From Raymond Tanter
President Obama continues to seek direct talks with Tehran in face of its suppression of Iranian oppositionists. But now is not the time to engage Tehran, given its violent suppression of the Iranian people and the American troop pullback from Iraqi cities.
If President Obama extends a warm hand toward the clerical-military rulers of Tehran after they assassinated protesting Iranians like Neda, he is likely to wind up with warm blood on his hands. Business as usual is unseemly in the face of cold-blooded murder. And if the President reaches out to Iran while he draws down from Iraq, he is apt to encourage Iranian proxies to step up their attacks against withdrawing American forces and an Iraq weakened by the U.S. drawdown.
Here are the foundations of an alternative approach:
Lead Europe. On July 1, the EU floated the idea of recalling its ambassadors from Tehran, which elicited a strong response from Iran. Tehran’s chief of staff of the armed forces said that the EU had “totally lost the competence and qualifications needed for holding any kind of talks with Iran.” Having just returned to Washington from trips to Paris, Brussels, and Madrid, I heard scores of European parliamentarians, national legislators, and Iranian dissidents clamor for strong American leadership to isolate the Iranian regime and pressure Europe to use its economic clout as leverage against Tehran.
Iran’s rulers seriously fear isolation, particularly from Europe, on whose trade the Iranian economy depends. The EU as a group represent Iran’s largest trade partner, receiving one-third of Iran’s exports, mostly in the form of energy products, to the tune of €11.3 billion in 2008. The value of EU exports to Iran was even larger: €14.1 billion.
Just as the EU suspended negotiation of a Trade and Cooperation Agreement with Iran in August 2005, when Iran resumed enriching uranium, Europe is now primed to curtail its trade with Iran. Now is the time to lead Europe in isolating the Iranian regime, instead of standing on the sidelines while the European Union ponders.
Engage the opposition. With the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps now pulling the strings for Supreme Leader Khamenei, any negotiation with the West only buys time to expand Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium and expands the number of centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. If the United States has any hope of actually halting that enrichment, Washington must take the lead in isolating Iran and engaging the regime’s opposition.
Leadership means speaking out on behalf of those Iranians protesting in the streets of Iran’s major cities, as well as reaching out a hand to Iran’s main opposition groups, including the “disloyal” Iranian opposition. Though much is made of “moderates” like Khatami and Mousavi, they are a “loyal” opposition, which accepts the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance in which clerics rule by divine right: Velayat-e Faqih.
Iran’s “disloyal” opposition proposes a democratic and secular state, in which responsibility for governing is taken out of the hands of unelected Ayatollahs in favor of democratically elected leaders. Such oppositionists include the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) and the parliament in exile of which the MEK is a part, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Based in Iraq and in Paris with extensive support networks in Iran, Tehran considers them serious threats to its survival.
Protect Iraq. As suppression of street politics in Iran dominated the news cycle, Iraq dropped below the radar screen of news. However, Iraqi developments have an impact on U.S. diplomatic leverage over Tehran. It was appropriate to withdraw from Iraq cities on June 30, because of the commitment the United States made in its Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, but such troop drawdown is being portrayed as a retreat by Iran’s proxies in Iraq.
Muqtada al Sadr, the fiery Shiite militia leader, compares the American withdrawal to the revolt against British occupation forces in 1920. Iran is also likely to view the diminished U.S. role in Iraq as an opportunity to fill the vacuum with Iranian proxies armed with improvised explosive devices manufactured in Tehran. Iranian President Ahmadinejad stated as early as 2007, “Soon, we will see a huge power vacuum in the region. Of course, we are prepared to fill the gap.”
Having interviewed tens of Iraqi Sunni and Shiite politicians during a research trip to the area, I determined that a precipitous American withdrawal would provide the Iranian regime an incentive to pour additional arms to its proxies like the Muqtada al Sadr. Because of the possibility of Iran misperceiving the United States as weak in Iraq, it is even more important for the Obama administration to replace its “wait and see” Iran policy with concrete actions to isolate Tehran and engage its opposition.
A policy package. Engaging the Iranian regime was never likely to be successful, and was as much about appearing to have made a good faith effort at diplomacy to keep the anti-Iran coalition together rather than a genuine plan for halting uranium enrichment. In the past, Tehran has used negotiations as a ploy to buy time and as a mechanism for inducing concessions from the West without reciprocating. But since the events following the June 12 election, the regime is even less likely to be responsive to engagement because it needs to take a hard line against the West for domestic political purposes.
Building on the foundations described above, the Obama administration should undertake these specific measures:
- Induce the EU to impose crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, such as restrictions on export of gasoline products to Iran because of its strong dependence on foreign sources; intensify sanctions on banks in Dubai and elsewhere in the Gulf that cooperate with Tehran to circumvent UN and Treasury restrictions on Iranian banks.
- Urge European allies to withdraw their envoys from Tehran; during the mid-1990s, a temporary withdrawal of some 12 European Union ambassadors succeeded in dissuading Tehran from continuing its assassination of Iranian dissidents in Europe.
- Engage Iranian dissidents by removal of their main groups from the U.S Foreign Terrorist Organizations list—the Mujahedeen-e Khalq and the National Council of Resistance of Iran—following the lead of the European Union, which delisted the MEK and never designated the NCRI.