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The Next U.S. President and the Iranian Dilemma

October 27, 2008

In two weeks Americans will elect their next president. The whole world is watching the U.S. elections with a great deal of interest. In particular the international community is anxiously waiting to see how the United States will deal with Iran.

The indecisive and confused policies of the United States toward Iran for more than three decades have left the arena wide open for the political pundits' prophecies. The next president of the United States, regardless of who wins, will have a short window of opportunity to set the cornerstone of a cohesive, clear and decisive policy toward Iran, a rigor that previous administrations have been innocent of.

Let's take a close look at the lay of the land in front of President Barack Obama or President John McCain.

A recently published report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point portrayed a chillingly clear, documented, credible, and unambiguous account of the Iranian strategy in destabilizing Iraq, undermining coalition forces and projecting its power in the region. Among the report's findings is:

"Iranian programs to support Iraqi militias are very robust. The IRGC-Qods Force, augmented by Lebanese Hezbollah trainers, sponsor basic and advanced paramilitary training at camps in Iran and Lebanon. Iranian supplied weapons are being employed against coalition and Iraqi forces, including the most lethal of improvised explosive devices [IEDs], known."

Iran's expansive aspirations are not limited to Iraq. Tehran has its eyes set on larger prizes, and has made significant strides in its desire to project its power beyond its borders. Iran helped organize Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Iran supports Hezbollah financially and militarily. Iran helps train guerrilla fighters, and delivers and purchases weapons for Hezbollah. Iran transfers nearly $100 million annually to Hezbollah through the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps-Qods Force, the Iranian foreign ministry, charities, and its embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

Iran's support of Hezbollah stems from a shared religious ideology, a common desire to destroy Israel, end all Western influence in the region, and an aspiration to strengthen its hold in the Middle East. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini is regarded by Hezbollah as its ultimate leader.

Iran's nuclear aspirations and clandestine enrichment activities are undoubtedly aimed at military purposes. It is na´ve to assume that Iran is exponentially increasing its centrifuge installations to amass enriched uranium for peaceful purposes, while Iran does not even have operational nuclear reactors. To maintain the fast pace of nuclear development, Iran has deprived its oil industry from much needed maintenance and its oilfields from necessary safeguard measures such as pressurizing, to the point that this crown jewel of their national wealth is at the brink of total obliteration.

Discounting the wiles of the Iranian lobbyists who argue to the contrary, Tehran's motive for becoming a regional superpower dominating the Middle East and influencing the rest of the world is indisputably apparent.

The U.S. policy toward Iran is best summarized by the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates who a while ago at an event in Washington said:

"I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. I was in the first meeting that took place between a senior U.S. government official and the leadership of the Iranian government in Algiers at the end of October, 1979. Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed.

Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.

I just think this is a case where we have to look at the history of outreach that was very real, under successive presidents, and did not yield any results. I think until the Iranians decide they want to take a different approach, to the rest of the world, that where we are is probably not a bad place."

The policy of carrot and stick, albeit a ton of carrot versus matchstick size punishments, has been the hallmark of a failed American policy toward Iran. Out of fear of being the target of Iranian terrorism, to avoid confronting Tehran, hoping for mysterious moderate mullahs to emerge and rise up to power, disoriented by Tehran's manipulative postures, and poisoned by Iranian lobby machinery in the United States, the U.S. administrations have offered Iran colossal offerings including forgiving Iran's role in blowing up American military barracks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and allowing mullahs strong footholds in Iraq.

However, the largest carrot to the theocratic rulers of Iran was offered by the Bill Clinton administration by impeding the main Iranian opposition group, MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq) and placing their name on the terrorist list.

This strategic blunder has held back the Iranian people from striving for democratic change in Iran. The message to the mullahs was clear: If you felt threatened by any opposition group, just ask us, and we will take care of it for you. And Iran no doubt asks for it at every table they sit at.

