BY MAJID SADEGHPOUR, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
The new U.S. administration sent shock waves through foreign policy circles when National Security Advisor Michael Flynn issued a statement putting the Islamic Republic of Iran “on notice” over its various destabilizing activities. The specific impetus for the statement appeared to be the latest Iranian ballistic missile test, which took place less than ten days after Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States.
This provocative gesture by the Iranian regime, no doubt directed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was a significant early challenge to the new administration. The resultant White House reaction didn’t limit itself to addressing the outstanding ballistic missile issue, however. Instead, Flynn made it clear that the U.S. would now react much more assertively to a whole range of Iranian behaviors, including its well-known support for international terrorism, its trafficking of arms to Yemen, Syria, including its general interference into the affairs of Gulf Arab states.
Although we Iranian Americans reject a foreign military intervention in Iran, many of my fellow Iranian expatriates are enthusiastic about the prospect of Tehran being subjected to renewed pressure. Such weight on Iran’s religious dictators will promote regional stability and impact the lives of the people both inside and outside of Iran who today live in fear at their whims. Here is why:
Iranian people have been understandably worried about the expansion of mullahs’ sphere of influence. Chaotic situation of Syria and Iraq notwithstanding, the most tangible representation of this ominous effect is manifest in newer groups like the Yemeni Houthi and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces. These seemingly small IRGC have the potential of turning into local versions of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which has for decades carried out attacks throughout the world on Tehran’s behalf.
Even though Iran’s increasing command of the region was largely downplayed by successive U.S. administrations, it is now clear that such neglect will no longer persist. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), for example, this week outlined a number of policy recommendations for the administration, suggesting IRGC sanctions, U.N. Security Council 2231 enforcement, and “doing more to highlight what’s going on internally in Iran, which is a nightmare – a human rights nightmare.” After Flynn issued his statement, President Trump himself said via Twitter that, “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq,” and that this should have been obvious for some time.
These policy shortcomings have certainly been obvious to me and to other activists who oppose mullahs’ rule. Over the years, many of us have lost close loved ones to that regime and struggled with the anxiety, watching Iran’s malign activities, knowing that more loss would be right around the corner, especially in Iraq and as the Syrian conflict unfolded. It was in Iraq, for example, at the former U.S. military base Camp Liberty, that approximately 3,000 members of the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) were stranded for four years while awaiting relocation to friendly territory in Europe.
Camp Liberty came under several rocket attacks by Shiite militant groups tied to Iran, with some of the ordnance conclusively traced back to the IRGC. Dozens of that community’s residents, MEK members, died over the years.
Yes, we still feel very much connected to our country of origin Iran but have lived in the United States long enough to feel it a part of our identity. To us, this country’s vibrant institutions embody democracy, which unlike Iran’s ayatollahs strive for human rights and liberty for all.
In this context, as a next step, the administration should continue to intensify sanctions against the regime and designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization. As Mr. Royce and others have noted, the IRGC controls much of Iran’s economy and has benefited immensely from the sanctions relief under the nuclear deal. Sanctions on the IRGC would be a crucial step because they will greatly curtail its military advantage. The latter would also help the Iranian people gain some breathing room by weakening a main pillar of regime’s oppressive machinery.
Indeed, the biggest challenge to Ayatollahs hold on power in Internal instability and an 80 million democracy-starved nation which is angrily waiting for a spark and the opportunity to rise up. Today, organized groups like the MEK are operating underground inside Iran despite the oppression. Their demand echoes the voice of the Iranian people: ouster of the theocratic system in its entirety.
An assertive U.S. policy towards Iran does not demand U.S. troops or naïve engagement with the ruthless ayatollahs. Instead, the United States will simply need to commit to upholding its democratic and moral principles by exerting serious pressure on the dictators in Iran on ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation, and by holding Iranian rulers accountable for their medieval deeds/terrorism at home and abroad.
Dr. Sadeghpour is the political director of the Organization of Iranian Communities (OIACUS).