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Here There Be Dragons: The Twisted World of Iranian Politics

By Johnny Simpson
Posted Apr 8, 2011 in World
In most of my reporting on Iran prior to the Green Revolution, my views on Iranian politics were very black and white: get rid of the Islamist Nazi-like regime by any and all means necessary and worry about the political fallout later. I believed any change would be an improvement over the Islamist extremist Khomeinist regime, which was and is guilty of countless war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet I have found in my many interactions with hundreds of Iranians since June 2009 that all is not so simple, and that there are nightmarish post-regime scenarios that could even exceed what Iranians and the greater world are dealing with today in Iran.
Since no polling is available, I have to speak in generalities based on extended conversations with a very wide variety of Iranians themselves, who range from top Iranian human rights activists and hip modernist exiles in the Los Angeles diaspora to rank Stalinist Communists. First, a primer. Though all dissident groups both within and without Iran agree that the reign of terror by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ali Khamenei and the Mad Mullahs must end, the widely varying opinions of Iranians themselves as to what kind of political system should arise in the aftermath of a regime collapse make the Grand Canyon-like divide between American liberals and conservatives on government policy look like a crack in the sidewalk.
Though I have found most Iranians I have conversed with at length prefer a Western-style secular democracy, many others have very different and often wildly conflicting views. Some believe that the answer is Soviet-style Communism. Others believe some milder form of Islamic law should be incorporated into any future Constitution. Others want Islam, which they consider an historical aberration forced upon Persia by outside forces, banned completely from Iranian society and its practice outlawed. And then there is the huge Islamist political base in Iran itself, which fully supports the regime and sees no need for change whatsoever.
Even opinions among dissidents on Green leader Mir Hossein Mousavi vary wildly. Many look to him as a former regime leader now turned by his conscience into a reformer. Other Iranians talk of their passionate desire of seeing him swinging from a rope for his alleged involvement in such past regime crimes as the mass execution of up to 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, on the orders of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. In short, overthrowing the radical Islamist extremist regime in Tehran will be the easy part. Establishing even a quasi-functional democracy that doesn't descend into full-blown civil war will be the real challenge.
Yet the political minefields of Iranian politics, much like the current regime's reign of Islamist extremist terror, extend far beyond Iran's borders. For Western governments, Iranian politics present a veritable wilderness of mirrors. There are certainly many legitimate Iranian NGOs and organizations outside Iran which only want a free Persia modeled on secular Western democracy, but the largest and most widely recognized in the West present their own set of thorny problems. Who is who? Is the National Iranian-American Council really a champion of Iranian democracy? Or is NIAC a regime front, as even many Iranians suspect?
The thorniest problems of all for Western governments lie with PMOI/MEK, aka the People's Mojahedeen of Iran and Mojahedin-E Khalq. They are represented politically by the People's Resistance of Iran, and have already selected MEK leader Maryam Rajavi as the leader of any future Iranian government. Though championed by both liberals and conservatives in the West as a large and most critical piece of the Iranian political puzzle, the PMOI/MEK is still designated as a terrorist group by the US State Department. Other Western governments have lifted that designation, and are appealing to the Obama administration to do the same.
But the PMOI/MEK is perhaps the one political group that all other Iranians within and without Iran, from rank secularists to full-blown Islamists, despise to a one. Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of the PMOI/MEK is treason. Their siding and fighting with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War is a dark bloody stain they bear even among Iranians who were never even born at the time. Should the West champion the PMOI/MEK all the way to eventual rule in Iran, most Iranians would consider that act a greater crime by far than America's imposition of the Shah. Also, the PMOI/MEK, generally considered to be Islamist-Marxist in nature, does not recognize the al-Maliki government in Iraq as legitimate.
Worst case, PMOI/MEK rule may not only prove even a crueler tyranny than the current Islamist extremist regime in Iran in its bloody reprisals against its many domestic political enemies, it may just very well start a war with what it perceives to be an illegitimate Shiite regime in Iraq. We in the West are already treading in serious minefields in the Middle East in the name of humanitarianism, Libya being the prime example. Are we arming Al Qaeda among the rebels? And in Egypt, the descent into Islamism in the wake of Hosni Mubarak's departure, driven by the powerful Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, is forcibly brushing aside the secularists. That Mohammad El Baradei pandered to that crowd by threatening war with Israel has not been a benign development. Nor are the proposed Islamist "modesty police."
For all those reasons and many more, we in the West need to take a very close look at who exactly it is we're dealing with in Iranian politics. The Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq rested in large part on the word of Ahmed Chalabi, once called the "George Washington of Iraqi politics." We have since learned he was anything but. Most of his "solid information" about WMD and Iraqi cooperation with Al Qaeda has turned out to be pure lies to advance his own personal and political interests in a post-Saddam Iraq. If anyone, I would recommend that western leaders will gain perhaps the best advice on moving forward in their Iran policy by consulting such well-known and universally respected public figures as Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. It is telling that even with her stellar freedom-championing credentials, Ms. Ebadi is considered a regime stooge by some Iranians who just don't like her.Welcome to Iranian politics. Watch out for the landmines!
UPDATE: I almost forgot one major political Joker in the deck here: Reza Pahlavi, son of the Shah, whom many would like to see rule a post-regime Iran under a Constitutional monarchy. Mr. Pahlavi has a very large base of support in the diaspora, which brings up yet another bone of contention: the Iranian flag. Some call the version with the lion the "Shah's flag." Yet one more major sticking point to be resolved in a future free Iran.
CAMP ASHRAF RAID: Because of all the negative factors surrounding the PMOI/MEK, Camp Ashraf has been a major bone of contention between Iran and Iraq. As reported on Drudge, the camp was raided by Iraqi Army troops and up to 28 people massacred. The Iraqi government stated that the raid was in response repeated provocations by the camp residents: blocking roads, hurling stones at guards, etc. Though a real tragedy with the loos of numerous lives, the real problem here is sorting out who's telling the truth. Both sides have a great many motivations to capitalize politically from this situation. Was it a brutal and unnecessary raid by the Iraqi Army? Or did the residents stage an intifadah? More news will come out over time, I'm sure. But a tragedy nonetheless.