Thursday, March 02, 2006

Recent History in US-Iranian Exile Relations

This week's print edition of the New Yorker has a long article on Iranian exile groups and their influence--and lack thereof--in shaping American policy on Iran. Connie Bruck's "Exiles: How Iran's expatriates are gaming the nuclear threat" is more than anything a summary, a catch-up guide of all the behind-the-scenes politicking about Iran that wasn't being reported while we all were looking at Iraq.

And what's heartbreaking is how much overlap there is between our policies towards the two countries: engagement is impossible, the system must be replaced, the people want freedom, a charismatic exile will provide leadership, advocates of moderation are insufficiently visionary! Color me officially terrified.

A fair amount of specific information below the fold--still, buy the magazine and read the article for the full acount.

More specifically, Bruck describes two major exile organizations opposing Iran.

1) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, son of the former Shah, has been for the past few years trying to make contacts beyond his circle of monarchists, but it seems that US governmental types (as well as a fair number of Iranians) are unconvinced that he's up to--or even truly desires--the job of overturning the theocratic regime and ruling. Reza Pahlavi is, apparently, hoping to be invited in as a constitutional monarch: "Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born political-science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, whose father was counsellor to Queen Farah, said, 'I knew him when we were young. He's very nice--but he is not perceived by Iranians to be regal. And he wants to be brought back" [emphasis in the orig.]. Even weirder is former "White House aide for Iran" (what the hell does that title mean?) Gary Sick's suggestion that the Washingston Institute was conducting "screen tests" for prospective Iranian exile leaders.

2) The Mujahideen-e-Khalq (People's Mujahideen, or M.E.K.) was a students' group formed in opposition to the Shah but then disagreed with Khomeini. The M.E.K.'s leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, seem to have formed something of a strange cult around themselves. Funded during the 1980s and 90s by Saddam, the M.E.K. is widely loathed in Iran, and it remains on the US's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US troops very nearly destroyed an M.E.K. compound, before someone decided it would be more useful to court the group. However, it has proved to be a valuable conduit of information about Iran's nuclear facilities:
Shahriar Ahy, Reza Pahlavi's advisor, confirm that account [that the M.E.K.'s information about Iran's secret nuclear sites came from Israeli intelligence]--up to a point. "That information came not from the M.E.K. but from a friendly government, and it had come to more than one opposition group, not only the mujahaideen," he said. When I asked him if the "friendly government" was Israel, he smiled. "The friendly source did not want to be the source of it, publicly. If the friendly government gives it to the U.S. publicly, then it would be received differently. Better to come from an opposition group." Israel is said to have had a relationship with the M.E.K. at least since the late nineties, and to have supplied a satellite signal for N.C.R.I [M.E.K.'s political wing] broadcasts from Paris to Iran. When I asked an Israli diplomat about Israel's relationship with the M.E.K., he said, "The M.E.K. is useful," but declined to elaborate.
I'm citing this bit not because I think Israel is perfidious but rather because OF COURSE Israel, as an anti-this-Iran interest-group, is going to support factions obnoxious to the current Iranian regime no matter their specific ideology; that's simply realistic manoeuvering. It might be a connection worth knowing about, though.

So, to sum up: Pahlavi and most of his exile supporters seem to be feckless dreamers (at least to the US decision-makers at this point), and the MEK seems to be a cult movement strangely willing to sell itself to the highest or most convenient bidders. Personally, I'm hoping that Iranians within Iran shape their country's future. Politically, I would prefer a policy of engagement and rapprochement; Bruck's article shows how that option was systematically sidelined in favor of a total rejection of an "Islamist government." I recommend buying the New Yorker to read the article more in depth. It seems very likely that the easily demogogued question of "what to do about Iran's nuclear program" will become a major issue in 2006, so it's best to know who the players are.


Blogger liberal japonicus:

Even weirder is former "White House aide for Iran" (what the hell does that title mean?) Gary Sick's suggestion that the Washingston Institute was conducting "screen tests" for prospective Iranian exile leaders.

I wonder why we think this is thought of as something worthwhile for Iran and Iraq, but would never be done for China or North Korea or Burma. I can think of three possibilities
-because Asians are just too damn inscrutable
-because there is no Asian equivalent of Israel
-because Iranian and Iraqi exiles speak English

3/13/2006 09:15:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

I can think of a fourth possibility: the US has never seriously contemplated regime change in those countries. Or is that just a gloss on your second point?

3/14/2006 10:01:00 AM  

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