Baltimore Sun, January 5, 2010
Foreign Affairs Analyst and Iran Expert
In streets across Iran, on rooftops late at night and city walls, the cry now is “Death to Khamenei!” and “Death to the dictator!” There is no question that the nationwide uprisings target nothing less than the foundation of Iran’s ruling theocracy.
After seven months of murder, rape and torture, the arrests of hundreds of dissidents, and a brutal crackdown in the streets, the theocratic regime has failed to turn back the movement. Both the opposition and the regime are on an irreversible path that can only lead to the latter’s downfall. As the opposition deepens and spreads, the political fissures at the top, including within the clergy, will also expand. There is no going back.
The increasingly desperate regime will resort to more violence in coming weeks. The trend was evident in the scale of brutality displayed by the regime’s security forces last week on the Shiite holy day of Ashura. Hundreds of protesters were wounded and at least 11 killed when storm troopers opened fire. But the brute force is no longer decisive or even effective. A video on YouTube shows a young woman shouting back at a government agent filming her: “Take my picture, film my face – you can’t silence me.”
The wheels of change ending the reign of the mullahs’ regime are rolling, and it is a matter of when, not if. As one protester recently told an American newspaper, “At the end, this government must go.”
The battle raging in Iran is the culmination of more than 30 years of a corrupt, backward, financially incompetent religious dictatorship. Tehran’s ayatollahs have killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents. In 1988, they massacred thousands of political prisoners in the span of several months. They have plundered Iran’s vast natural resources to sponsor terrorism, destabilize regional states, acquire nuclear weapons and develop a long-range missile program. All they have wrought has brought only international isolation for a great nation.
At the core of this battle is the struggle for an Iran where democracy, popular sovereignty and rule of law thrive in place of theocracy, tyranny and rogue behavior. The triumph of the democratic opposition in Iran will also promptly resolve the current nuclear standoff, reduce regional tensions and address he unresolved challenges in Iraq, all of which emanate from the behavior of Iran’s ruling regime.
It is, therefore, only logical to suggest that rather than offering economic and political incentives to Tehran’s current rulers and continuing with long-proven futile nuclear negotiations, the most effective option to deal with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions is to empower the democratic movement. The key question now is what meaningful and practical measures the international community, in particular the United States, should take.
As evident by chants of “Obama, Obama, are you with the killers or with us?” during pro-democracy uprisings, Washington’s insistence on negotiating – even after all the killings and beatings witnessed in the streets of Iran – are viewed as a tacit nod to Tehran’s tyrants.
President Barack Obama realizes now that the U.S. is at a “pivot point” in its Iran policy. His statement that the Iranian people’s demands for their universal rights “have been met with the iron fist of brutality” of the ruling regime is a welcome, albeit long-overdue, step. It must be followed by other measures. The most immediate is to ensure that Washington ends its blacklisting of the main Iranian opposition group, the PMOI (MEK), as a terror organization. The designation is an inherent part of the old policy of appeasement; the group figured prominently as a bargaining chip in now-failed bridge-building efforts with Tehran. Regrettably, Tehran has used the terror designation to justify cracking down further on group members inside Iran.
The United Kingdom and the European Union have now de-listed the organization. A large, bipartisan block of U.S. lawmakers favor removing this leading dissident group from the terror list. By doing so, President Obama would take a major leap toward standing on the side of the Iranian people.
Other measures should include effective international sanctions aimed at isolating Tehran’s rulers financially and diplomatically. Iran’s people are ready and willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Months before the 1979 revolution, a strike by oil workers was fully supported by the people, though it brought them hardship during a very harsh winter. But those measures need not include money or arms to the opposition, much less deploying troops.
The United States can hasten democratic change in Iran by siding with the opposition, while slowing the ticking nuclear time bomb with effective sanctions. This is the best option for dealing with a regime on a collision course with its own people and the world.