Un­like Obama, Trump should not be mis­led by Iran’s re­formists

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By REZA BEHROUZ

Iran’s re­formist camp has lost its cred­i­bil­ity among the peo­ple, and its ef­fec­tive­ness in run­ning a coun­try of 80 mil­lion peo­ple. The re­forms they promised never ma­te­ri­al­ized. Obama be­lieved those prom­ises; Trump should not.

In July 2015, the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion (JCPOA), com­monly known as the Iran nu­clear deal, was signed by Iran and per­ma­nent mem­bers of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. A large ma­jor­ity of Iranians liv­ing in Iran and in the Ira­nian di­as­pora em­braced this agree­ment for two main rea­sons.

One, hav­ing been the first direct high-level diplo­matic con­tact be­tween Iran and the United States since the 1979 Islamic Revo­lu­tion, the JCPOA in­sin­u­ated the prospect of fur­ther diplo­matic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the two coun­tries. Two, the agree­ment was pre­sumed to bring about eco­nomic pros­per­ity that would ul­ti­mately trickle down to the Ira­nian peo­ple.

Nei­ther ex­pec­ta­tion ma­te­ri­al­ized. The supreme leader of the Islamic Revo­lu­tion, Ali Khamenei, as­serted that this agree­ment was the limit to which the regime would go in terms of direct ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States. This ef­fec­tively elim­i­nated any pos­si­bil­ity for fu­ture diplo­macy be­tween the two coun­tries. More­over, the as­sets that were un­frozen as a re­sult of the agree­ment were quickly chan­neled to fi­nance Islamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) re­gional hege­monic ad­ven­tures and var­i­ous busi­ness en­ter­prises. Mil­lions more were given to ter­ror­ist fac­tions such and Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas, spent on IRGC’s proxy wars in Syria and Ye­men, and sup­ported IRGC’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram.

The sign­ing of this agree­ment was tri­umphant for the Ira­nian regime’s so-called re­formists (or “mod­er­ates”) who at the time en­joyed the pres­i­dency of one of their own, Has­san Rouhani. For­eign Min­is­ter Javad Zarif was cheered as he ar­rived in Tehran from Vi­enna, where the JCPOA was signed. For weeks, re­formist news­pa­pers boasted this vic­tory on their front pages. Soon how­ever, the agree­ment proved to be fi­nan­cially mean­ing­less to the Ira­nian peo­ple.

As wars in Syria and Ye­men in­ten­si­fied, Iranians con­tin­ued to suf­fer eco­nom­i­cally and so­cial gaps widened. Abysmal eco­nomic and so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­di­tions even­tu­ally cul­mi­nated in wide­spread protests in December 2017. One of the ear­li­est icon­o­clas­tic slo­gans bel­lowed by the protesters was “Prin­ci­pal­ist! Re­formist! The saga is over.” This was the first pub­lic pro­nounce­ment by the Ira­nian peo­ple val­i­dat­ing the re­al­iza­tion that re­forms in Iran had proven fu­tile.

For years, re­formists had placed all their might into creat­ing a for­mi­da­ble struc­ture that im­parted the only hope for Iran’s tran­si­tion to a lib­eral democ­racy. They had even man­aged to cre­ate net­works in the United States in an aim to per­suade (or lobby) the Obama White House into accepting their cause as the sin­gle path­way to democ­racy in Iran, and their fac­tion as the sole con­tin­gent with which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion could ne­go­ti­ate and come to terms.

Still haunted by the con­tro­versy of his lack­adaisi­cal pos­ture to­ward mass protests in 2009, and in­tent on leav­ing a legacy prior to con­clud­ing his sec­ond term, Obama suc­cumbed to this scheme. His naïve pre­sump­tion was that deal­ing with re­formists who il­lu­so­rily por­trayed them­selves as “elected of­fi­cials” was con­gru­ent with diplo­macy with the regime in its en­tirety. Yet, Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion failed to re­al­ize that the Ira­nian regime con­sists of two par­al­lel gov­er­nances: the re­formist camp, and the fac­tion led by Khamenei and the IRGC.

