In Iran, it’s always Groundhog Day: The U.S. should learn its lesson rather than repeatedly supporting reformers who aren’t
by Ali Safavi
The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Welcome to U.S. foreign policy towards Iran. The endless repetition of failed policy choices with respect to Tehran — spread across presidential administrations of both parties — is political theater of the worst kind: a high-stakes version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” But unlike Bill Murray’s character, we can’t seem to stop the cycle.
Ever since the 1990s, Tehran has rolled out so-called reformers who govern alongside the “Death to America” crowd. This creates the impression of official pluralism and choice in Iran, neither of which exist.
The West pounces at each and every opportunity to strike deals with reformers, who seek to gain political, economic and other concessions — but ultimately do nothing to rein in the aberrant behavior of the clerics, in large part because they never had the power to do so in the first place.
This happens. And happens again. And happens again. And the Iranian and American people are forced to sit and watch the painful charade.
The leaders of this round’s so-called reformist faction include former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and current President Hassan Rouhani. The former was famously embraced in the early 1990s by the West as a pragmatist willing to do business, before he we went on to preside over the worst period of the Iranian regime’s terrorist attacks and assassinations of dissidents and foreign nationals abroad.
Indeed, during his “moderate” presidency, Rafsanjani’s Iran was regarded by the U.S. State Department as the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism, a dubious distinction maintained by the current president.
Rouhani, of course, was embraced as a reformer in 2013, even though over the previous 37 years he had occupied some of the most senior positions in the regime, including as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative in the Supreme National Security Council. Most recently, he ordered his Defense Minister to expand and expedite the ballistic missile program.
Still, the West — plagued by best intentions and a short memory — struck a deal with Rouhani. The nuclear deal legitimized his government, enabling him to use this new political breathing room to crack down viciously on dissent.
Under Rouhani, there has been a staggering rise in the rate of executions — many of them public hangings — to levels not seen for about 25 years. Nearly 1,000 people, including juvenile offenders were executed in Iran last year, marking the highest number in 20 years. And dozens of women in the central city of Isfahan came under acid attacks by government-organized gangs for not observing the mandatory hijab.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International have decried the regime and the international community for emboldening it.
We still haven’t learned our lesson. American and European policymakers and media applauded Iran’s parliamentary elections late last month, which they claimed were a sweeping victory for the “reformists.” But who are these prominent “reformists”? An incumbent and two former intelligence ministers and a former revolutionary prosecutor, notoriously known for their role in mass murder at home and terrorism abroad.
The reality is that elections in a theocracy are a cruel hoax. The unelected Guardian Council’s elaborate vetting process barred many candidates from standing for election. Upwards of 90% of self-described reformists were simply disqualified. All candidates had to swear “heart-felt and practical allegiance” to the unelected and unaccountable supreme leader.
Western policy has not been able to break the spell. If anything, it has become more ignorant and strange than any time since the inception of the theocracy in 1979.
Perhaps the United States and its allies get a good feeling from embracing the regime’s supposedly moderate factions in spite of their previous betrayals and false re-assurances. But it’s hard to see any concrete gains, either for American interests or for the Iranian people on whose behalf U.S. policymakers often claim to be acting.
When will Washington wake up and learn that perhaps the Iranian regime is fundamentally incapable of reform? When will it learn that it should invest in the Iranian people and the real opposition instead of the phony moderates?
Speaking out on the situation of human rights in Iran and reaching out to Iranian dissidents and the organized opposition would go a long way in demonstrating to the millions yearning for freedom that the U.S. is on their side.
Until we do, the West will continue to serve as witting accomplices to horrific human rights violations — and as enablers of an illegitimate, anti-democratic regime.
Safavi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.