Thirty Years Later, We Still Can't Engage With Iran's Regime

By Alireza JafarzadehForeign Affairs Analyst

Thirty years after the Iranian people toppled the Shah in search of democracy, the country's citizens and its repressive regime are at war. It is the people of Iran and their struggle for freedom who should be respected and recognized, not their fundamentalist rulers. As the Obama administration reportedly continues to review its Iran policy, it would be wise to take stock of this reality.

The theocracy Khomeini established is based on his theory of government called the Velayat-e faqih, or absolute clerical rule, according to which immense religious and political authority rests with the Vali-e faqih (or the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamene'i). Khomeini's doctrine is the bedrock of a uniquely ruthless and radical regime cloaked in religion.

Lacking the ideological and political will to lead post-revolution Iran toward democracy and development, the Khomeini theocracy began almost immediately to attack secular and pluralist political groups. It used the bully pulpit of the Friday prayer sermons to spew venom against any voice calling for democracy. Opposition groups were branded as "hypocrites", "anti-Islam", and "pro-American." By early 1981, the "republic" in "Islamic Republic" had become meaningless -- theocratic dictatorship was in full swing. The stage was set for the reign of terror to come.

In the name of God, tens of thousands of political activists were executed or imprisoned, among them children. The persecution of political groups, women, and ethnic and religious minorities was institutionalized. In summer of 1988 alone, nearly 30,000 political prisoners were sentenced to death by religious courts for waging war against the "government of God."

In tandem with the internal terror, Tehran pursued an expansionist foreign policy of "exporting revolution," with unbridled terrorism as its main enabler. Early on, the clerics vowed to "liberate Jerusalem via Karbala" -- a goal they are still striving to achieve.

State-sponsored terrorism found new meaning in the 1980s. Tehran instigated a series of suicide bombings, and initiated several hijackings of passenger planes. Foreign nationals were taken hostage in the Middle East and elsewhere. Diplomatic blackmail and intimidation applied through terrorism -- or the threat of it -- became an essential component of Tehran's foreign policy.

No threat in the Middle East region is more ominous or destructive than this menace. The ayatollahs' regime kills, tortures, maims, bombs, hijacks, and kidnaps in the name of God, and thrives on fear and deception. Muslims make up the vast majority of the victims of this so-called "Islamic" regime. Tens of thousands of Iranians, most of them Shiite Muslim, are buried in Iran's cemeteries and secret mass graves for advocating democracy. Hundreds of thousands more lost their lives in the war with Iraq, which Khomeini despicably called a "divine blessing."

Thirty years later, the Mullahs' theocracy has finally ground to a halt. Mired in economic crisis and enfeebled by international isolation, the ruling establishment is weakening from within. Just beneath the surface, unrest is bubbling. Ever more internal suppression and outward belligerence are the only means of survival.

Rival camps are airing the ruling faction's dirty laundry in public, as part of the political wrangling in advance of the June presidential elections. Each new disclosure gives the average citizen another glimpse of the astronomical plunder of the country. As the revelations accelerate, so, too, does the risk of violence. Kayhan Daily, the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, recently ran an editorial threatening the rival camp with a Benazir Bhutto-like assassination.

The euphoria over a possible thaw between Washington and Tehran overlooks the hard lessons of the past. The conduct of the Mullahs' regime towards Iran's own people is the best indicator of Tehran's readiness to change its ways. By all indications, the ayatollahs are not at all interested in behaving in a civilized, responsible manner.

Amnesty International said in a statement:

"The past 30 years has been characterized by persistent human rights violations... Impunity, arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, as well as the use of the death penalty remain prevalent. Some sectors of society - including ethnic minorities - continue to face widespread discrimination, while the situation for other groups -- notably some religious minorities -- has significantly worsened. Those seen as dissenting from stated or unstated official policies face severe restrictions on their rights to freedom of belief, expression, association and assembly. Women continue to face discrimination -- both in law and practice. Impunity for human rights abuses is widespread."

Despite the abuses, and the realities of rampant unemployment, political suppression and social restrictions, Iran's secular democracy movement has endured and expanded. The 1999 student uprisings in Tehran and major cities gave the world a glimpse of its potential. Many experts believe that the brave young people and women who comprise the core of this movement should, by rights, be the primary interlocutors of President Obama's policy of engagement. Indeed, Iran's organized, anti-fundamentalist and democratic opposition is the only genuine leverage over the ruthless clerics.

At this defining moment, the notion that we can dissuade the Mullahs from developing nuclear weapons or sponsoring terrorism through a grand bargain or concessions, is a strategic blunder, and dangerously counterproductive. Too much time and effort has already been frittered away on the notion of bringing the ayatollahs into the international fold. Lessons of the past three decades must be learned. Engagement bestows the most precious thing Tehran needs to acquire nuclear weapons capability...time.

Here in the U.S., the media were pouring over the speech on February 10 by the ayatollahs' president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, searching for any sign of "opening." Meanwhile, back in Tehran, the regime reiterated Khomeini's death fatwah against the British author, Salman Rushdie for blasphemy and stepped up rights violations against its citizens.

A large bi-partisan group in Congress believes that the Obama administration would be wise to go along with its European allies and remove Iran's main opposition, the MEK, from the blacklist the same way the group was de-listed in Europe. In dealing with the ruthless ayatollahs, reaching out to the Iranian opposition would have a better chance to "unclench" the fists of the ruling clerics than by giving them concessions.

Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of "The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis" (Palgrave: February 2008).

Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.

Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, of which People's Mojahedin of Iran is the largest member organization.