Tags: Donald Trump | Emerging Threats | Iran | mek | mujahedin | milani | giuliani

Light Touch Needed for Iran's Resistance

president trump in the oval office of the white house

President Donald Trump speaks he meets with survivors of religious persecution in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Washington. The survivors come from countries including Iran (Alex Brandon/AP)

Wednesday, 31 July 2019 01:22 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Opposing the Iranian regime doesn't have to mean sanctioning its banks and oil.

Just ask Abbas Milani.

The director of Stanford University’s Iran studies program cannot be called a squish when it comes to Iran; he has devoted much of his scholarship to the regime’s struggle against modernity and to understanding the country’s democracy movement.

As Milani told a small group of reporters this week in Washington, he believes the best U.S. policy today is to encourage a democratic transition.

One might think Milani would appreciate the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, sometimes known as maximum pressure. After all, the Trump administration has re-imposed crippling sanctions on the regime and taken a public diplomacy line at times that highlights the corruption of Iran’s rulers and the plight of its people.

But Milani is no fan of maximum pressure.

He says it undermines Iran’s democracy movement and strengthens Iran’s ties with Russia and China.

On this second point, Milani pointed to this week’s announcement that Iran and Russia would be conducting joint military exercises in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Milani said that even a few years ago this would have been unthinkable. In 2016, when it leaked out that Russian planes were flying missions for Syria from a base in Iran, the regime was embarrassed and disavowed the story. Iran’s constitution bars foreign forces on its soil.

More importantly though, Milani sees a danger that U.S. efforts to punish nations and banks that do business with Iran have given a discredited regime a useful foil. "The sanctions have exacerbated but not created Iran’s economic crisis,” he said. "They have also given the regime an excuse to say all of this is because of the sanctions."

Here Milani has a valid point. Before Trump re-imposed the sanctions in 2018, Iran’s economy was already in trouble. Its banks were failing.

A new round of protests that started at the end of 2017 blamed the regime’s leaders for lavishly spending on a war to save Syria’s dictator while neglecting domestic priorities.

Ecological mismanagement had led to drinking water shortages. Add to this a growing movement among former reformers and activists demanding changes to the constitution to limit or eliminate altogether the office of the Supreme Leader. All of this is evidence that Iran’s leaders lacked popular legitimacy before Trump re-imposed crippling sanctions.

There is still popular unrest.

In March, for example, Iranian teachers conducted a nationwide strike for better pay. Iranian rail workers and bus drivers have conducted strikes in the last year as well.

That movement is worth supporting, but the U.S. must use a careful light touch.

Milani recommends for example that Trump make clear that the relationship between his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and the People’s Mujahedin, or the MEK, does not reflect U.S. government policy. This exiled opposition was once designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department and is largely reviled by Iranians because it sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. Giuliani has called it a "government in exile."

Milani says that sort of talk is risky, "The U.S. has to declare that it is not in the business of picking Iranian leaders.”

Milani suggests that Trump ease some of the immigration restrictions on Iranian citizens to make it easier for dissidents to travel to the U.S. He said Stanford has not been able to bring Iranian dissidents or scholars to the university for two years. The current immigration policy is particularly cruel, Milani said, because it allows the children of regime elites to attend U.S. universities but has barred the victims of the regime from visiting.

He also recommends that the U.S. modify the current sanctions to allow Western financial institutions to process transactions for medicine.

In the grand scheme of things, these are small policy fixes. That’s the point though. Most Iranians blame their leaders for their country’s isolation and poverty. The best outcome America’s economic war offers is a new deal with a despised regime. At worst, the crippling sanctions allow that regime to blame the U.S. for the misery of its people.

Why not get out of the way and support Iranians who want to take their country back?

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© Copyright 2019 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.


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Most Iranians blame their leaders for their country’s isolation and poverty. The best outcome America’s economic war offers is a new deal with a despised regime. At worst, the crippling sanctions allow that regime to blame the U.S. for the misery of its people.
mek, mujahedin, milani, giuliani
Wednesday, 31 July 2019 01:22 PM
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