Lord Maginnis: Iran and ISIL - with strategic management the US can challenge both
Lord Maginnis, an independent Ulster Unionist member of the House of Lords and prominent member of the British Committee for Iran Freedom writes that the US can successfully confront both leading sources of Islamic extremism at once: the Islamic State & the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Donald Trump is on his first overseas trip as President of the United States. By visiting Saudi Arabia and then moving on directly to Israel, he will be working to solidify emerging partnerships in the region which might have once seemed implausible. Although both are long-standing American allies, the two countries have traditionally been recognised as regional adversaries, but now both are increasingly concerned about the ascendancy of Iranian imperialism and its contribution to bloody conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Fortunately, the Trump administration shares these concerns, and there is little doubt that strategies for confronting Iran will be a major topic of discussion when the president visits both the Sunni Arab kingdom and the Jewish state. Under the previous administration, regional allies had been largely left blowing in the wind as Iranian force-projection closed around their borders. Against the backdrop of the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama Administration even moved in the direction of enabling and encouraging Tehran in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), amid hopes that it would be a valuable partner in the conflict against the ISIL.
ISIL remains a threat to regional stability, and although it is losing ground, as a consequence of the previous administration’s failed policy, Iranian influence can infiltrate into new areas of Syria and Iraq, to fill the power vacuum left behind by the militant group. Iran is the world’s only modern theocracy, the originator of manipulating Islam for political power, and the leading state sponsor of terrorism. The essential differences between ISIL and Iran is merely that Iran’s extremism is Shiite rather than Sunni, and is backed by established state infrastructure.
The Obama Administration evidently expected this extremist identity to become moderated with Hassan Rouhani taking office in 2013. But over the course of his four years in office, nothing has essentially changed in the conditions faced by the Iranian people or in the behaviour of the Islamic Republic toward its adversaries in the region and around the world. Tehran continues to jail people on vague, political or religious charges such as “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “enmity against God,” and it continues to execute non-violent offenders at a rate higher than any other country in the world. Approximately 3,000 people have been executed since Rouhani took office.
Under Rouhani’s watch a significant crackdown on political dissent and “pro-western” or “anti-Islamic” social trends, has been implemented. The arrest of a number of western nationals holding dual Iranian citizenship, has caught the media’s eye in recent years.
The judicial assaults on persons with connections to the west, has been backed by a surge in rhetoric and aggressive behaviour towards western regional assets, especially in the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has tested several ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, and has provoked a number of confrontational close encounters with US Navy vessels.
Rouhani himself is not strictly to blame for any of this, as the office of the president wields limited power within the system of absolute rule by the clerical Supreme Leader. But the supposedly moderate executive has notably avoided anything approaching defiance of regime’s established policies.
President Trump’s trip to the Middle East coincides with Iran’s presidential election in which Rouhani will be defending his seat against hard-line challengers. In the lead-up to that election, there has been a substantial outpouring of activism directed against the entirety of the regime and establishment. The country’s leading opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), has organise a mass boycott of the sham electoral process, compelling Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to enter the scene and urge people to vote in order to defend the “legitimacy” of the regime.
Risking their lives with imprisonment or worse, activists have taken to the streets in defiance by posting signs and graffiti to cast their vote for “regime change”; describing Rouhani as a demagogue and “king of executions” and his main challenger as an executioner dubbed “Ayatollah Massacre”, on account of Ebrahim Raisi’s leading role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Clearly the masses of the Iranian electorate reject Khamenei’s claims of legitimacy, and would support a global strategy aimed at curtailing the power and influence of a regime that is only able to rule with an iron fist and does not represent the will of the masses.
The timing of Trump’s visit to the region is highly significant. By potentially initiating talks with Tehran’s adversaries even before the results of the Iranian election, the White House is signalling that the outcome of such sham elections will not impact American, Saudi, or Israeli views regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran. The message of the Iranian people and its organised resistance the PMOI has been clear: When the nature of the regime is corrupt and an obstacle to peace in the region, who heads this show will not be a decisive factor. The gesture presented in Trump’s visit, strengthens hope that the Trump Administration will avoid the mistakes made by its predecessors, who carelessly embraced Rouhani’s presidency without recognising the will of the Iranian people.
This is not to say that there can be no meaningful takeaway from the Iranian elections. The success of the PMOI-organised boycott will give a glimpse of the extent of popular resentment toward the clerical regime, and the degree to which the people are prepared to bring about regime change in Tehran. By listening and siding with the Iranian people’s deep desire for regime change, the US can successfully confront both leading sources of Islamic extremism at once: the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass is an independent Ulster Unionist member of the House of Lords and prominent member of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF).