How to Help the Ayatollahs

The enemies of the ayatollahs doubtless applauded loudly earlier this week when U.S. spokesmen ventured their latest pronouncement about the status of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which has long claimed to be the "official opposition" to the current regime in Iran. Raising more speculation that Washington could one day use the group as a proxy military force against Tehran, the spokesmen announced that the MEK would not be prosecuted for any violations of American law and that its 3,800 militia in Iraq would instead be granted a "protected status" that shields them from deportation to Iran.

Any jubilation about this decision would, however, be deeply ironic. For far from undermining the present order, any steps that Washington might take toward sponsoring the MEK are in fact likely to prove wholly counterproductive by playing straight into the ayatollahs’ hands.

The main reason is not hard to see. Such is the unpopularity of the MEK among ordinary Iranians that the U.S. would become even more discredited by sponsoring it, instead giving a perfect opportunity to the regime’s propagandists to portray Washington as the enemy of not just the mullahs but of the Iranian people in general. So there could scarcely be any better way for the clerics to rally the nation behind them and fasten their grip on power.

The group’s unpopularity does not only reflect the indiscriminate bombings it has undertaken against Iranian cities in attacks that spilled some civilian blood. Much more serious in the eyes of ordinary Iranians was its long and treacherous association with Saddam Hussein. During the last three years of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the militia effectively became the stooges of an Iraqi leader whose invasion of Iran in 1980 began a bloody war in which millions of Iranians were killed or wounded, not least because of the Iraqi missile campaign against them – "the war of the cities" – that lasted only months but nonetheless left a lasting legacy of bitterness.

This means that any flirtation between Washington and the MEK, let alone a serious relationship, will alienate the large number of ordinary Iranians who, after years of isolation, would otherwise be receptive to any new diplomatic overtures that the U.S. might strike up. But just at the time when Washington could perhaps drive a wedge between rulers and the ruled, a heavy-handed bid to back the MEK would push them closer together.

In Washington, supporters of the movement cannot convincingly counter-argue that the MEK presents any real threat to the stability of the present regime that would offset this high political cost. Far from it: the militia force that over the past sixteen months has been held under American guard in Camp Ashraf, not far from Baghdad, is a ramshackle bunch that has never had the training or hardware to present a serious challenge to the mullahs’ order. They suffered heavily in 1988 when they launched an offensive on Saddam’s behalf and got shot to pieces by the battle-hardened and well-equipped Revolutionary Guard. Since then, they have staged only pinprick raids and occasional bombings that have had a psychological effect on Tehran out of all proportion to the reality of the threat they really pose.

Instead of sponsoring the MEK, there are other, far more measured, responses to the Iranian challenge that Washington could consider. A heavy-handed military response would prove just as counterproductive as so many other policies of the Bush administration: by alienating support among traditional allies in Western Europe, stirring up Arab anger and damaging U.S. credibility, for example, the campaign in Iraq has regressed the War on Terror. Let’s hope that the latest announcement about the status of the MEK isn’t a sign of something else to come after the November election.