After enduring four years of President Trump’s hostile and belligerent policies and actions – the Muslim travel ban, extreme sanctions, incitement to violence, support for terrorist groups, assassinations of nuclear scientists and of general Qasem Soleimani – the Iranian people are entitled to conclude that America is waging a war against them. And Iran has responded; maximum pressure resulted only in maximum resistance. The sanctions, unfortunate as they have been for Iran’s economy, have not destroyed it. Indeed, evidence is emerging that Iran’s resistance culture itself has led to an entrepreneurial response to overcome the restrictions. Iran’s military opened a trade and security corridor through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean coast. A dedicated port is under construction. The U.S. can no longer control Iran’s finances since it is no longer limited to trading through Dubai. The only way to stop that is using bombs; an actual declaration of war, which puts Israel at risk.
Biden Dilemma Iranians Blame America
Trump and his allies spent four years trying to crush Iran, to force regime change and failing that, threats to bomb the country back fifty years. They failed. The unintended consequence of that failure has been the militarisation of Iran. The Revolutionary Guards have become stronger and their power embedded in the wider region with allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. Commemorations to mark the January 3rd anniversary of the assassinations of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were titled ‘Martyrs Without Borders’ signifying their wider relevance. Although Iraq is in step with Iran to eject American forces from the region, the Trump administration failed to understand that Ayatollah Khamenei’s ‘harsh revenge’ could be achieved as much through regional soft power and international law as military strikes.
Furthermore, the assassination of Soleimani unified Iran in a way that no internal politics could have hoped to achieve as Iranians rallied round their flag. Back in 2016, Iran’s leaders were almost equally divided between western leaning moderates and revolutionary hardliners. Now we hear president Rohani echoing the speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei, and foreign minister Javad Zarif amplifying the role of the Quds Force in Iran’s foreign policy. National unity against the perceived external threat of America has now created grounds for military officials to be allowed to run for president in June’s elections. If the military prevail, it will make conflict more likely, not less. Iran says its missile program is defensive, that it does not want war, but with missiles in Iran and Lebanon trained on U.S. interests in the region, Israel is clearly less safe than before.
President Joe Biden will only have months to make a difference if he wants to pursue a diplomatic route. He must demonstrate through policies and actions that Trump was a hiccup, not the way things will be. Trump was not America. If Biden wants to start talking with Iran he must accept where Iran is now, not what it used to be. Confrontation and containment cannot be the starting point for negotiations; there will have to be more carrots.
Iran experts are focused on re-joining the JCPOA. But this will not be enough on its own to recalibrate relations between the two countries. Not only will Iran expect sanctions to be lifted but will feel entitled to demand compensation for the financial losses suffered under extreme sanctions. People were denied medicine. Iranians saw Trump as a mad man, but they blame America for their woes. The damage done by Trump will take years to redress, but there is no reason why trust building cannot begin straight away. To start with Biden must treat Iran with respect. Acknowledge that assassinations and incitement to violence and terrorism are not how civilized countries behave.
Of course, the new presidency will be hampered by America’s internal problems. Biden inherits a deeply divided country. Yet, the decades long problem of Iran could very well offer a route to a new bipartisan consensus on a way forward. Although Trump has gone, the Adelson family, Neocons and Fox News will still be there; war is still on the agenda. Theirs is not a battle between Democrats and Republicans, but between warmongers and peacemakers. Their agenda doesn’t depend on who is the president. They want to defeat Iran. If Trump couldn’t do it, they will force the Democrats to do it. They want a war at any price. If Biden cannot prevent war, they will have won.
In this respect, this expert would advocate a much easier, cheaper and effective course of action to start with. Biden should immediately restore the Obama administration’s plan to deradicalize the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) terrorist cult in Albania. The MEK are, of course, the darlings of both the anti-Iran cabal in the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the hardliners in Iran. Both sides have used the MEK to destroy Iran’s indigenous opposition movement and to control the prevailing narrative on Iran in international politics.
By dismantling and deradicalizing the MEK, Biden can score easy wins in a variety of arenas. In Albania it would free around two thousand members from conditions of modern slavery, allowing them to reintegrate into normal society and be reunited with their families. It would relieve the Albanian government and security services of the headache caused by MEK crime, corruption and impunity in their country. For Iranians who universally regard the MEK with loathing as traitors and cultists, it would send a clear message that America will not tolerate terrorism or human rights abuses in pursuit of its foreign policy aims. Iran’s people would view dismantling this terrorist group as a goodwill gesture; building a modicum of trust that may sway some voters in June to have faith in the efficacy of diplomacy with the west.
But the most significant win for Biden would be to start tackling the corruption inside America which facilitated Trump’s belligerent agenda and that of his backers. Dismantling the MEK would stem one of the hidden conduits for the flow of foreign money and false narratives into America.
The MEK paid thousands of dollars for the likes of Rudi Giuliani and John Bolton to attend their rallies in Paris and Tirana to peddle the false narrative that the only way to deal with Iran is confrontation, regime change and war. The Heshmat Alavi scandal which exposed an industry of fake social media messages and accounts and a click farm in Albania, revealed that what had previously been covert activity had, under Trump, become mainstream.
In America, Professor Raymond Tanter has been tasked with creating a bi-partisan group to undermine the work of the new Biden administration. Funding for this project relies on the kind of corruption that has become embedded in the body politic. The example of MEK funding for the extreme right Vox Party in Spain reveals how the MEK use individual and fake association accounts to channel foreign funds into anti-Iran projects.
It is incumbent on the Biden administration to approach relations with Iran on a new page. Purging the old regime need not be as difficult as it first appears. The costs of erasing any traces of the MEK from that page are low, the benefits are great and many.
Anne and Massoud Khodabandeh,