THE LAT­TER, which is con­sid­ered Iran’s “deep state,” has com­plete dom­i­nance over the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal af­fairs. Khamenei’s ide­o­log­i­cally-driven poli­cies pertaining to de­fense, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and the econ­omy su­per­sede any con­tract or agree­ment en­acted be­tween Iran’s govern­ment and other coun­tries, and is sub­ject to im­promptu mod­i­fi­ca­tion – even vi­o­la­tion – by the deep state.

With the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s with­drawal from the JCPOA, re­formists sus­tained an ag­o­niz­ing de­feat. In or­der to stay rel­e­vant to the Ira­nian peo­ple and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, and main­tain a sem­blance of the JCPOA, re­formists felt the need to de­vise a new strat­egy. They em­barked on a cam­paign try­ing to in­flu­ence pub­lic sen­ti­ment in the US and within the Ira­nian di­as­pora.

Just re­cently, Face­book and Twit­ter dis­man­tled hun­dreds of ac­counts tied to an al­leged Ira­nian regime pro­pa­ganda op­er­a­tion. Th­ese cam­paigns pro­moted the JCPOA and dis­sem­i­nated dis­in­for­ma­tion, as well as con­tents at­tack­ing Pres­i­dent Trump and fos­ter­ing anti-Is­rael, anti-Saudi themes. Deeply in­fil­trated by re­formist el­e­ments, Per­sian-lan­guage me­dia plat­forms in Europe and the US pub­lished “cherry-picked” news re­ports that por­trayed the regime and the re­formist camp in a more fa­vor­able light.

Cor­re­spon­dents and an­chor­per­sons work­ing for th­ese net­works pre­sented their re­ports in a fash­ion that de­picted the Ira­nian regime as a vic­tim of Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies, and ex­pressed the same as “per­sonal opin­ions” on their so­cial me­dia ac­counts. Pun­dits were se­lec­tively in­vited to dis­cus­sion fo­rums to en­sure a steady flow of praise for the re­formists.

The Na­tional Ira­nian Amer­i­can Coun­cil (NIAC), the re­formist camp’s mouth­piece and al­leged lobby in the US, used so­cial me­dia, tar­geted emails and other means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to sus­tain a cam­paign of sab­o­tage against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, con­ser­va­tive leg­is­la­tors and es­sen­tially any op­po­nent of the JCPOA, in­clud­ing Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia. Jour­nal­ists and self-pro­claimed ac­tivists sub­scrib­ing to NIAC’s mis­sion and ul­te­rior agenda re­lent­lessly pub­lished opin­ion ar­ti­cles in widely-cir­cu­lat­ing news­pa­pers dis­miss­ing the protests and com­mend­ing the re­formists.

For­tu­nately, the re­formists’ cam­paign of spread­ing “fake news,” char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion and so­cial me­dia ha­rass­ment failed. The Ira­nian peo­ple, in­side and out­side Iran, ut­tered their fi­nal words in December. The regime is not amenable to re­form. Even if the re­formists’ in­ten­tions were sin­cere, they pos­sess lit­tle power to ef­fec­tu­ate mean­ing­ful so­ciopo­lit­i­cal change in Iran.

Thus, in or­der to cease Iran’s sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion and reestab­lish sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East, the most ra­tio­nal strat­egy for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is to pur­sue regime change. To that end, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should em­brace op­po­si­tion groups that advocate sec­u­lar democ­racy in Iran; specif­i­cally, dis­si­dent or­ga­ni­za­tions that have not been in­volved in the 1979 Islamic Revo­lu­tion that brought this mis­ery upon the Ira­nian peo­ple in the first place.

When it comes to deal­ing with the Ira­nian regime, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity and par­tic­u­larly the Unites States must main­tain a strong and shrewd pos­ture. Be­cause to think that Iran’s regime is re­formable is to be­lieve one can kill a roar­ing beast by po­litely ask­ing it to swal­low a bul­let, in­stead of shooting it in the heart.

The writer is an aca­demic neu­rol­o­gist and Ira­nian-Amer­i­can op­po­si­tion ac­tivist based in San An­to­nio, Texas.

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