NewsSpecial WireIran: The West is missing the point

Iran: The West is missing the point

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Iran Focus – Opinion: London, Oct 26 – It’s been quite some time since the Islamic Republic of Iran felt so angry at Europe that crimson-faced Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran would summon EU ambassadors twice in as many days to rail against “mischievous actions” aimed at “undermining” the clerical regime. Iran Focus – Opinion

London, Oct 26 – It’s been quite some time since the Islamic Republic of Iran felt so angry at Europe that crimson-faced Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran would summon EU ambassadors twice in as many days to rail against “mischievous actions” aimed at “undermining” the clerical regime.

The official Iranian news agency reported on Wednesday that the Foreign Ministry had summoned the ambassadors of Belgium and Finland for the second time to protest at the invitation accorded by the Belgian senate to Maryam Rajavi, the woman who heads the opposition coalition National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Invited by Belgian senators from different political parties, Rajavi was welcomed by the speaker of Belgium’s upper chamber, Anne-Marie Lizin, before delivering a speech that was highly critical of the European Union’s policy towards Tehran.

All this evidently proved too much for the Iranian authorities, who described the affair as “a provocative measure” and “an unfriendly gesture” by Belgium. In a series of public statements, the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blasted the “double standards and dual policies of Belgium and the European Union” and ominously warned Europe of the “risks” of playing “such political games” with the Islamic Republic.

Coming at a time when Iran has been on a charm offensive to woo the Europeans away from the United States in the row over the country’s nuclear program, Tehran’s irate reaction at Rajavi’s visit to Belgium caught many diplomats and observers by surprise. Iranian officials must surely know that baring their teeth at European ambassadors and delivering tirades laced with thinly-veiled threats cannot help their efforts to stave off the looming Security Council sanctions.

But Tehran’s expression of anger is neither spontaneous nor miscalculated. Behind the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s furious words lies a deliberate stratagem devised by the highest authorities of the clerical state. The aim is to dissuade the West, in the most effective manner possible, from lending support to Iranian opposition figures and groups.

The logic behind the Iranian clerics’ strategy is simple: political or economic pressure from the outside – and even military strikes short of a full-scale invasion – can do a lot of damage to the Iranian government, but will not ultimately threaten the Islamic radicals’ grip on power. In a country with a predominantly young population chafing under strict Islamic rule and against a backdrop of growing economic and social woes, the sole “existential threat” to the ayatollahs’ power can come from charismatic opposition figures and organized dissident groups capable of tapping the huge reservoir of discontent among ordinary Iranians.

For the ayatollahs, Maryam Rajavi represents that very dangerous confluence of charisma and organization. As a woman leader, she can appeal to large constituencies of disaffected Iranians, primarily women and the young, while the coalition she heads includes the largest and best organized opposition groups with an established presence inside Iran and on the country’s periphery.

Up until now, Iran’s clerical rulers have had the upper hand. They found a strong ally in the West: an initial complacency towards the threat of Islamic radicalism and a constant preoccupation with economic interests. As a result, Tehran was able to score a major political coup in May 2002: it convinced the EU to brand the largest group in Rajavi’s coalition, the People’s Mojahedin, as a terrorist organisation, in return for economic and geopolitical concessions from Iran.

The move went largely unnoticed in a post-9/11 world preoccupied with Islamic terrorism, the U.S.-led takeover of Afghanistan and concern over a pending war in Iraq, but it marked an invaluable political victory for the Iranian theocracy. In one sweep, the ayatollahs consolidated their security at home by undermining their sworn enemies and deprived the West of one of the most effective levers to influence Iranian behavior: support for the opposition. From the Western perspective, it was one of Europe’s biggest policy blunders in the region since the Islamic radicals’ rise to power in Iran in 1979.

With the U.S. eliminating two of the Islamic Republic’s main regional rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan and with Europe shackling their principal opponents, the ayatollahs saw an opportunity, and jumped at it. Thus began the process that led to Tehran’s intransigence over its nuclear program, its vast meddling in Iraq, and its deft use of regional pawns such as Hezbollah to advance its ambitions. The result is that the Middle East today is going through the most dangerous phase of its turbulent history since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

There are no easy solutions to the complex problems that have made the present situation in the Middle East so perilous. But the search for big solutions must begin with modest steps. What happened this week in the Belgian senate and Tehran’s irate reaction must lead Western governments to seriously rethink their policy towards Iranian opposition groups. Europe must embrace the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran with bold initiatives, and giving support to Iranian opposition figures and groups will send just the right signal to Tehran. The time has come to let the ayatollahs know that their Achilles’ heel is no longer concealed.

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