Reject the myth of ‘moderation’ in Iran

Marc C. Ginsberg (Ambassador to Morocco, 1994-1998)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Ginsberg’s July 3, 2013 post on The Hill.

Iran continues to preoccupy diplomats and leaders in the West alike and there are few easy options to redress Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its state sponsorship of terrorism. The recent “selection” of Hassan Rowhani as president has once again brought life to the myth of “moderation” in Iran.  Simply changing the dictators’ face is not the change anyone can or should believe in. In reality Mullah Rowhani hopes to buy his fellow mullahs time for their nuclear ambitions, while maneuvering to create breathing room at home as the regime hides behind a facade of reform.

The easiest way to dispel this myth of reform and moderation is to highlight the leadership for change that millions of Iranians yearn for.  That leadership was on full display during a huge rally for a free Iran in Paris on June 22, represented by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

An estimated 100,000 expatriates from all over the world were joined with notable speakers at the event including senior former officials from the United States as well as Europe, representing both sides of the political spectrum and calling for regime change in Iran. The event not only underscored the moral ascendancy of and the massive social support for the Iranian opposition, but it also put forth a compelling argument regarding the need to reformulate a western policy towards the regime which focuses on empowering the opposition.

Last week’s presidential election in Iran took place amid a backdrop of internal strife and international isolation, with Supreme Leader Khamenei doing all that he could to avoid a repeat of the social unrest that followed the 2009 elections. The regime is also struggling to reduce the grip of crippling sanctions and international isolation. So it comes as no surprise that the “least favorite” candidate of the mullahs like Rowhani emerged from the regime’s electoral theater.

The dangling of the “moderate mullah” in front of western eyes is an old trick. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami first used the tactic of the “smiling mullah” mixed with sprinkles from French philosophers in order to distort the continuation of the regime’s inhumane policies, without any meaningful reform seen in practice.

The reality is that Ayatollah Khamenei was forced to concede ground to Rowhani and his supporters due to his own insecurity and weakness within an increasingly divided regime. The strife between Khamenei’s faction and the rival faction led by two-time president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani created a potentially explosive situation for the regime. Khamenei’s fear of a collapse was coupled with a looming threat of a popular uprising similar to that of 2009.

The regime has so far survived by resorting to terror and repression at home, using public executions and complex methods of censorship to silence all forms of dissent. Yet the Iranian people’s undying yearning for freedom and change remains resolute, as evidenced by the creative means through which they have continued to express their discontent with the regime. This includes chanting political slogans after soccer matches, as well as displaying graffiti and banners supporting the resistance.

Rajavi spoke eloquently about the future of the country, laying out a vision for a democratic and secular republic in Iran, one that is devoid of nuclear weapons and political prisoners, and focused on tolerance and human rights. This vision is not unrealistic. It is a practical road map for peace, stability, and progress in the Middle East.

The fact remains that the opposition has a role to play in the coming months in Iran. It is up to the West to decide whether it wants to place its faith in short term negotiations and unreliable deals with the mullahs, or invest in a long term strategy of democratization and democratic change in Iran. The opposition is our partner in peace, while the mullahs have proven time and time again to be our adversaries in war. It is time that we join the masses in Iran and abroad in calling for real change in Iran and rejecting the myth of “presidential moderation” once and for all.

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