October 14, 2011 | National Post
Iran Shows Its True Colours
News of a thwarted Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States is still on the front pages. Yet already, some public officials and pundits are trying to suggest that the scheme actually is the work of “rogue elements” within the Iranian regime, whose aim, apparently, is to undermine Tehran’s “moderates.”
U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder blamed “factions in the Iran government.” Two Indiana University scholars, Jamsheed and Carol Choksy, wrote on CNN.com that “those fundamentalist members of the Iranian government who have long sought to blow up any possibility for the normalization of relations between Tehran and Washington may just have succeeded.” In Britain, The Guardian’s Julian Borger wrote: “It appears very unlikely that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would approve such a brazen plot with such unpredictable consequences.” Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria at Reuters quoted an anonymous government official to the effect that “the United States does not have solid information about ‘exactly how high it goes.’ ”
Much of this speculation originates from a desire to believe that Iran can still be an interlocutor for the West — a hope that would be impossible to sustain if one accepts that the regime itself, and not some deviant faction, was behind a plot to blow up a Saudi ambassador dining in a crowded Washington restaurant.
Many Western leaders and analysts still believe that were it not for the sinister machinations of extremists inside the regime, reconciliation would be within reach.
The truth is very different: When Iranian agents and proxies murder and maim, it is because their rulers ordered them to do so, not because one faction is backstabbing another. Iran is not a medieval patchwork of fiefdoms run by warlords each with his own independent foreign policy. On the contrary, such decision cannot occur except under strict supervision and prior authorization from the highest authorities of state – from the Supreme Leader himself.
Dodging the policy dilemma arising from Iran’s ruthlessness in the hope of helping more “moderate” elements is the surest way to invite more, and potentially worse, provocations in the future.
Washington should know better. The Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, in 1996, which cost the lives of 19 Americans, bore Iranian fingerprints. The United States blamed al-Qaeda instead, so as not to jeopardize diplomatic outreach to Iran. Fifteen years later, that diplomacy hasn’t borne any fruit.
For years, Iranian agents gunned down exiled dissidents in broad daylight in European capitals – the Shah’s last Prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, in Paris; Masoud Rajavi, the Islamic-Marxist leader of the opposition Mujaheddin-e Qhalq, in Geneva; and Iran’s Kurdish dissidents, Abdol Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna and Sadegh Sharafkandi, in Berlin, just to name a few.
European governments — weighed down by their commercial relations with Iran — looked the other way. It was the era of Iranian “pragmatism” under then-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and of “reformism,” under his successor Mohammed Khatami. It was tempting to believe that these leaders were well-intentioned and moderate. Whenever some outrage betrayed Iran’s fingerprints, rogue agents had to be blamed — not the regime itself.
What helped change Europe’s approach to Iran were the inescapable conclusions, eventually drawn by German prosecutors of the Mykonos massacre of Kurdish Iranian dissidents in Berlin, on 17 September 1992 — which Roya Hakakian has masterfully documented in her recent book Assassins of the Turquoise Palace — that the highest echelons of the regime had ordered the attacks.
What made Iran carry out those attacks, until then, was the belief that its assassins could freely roam the streets of Europe and kill the regime’s critics with impunity. What made Iran stop was the groundswell of outrage across Europe as Iran’s responsibility became too obvious to deny. The joint European decision to withdraw ambassadors from Tehran was, alone, enough to force a halt to Iran’s murderous campaign against its exiled dissidents.
Fast-forward to 2011. What must have triggered an Iranian decision at the highest levels of government to order a daring and outrageous attack in the United States capital is the assumption that the current U.S. administration is too weak to respond vigorously, and too preoccupied with keeping the diplomatic door open to point an accusing finger at the very top of Iran’s power pyramid. Iran’s leaders have reasoned that there would be no price for Iran to pay.
The history of the Islamic Republic teaches us that Iran will back down only when faced with steely resolve and a readiness to fight. Washington’s record on Iran, regrettably, shows that the opposite response is more common. Let’s hope that changes.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (FDD Press, September 2011).