The sensible option on Iran

Iran Nuclear ProgramLeanne Piggott
A NUCLEAR-ARMED Iran under an Ahmadinejad regime is a terrifying prospect. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes he is being divinely guided to help bring about the reappearance of the Imam Mahdi, the Shia Muslim equivalent of the Messiah, which would herald the Last Judgment and the end of the world.

This suggests that, unlike the former Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran would not be constrained by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The certain demise of his country in the event of a nuclear exchange does not seem to have made Ahmadinejad sober and realistic about the potential consequences of following the nuclear path.

The Iranian regime’s protestations that it seeks to develop nuclear energy for purely peaceful purposes are falling on increasingly sceptical ears. None of the proposals put forward by the international community to allow Iran to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, while imposing safeguards that would make it more difficult for it to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, has been accepted by the regime.

Instead it has succeeded in completing many of its nuclear projects and building sufficient centrifuges to put it in a position to enrich weapons-grade uranium. And Iran already possesses missiles that can reach not only Jerusalem, but also the Vatican.

There is talk in Washington that an early and decisive use of force to bring down the Iranian regime is the only answer to the gathering threat to humanity. But the use of force against Iran would be a mistake. Even the largest of the Iranian opposition groups, the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (aka Mujahedin-e Khalq), says so. Significantly, the PMOI, unlike Iraqi opposition groups who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, is adamant that the dictatorship in its country must be brought down by an internal popular revolution, not by external intervention.

The Iranian regime is one of the most vicious and frightening dictatorships of the modern period. Its human rights record is appalling. Since 1980, more than 120,000 people have been executed by the regime. A purge at the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, for example, resulted in a wave of executions that left more than 30,000 people dead. Those targeted include political opponents, religious and ethnic minorities and, within these groups, women and children. Although it is impossible to gauge the regime’s real level of popular support, its constant and overwhelming repression of its people suggests a regime that sees itself as eternally beset by enemies, within Iran and beyond.

Any external use of force will simply drive the fiercely nationalistic Iranians back into the arms of the regime. There is no guarantee that force would be effective against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which are dispersed throughout the country and buried deep underground.

Economic sanctions are also an unattractive option. The experience with Iraq demonstrates how easily sanctions can be subverted and corrupted. The burden, if any, would be borne overwhelmingly by the people, not the regime.

The only remaining options are political and diplomatic. This does not necessarily mean more negotiations. Further talks with the Ahmadinejad regime may prove to be as fruitless as those that have already occurred. What is essential is that the Iranian dictatorship be made to pay a high political and diplomatic price for its misdeeds. How?

First, there needs to be a determination by the UN Security Council under Article 39 of the charter that Iran’s violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, sponsorship of international terrorism, belligerent rhetoric and incitement against Israel and violations of the fundamental human rights of its own citizens constitute a threat to international peace and security. Such a determination could be followed by a recommendation that member states downgrade or break off their diplomatic relations with Iran. The possibility of further Security Council action should be left open.

Second, it is critical for all governments concerned to support those components of the Iranian opposition that want what we have: namely, a democratic political system that respects human rights and the rule of law. That means that the Australian Government, and the governments of other Western countries, including the European Union and the US, need to reverse their designation of the PMOI and the National Council of Resistance of Iran as terrorist organisations. The NCRI is an umbrella coalition of Iranian opposition groups to which the PMOI belongs, and which functions as a government-in-exile.

The PMOI has operated as a broad-based democratic opposition movement since the time of the shah. Its original listing by the US as a terrorist organisation occurred in 1997, when the Clinton administration was interested in opening up a dialogue with the Iranian government. In 2001, many European countries followed. Australia too included the NCRI and PMOI on its list of organisations banned from raising funds because they are "associated with terrorism".

The PMOI has unquestionably resorted to armed resistance against the clerical regime. It has in the past assassinated officials of that regime. It has not targeted civilians. Significantly, in July 2001 the PMOI renounced any further use of violence and since that date has not engaged in any violent activity.

A recently published report by Human Rights Watch accusing the PMOI of human rights abuses has been comprehensively discredited by a large number of human rights lawyers and jurists, including Lord Slynn of Hadley, former judge of the European Court of Justice, and by the findings of a 16-month investigation by the FBI and US State Department. Members of the European Parliament have published a lengthy report calling into question both the methodology and overt political nature of the HRW report. To date, HRW has not responded.

Maintaining the terror tag for the PMOI was part of what the EU agreed to do in return for Iran’s agreement to halt further development of its nuclear facilities. Now that Tehran has torn up the arrangement, all concessions previously made to it should be reversed. The PMOI should be taken off the black list.

By de-proscribing and supporting the largest of the Iranian opposition groups, Western and other governments can hit the clerical dictatorship where it will hurt the most: in the eyes of the politically savvy Iranian people. It would also send the clearest possible signal that the policy of appeasement is finished. Energetic efforts are under way with the British and other European parliaments to de-proscribe the PMOI. Australia should do likewise. The idea of regime change in Iran through people power is far from fanciful. The Iranian people have done it before.
Leanne Piggott is a lecturer in government and international relations at Sydney University.