containment. But the ayatollahs’ admitted fear of the enemy within presents the incoming administration with a clear choice. Tehran’s ruling clerics are scrambling for survival. The absence of a clear-thinking US policy benefits the ayatollahs’ efforts to get the bomb and turn Iraq into a sister Islamic Republic.

The United States should hit the mullahs where it hurts: remove the politically-motivated and ill-advised terror tag from the main Iranian opposition, the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), as proposed by a large, bi-partisan group of American lawmakers. This label has hamstrung the movement for democratic change in Iran at a time when the unshackled presence of all of Iran’s democratic opposition groups will decisively change the balance of power to the detriment of the ayatollahs’ regime.

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