Because of the Iraq war and the events that led to the war, the United States is suffering a credibility crisis within the international community. This credibility deficit has clouded the leading role that the U.S. can play in resolving the Iranian predicament. The next president of the United States has a short window of opportunity to deal with Iran without the burden of the past baggage. Needless to say that a Democratic president will have an advantage over a Republican one in this endeavor.

Discussions of talking or not talking with Iran, with or without pre-conditions, are hardly more than election time rhetoric. In his first day in the White House, the new president has to face the sobering realities of the Iranian problem.

The facts are simple and straight forward. The United States and the West will not allow Iran to own the nuclear technology that enables it to build the bomb. The United States and the West will not allow Iran to become the dominating power in the region. These two facts are self evident and do not need further elaborations. Both presidential candidates have made these points clear.

On the other hand Tehran's mullahs have not tenaciously spent 30 years building up their malignant influence in the region backed by nuclear aspirations, to simply give it up on the charm or intimidation of a new U.S. administration.

The next president of the United States has an opportunity to galvanize and unite the world behind serious and effective military and economic sanctions against Iran. The next president of the United States has a unique opportunity to break free the American and international peace movements from the influence of the propaganda of the Iranian evildoers.

A Democratic U.S. president certainly has the edge over his Republican opponent. The Iranian lobby, for a short period of time, will be deprived of its demagogic party line that calls on the Iranians to tolerate and embrace their theocratic dictators or otherwise be victims of American war mongering.

If this window of opportunity is not used effectively, the next U.S. administration will find itself in the powerless and feeble position that the current administration is. The difference however is ominous. Iran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power while the American clock is ticking in Iraq and Afghanistan. That will undoubtedly lead to a devastating war with Iran with ruinous and unpredictable outcomes for Iran, the United States and the world.

Regime change in Iran is the ultimate and only permanent solution to the Iranian problem. Regime change through foreign wars, however, is neither practical nor wise. Regime change in Iran is possible by the Iranians themselves.

However, the international conditions are also prerequisite to catalyze the change. Effective sanctions to cause the Iranian rulers to cease their nuclear developments and regional expansionism will also act as a catalyst to instigate regime change in Iran.

The Iranian government is utterly detested by the people, and does not have the popular support to survive the sanctions. In the past year there have been more than 5,000 mass demonstrations in the universities, factories and streets against the government. Under the pressure of sanctions, the government's ability to contain these discords will be severely diminished.

The sanctions however are only one side of the coin. The other side is the Iranian opposition group The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) which is a coalition of various democratic organizations and national personalities. MEK is the cornerstone of this coalition.

The Iranian regime has constantly been frightened of being toppled by this group, and hence has dedicated significant resources and has committed horrible atrocities over the past 30 years to contain them and to demonize them.

However MEK is so popular among Iranians, and so entwined with the society, that despite the Iranian regime executing more than 120,000 of their members and devoting tens of millions of dollars to smear and demonizing campaigns inside and outside the country, they have survived and even flourished.

In 1997 the Clinton administration placed their name in the terrorist list hoping to win the heart of Khatami's administration in Iran. That futile attempt was followed by the European countries doing so. However, various high courts in Europe have voided this baseless tag. The United States is yet to make a determination on their status.

The next president of the United States should realize that the Iranian regime change will not happen without the active role of Iran's main opposition group. People's unrest will not be channelized. Democratic groups in Iran will not be able to find the venue they need to participate in the change. At the same time, it is fruitless to entertain the exercise of fabricating opposition groups in Iran. Needless to say that Iran's mullahs will moan and grumble hard at the prospects of their opposition's hands set free.

Another issue on the plate of the next U.S. president is the matter of the protection of Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,700 of the MEK members reside in Iraq. After the occupation of Iraq, The residents of Ashraf were given the status of the "protected persons" under the 4th Geneva Convention.

The U.S. president should be mindful of the humanitarian catastrophic outcome should Iran gets its wish and remove protection of Ashraf from coalition forces to less prepared and reliable entities. Coalition forces are responsible for the protection of Ashraf, as long as one American soldier remains in Iraq. It is a legal obligation. It is a moral obligation. It is the only thing that makes strategic sense for the interests of the civilized world.

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