Deconstructing the Mullahs

Iranians want reform on their own terms, not revolution or overt foreign interference. They certainly don't want a war.
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These days, some high-profile opinion-makers are throwing around an image of Iran as an irrational, ideologically driven power bent on destruction. Behind the depiction of Iran as a country that seeks to kill Americans and do away with our way of life, are figures like Michael Ledeen of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (also author of The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots' Quest for Destruction) and End-Times prophecy "expert" Michael D. Evans, author of Showdown with Nuclear Iran: Radical Islam's Messianic Mission to Destroy Israel and Cripple the United States. These writers base their analyses and policy prescriptions on a set of questionable, if not laughable, assumptions.

Needless to say, Iran is a nation ruled by interests and not blind ideology. One need only cruise the streets of Tehran to see turban-clad mullahs driving their top-of-the-line cars into their mansions or luxury condos, to get a sense of how much the regime has to lose from a confrontation. In fact, the theocratic state left behind by Ayatollah Khomeini after his death in 1989 is run by wealthy and well-entrenched elites that yearn to maintain the status quo. Connected to powerful business conglomerates, and enjoying sizable real estate holdings, the clerical elites do not seek destruction, but regime stability.

Understandably, people in the United States view the anti-American murals and staged parades in Iran as a threatening sign of intent. It is the duty of scholars, however, to be well informed and dig beneath the surface and help the rest of us arrive at rational conclusions. Had more opinion-makers looked carefully at Iran, Americans would already know that after the success of the revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini harnessed anti-Americanism as a regime identifier, using extremism to tell his supporters from his detractors. Much like being a member of the Communist Party in China, taking an anti-American or pro-theocracy line in Iran has served as a calling card to show one's allegiance to Khomeini and the revolution. This "cult of anti-Americanism," as I call it, continues to serve as a sign of regime affiliation, rather a literal declaration of the regime's foreign policy.

This explains why the Iranian regime has been willing to work with the United States in the past, not only during the Iran-Contra Affair, but more notably in Afghanistan after coalition forces toppled the anti-Iranian Taliban. In Iraq too, Iran had a policy of regime change, and today could do much more to help America stabilize the country if we would only ask. Rather than focus solely on how to win a war or organize a revolution against an "unappeasable" enemy, as Ledeen calls Iran, our government should focus on quelling the violence in Iraq by engaging Iran in diplomacy, as the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Commission suggested.

Even more troubling than the alarmist descriptions of the Iranian regime, however, are the neoconservative and fundamentalist ideas for confronting it, which range from dropping a type of nuclear weapon called a "bunker-busting bomb," as the neoconservative Iran Policy Committee suggests, to supporting opposition groups like the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, as espoused by the IPC and even some members of Congress. Michael Ledeen, while not a blind supporter, considers the Mujahedeen a reliable source for his research.

Unfortunately, the Mujahedeen make Ahmad Chalabi look like a selfless patriot. Currently designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization, the Mujahedeen actually took sides with Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq War, leading to their universal repudiation inside Iran. Hardly a democratic organization, the Islamic-Marxist Mujahedeen (also called the National Council of Resistance of Iran) have been led by the same husband and wife team of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi since the revolution. Rather than a viable opposition group, the Mujahedeen are little more than an unpopular cult.

When speaking to Iranians in and outside of Iran, and when listening to respected reformists like Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the consensus is clear: Iranians want reform on their own terms, not revolution or overt foreign interference. They certainly don't want a war.

As we seek solutions for our current dilemmas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the greater war against al-Qaeda, it would serve us well to reject the superficial readings of eager neoconservative and religious activists. Americans need to understand that relations between the United States and Iran are largely within our control, if and when we begin to see Iran as a nation-state with interests, rather than an irrational, self-destructive entity longing for Armageddon or the demise of America for its own sake. If we are to avoid yet another unwarranted military adventure, let's hope that reasonable debate finally prevails.

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