New U.S. foreign policy should address Iran’s domestic future

Column by Kazem Kazerounian

white house iranThe incoming Trump administration has made its disdain for President Obama’s Iran policy very clear, in particular the Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Early in the campaign, Trump himself referred to the agreement as one of the worst ever negotiated.

The impulse of the incoming president to change US policy toward Iran will have the support of a wide range of foreign policy experts, two dozen of whom delivered a letter to Mr. Trump last week, urging him to “pursue an Iran policy that recognizes the interests and inalienable rights of the Iranian people.” The document, signed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former National Security Adviser General James L. Jones, Senator Joseph Lieberman, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton and former Representative Patrick Kennedy, went on to argue that the previous administration had made inadequate progress on the nuclear issue while effectively ignoring Iran’s human rights violations and unnecessarily sidelining the pro-democratic Iranian opposition.

There is reason to believe that their observations will be given due consideration, not just by Mr. Trump but also by his leading advisors. Mike Pompeo, the prospective CIA director, has stayed true to his own congressional positions by insisting that the nuclear deal ultimately be cancelled. Last week’s letter agrees that there are better alternatives to the JCPOA. “Given the opportunity to exercise popular sovereignty through free and fair elections, the people of Iran would embrace a non-nuclear posture,” it suggested.

Pompeo’s fellow nominees, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, have also expressed awareness of missteps by the Obama administration, urging the strengthening of the nuclear deal and a more assertive overall policy toward Iran.

In confirmation hearings for his appointment as Secretary of Defense, Mattis unequivocally described the Islamic Republic of Iran as the biggest contributor to instability in the region. He added that American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan should be focused on countering Iran’s growing “malign influence.”

The nuclear issue is of the utmost importance, as is Iran’s regional imperialism, but both are merely symptoms of a larger problem that will not be solved until the Iranian people are freed from the tyrannical rule of their theocratic government. The Obama administration encouraged the international community to hope for change from within after the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Notwithstanding Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate over the nuclear issue, those hopes have been dashed by his domestic record and by Iran’s ongoing belligerence on the world stage.

More than 3,000 people have been executed in Iran since Rouhani took office. The ranks of political prisoners continue to swell in the midst of an ongoing crackdown targeting activists, reporters, artists, dual nationals, and so on. Contrary to Rouhani’s promise for more domestic openness, censorship has increased over the past four years.  So too has the enforcement of the country’s hardline Islamic laws, including the forced veiling of women.

It is unclear exactly how as President, Trump will address these issues, but fortunately there are many prominent voices urging him to take a pro-active and humanitarian approach. In fact, some of Trump’s earliest advocates and advisors include figures like Rudy Giuliani, who signed last week’s letter and who has a long history of support for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

Led by Maryam Rajavi, the NCRI has at its core the leading Iranian resistance group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The MEK has seen over 100,000 of its members killed by the Islamic Republic regime. It has gone to great lengths to expose those and other crimes. The MEK also maintains an extensive and active network inside of Iran, which was fundamental to exposing the clandestine nuclear program.

The Obama administration’s fixation on that program may have blinded it to the deeper issues affecting Iran policy. Hopefully Trump’s affiliation with longstanding MEK supporters will encourage the much-needed focus on human rights and Tehran’s entrenched terrorist connections. Neither issue will be solved by simply intensifying enforcement of the existing nuclear deal, or even keeping a US military presence in Iraq to counteract Tehran’s influence. The Trump administration will have to do much more, such as expanded economic sanctions to pressure Tehran to amend its worst domestic and foreign policies.

The incoming administration has criticized what it termed its predecessor’s weak and conciliatory policies. An assertive course of action is not only the best way to address the Iran nuclear issue and the worsening instability of the Middle East, but also it is a means to empower the Iranian resistance to bring about the end of the Islamic theocracy, to comprehensively improve Iran’s future, and in doing so to improve Western regional interests.

Prof. Kazerounian teaches at the University of Connecticut and is the president of the Iranian American Community of Connecticut, a member of the Organization of the Iranian American Communities (OIACUS).

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