by John Limbert
“The angry Mojahed lies in ambush in the alley,
American, come out. Your blood will flow on the ground.”
Thus sang the militants of the Iranian opposition group MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq) to a catchy Kurdish folk tune. Now the same group—rebranding itself as democratic and pluralistic—presents itself as the best alternative to the current reactionary theocracy. In so doing, it has purchased support from Americans on both left and right, including the current national security advisor, the president’s personal attorney, and the former speaker of the House of Representatives.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in California on Sunday night reveals some basic facts about the administration’s approach to Iran.
- It does not know what it wants beyond the end of the Islamic Republic. It knows what it does not want. It has no idea what it does want.
- It traces Iranian woes and misdeeds to what Pompeo called “the Iranian Revolution” of 40 years ago, ignoring the reality that that mass movement included those calling for a democratic Iran.
- The administration has no appreciation for the currents and counter-currents in Iranian history and political life. It writes off the whole Islamic Republic as unalloyed evil.
- It has no coherent message on Iran. On the one hand, Pompeo says that people in Iran should have the same freedoms that Iranian-Americans enjoy. On the other hand, President Trump, in his midnight tweet, threatens to annihilate millions of them.
- The president and his administration remain obsessed with undoing the acts of its predecessor. In the case of Iran, the administration has rejected anything that even hints at reaching goals through diplomacy.
Iranians certainly deserve a government that treats them decently. They deserve a government whose officials do not steal national wealth. They deserve a government that does not imprison journalists, filmmakers, women’s rights activists, and religious minorities. They deserve a government that does not make empty slogans like “Death to Israel” a substitute for policy. They deserve a government that does not imprison foreign scholars and dual nationals on obviously spurious charges.
Few would deny that officials of the Islamic Republic have an unsavory record. The secretary recited a long list of grievances against them. The unanswered questions are: so what and now what?
When the secretary tells Iranians that the United States will support their efforts to overthrow their government, what follows? Is the U.S. government going to support splitting the country along ethnic and sectarian lines? The similarities with Iraq in 2003 are eerie. What I witnessed in Iraq at that time was, despite the assurances of clueless exile groups, a brutal dictatorship giving way to bloody anarchy. Is this administration going to abandon a decades-old policy of supporting Iranian unity against threats both internal and external?
Administration officials clearly do not know what they want for Iran beyond the disappearance of the Islamic Republic. If the government there were to fall tomorrow, the Trump administration would descend into bitter infighting as each official claimed that his particular client was the destined leader of new democratic Iran. Some, including National Security Advisor John Bolton and his friends, would end up backing the above-noted MEK, a group hated by most Iranians and resembling a combination of the Jonestown cult and the Khmer Rouge.
Pompeo’s speech has demonstrated that this administration has no knowledge of or interest in history. If it did, it would have learned the lesson that meddling in other countries’ internal politics usually ends with a failed state, a new dictator, or a feeble client hated by his own people and in need of constant American support. As I used to tell my students, “Those of you who forget history are condemned to repeat…sophomore year.” This group seems constantly ready to repeat at least sophomore year.
Among the many ironies of Pompeo’s speech was its staging under the auspices of the Reagan Foundation. Perhaps doing so was another part of the administration’s historical ignorance or another effort to rewrite history. The reality is that Reagan’s dealings with Iran led to fiasco and came within an eyelash of destroying his presidency. His misguided effort to strengthen non-existent anti-Communist Iranian factions and his trading of arms for hostages to finance the Contras in Central America freed just a handful of prisoners and did nothing to encourage moderation in the Islamic Republic. When the secretary invoked Ronald Reagan’s memory on Iran, he no doubt missed this irony.
If the administration’s policy is to reject the tools of diplomacy—listening, patience, and forbearance—what will replace them? The United States is apparently back to the same cycle of futility with Iran. For almost 40 years, Washington and Tehran glared at each other across an abyss and traded accusations, insults, and threats. That approach accomplished nothing beyond feeding self-righteousness on both sides. Bullying in international affairs does little beyond forcing others into the most extreme positions.
Now the Trump administration has decided to return to that approach without considering the alternatives. Pompeo, from his speech, clearly cares less about results than about looking “tough” for its own sake.
Insulting and sermonizing are poor substitutes for foreign policy. The secretary, while expressing admiration for some Iranian-Americans, referred to Iran as “that place,” recalling those who called FDR “that man” in the White House. It has a name, Mr. Secretary. Lecturing Iranians about the corruption of their officials is unconvincing coming from the administration of Scott Pruitt and the first family. Calling the Islamic Republic’s leadership a “Mafia” is totally unconvincing given this administration’s problematic dealings with Russian oligarchs.
The secretary and others in this administration need to take a deep breath. As the Iranians say, they need “to put their posteriors into a bucket of cold water.” They need to ask themselves, “Where do we want to go with Iran? How do we get there? What do we gain by all of this posturing, threatening, and insulting?”
Iran has been a nightmare for American administrations since 1978. On both sides, a combination of mutual hostility, suspicion, toxic domestic politics, inept diplomacy, bad luck, and bad timing have prevented changes that would benefit both sides. The secretary’s recent speech demonstrates that, even if this all isn’t just a clumsy attempt to distract from the president’s recent bumbling in Helsinki, this administration has learned nothing from the last 40 years.
John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranian affairs, he also served at the US Embassy in Tehran where was held hostage for 14 months.