This Group Hopes to Push America toward Regime Change in Iran
American policymakers and pundits have an unfortunate history of embracing odious foreign political movements that purport to be democratic. During the Cold War, embarrassing episodes included Washington’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras and Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. The post–Cold War era provides ample evidence that influential Americans have not learned appropriate lessons from those earlier blunders. The Clinton administration made common cause with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which proceeded to commit numerous war crimes during—and following—its successful war of secession against Serbia. Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations allied with Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC’s false intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which the New York Times and other prominent media outlets reflexively circulated, was one of the major factors that prompted the United States to launch its ill-starred military intervention in Iraq.
There is mounting danger that the Trump administration is flirting with committing a similar blunder—this time in Iran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked explicitly by Rep. Ted Poe whether the United States supported a policy of regime change in Iran when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June 2017. Poe argued that “there are Iranians in exile all over the world. Some are here. And then there’s (sic) Iranians in Iran who don’t support the totalitarian state.” Tillerson replied that the administration’s policy toward Iran was still “under development,” but that Washington would work with “elements inside Iran” to bring about the transition to a new government. In other words, regime change is now official U.S. policy regarding Iran.
That strategy entails numerous problems. An especially troubling one is that the most intense opposition force (inside and especially outside Iran) is the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK). Although Tillerson did not explicitly mention the MEK, any U.S. promotion of dissidents would almost certainly have to include that faction. More moderate reformists have repeatedly rejected an American embrace, justifiably concerned that such an association would destroy their domestic credibility. Indeed, a significant segment of Iranian moderates endorsed President Hassan Rouhani and were a major factor in his decisive reelection victory over a hard-line opponent in the 2017 election.
The MEK’s history should cause any sensible U.S. administration to stay very, very far away from that organization. The MEK is a weird political cult built around a husband and wife team of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. It has been guilty of numerous terrorist acts and was on the U.S. government’s formal list of terrorist organizations until February 2012. The group did not even originate as an enemy of Iran’s clerical regime. It began long before that regime came to power, and its original orientation seemed strongly Marxist. The MEK was founded in 1965 by leftist Iranian students opposed to the Shah of Iran, who was one of Washington’s major strategic allies. And the United States was very much in the MEK’s crosshairs during its early years. During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the MEK directed terrorist attacks that killed several Americans working in Iran.