Ultimately, the U.S. Will Attack

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

* "Israel doesn't have the military strength to attack all of Iran's nuclear installations. Only the United States can do that."

* "But neither the United States nor Israel should do so."

* "A military strike will not solve the problem."

* "I nevertheless anticipate that the United States, under a Republican administration of Bush or his successor, will face a choice of not whether but when to attack Iran."

* "A Democratic president will also face that choice but will not attack."

These statements were made by Prof. Raymond Tanter of Georgetown University and the head of the Iran Policy Committee, a group that studies Iranian opposition groups and has concluded that supporting the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) is in America's interest. The MEK is a controversial Iranian militia that is opposed to the rule of the ayatollahs. Tanter is the co-author of "Appeasing the Ayatollahs and Suppressing Democracy: U.S. Policy and the Iranian Opposition."

Tanter and the members of the committee believe that the only way to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons is to replace the religious regime in Iran with a democratic regime. In their opinion, only Mujahideen-e-Khalq can do that.

However, the organization faces several significant problems: The United States has declared it a terror organization; most Iranians consider the members of MEK traitors, because they supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; and they are considered a weak group, lacking broad support in Iran itself. Last week Tanter presented his thoughts and plan at the sixth conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and in a conversation with Haaretz.

Tanter, 67, is considered a genius in international relations. At the age of 25, he completed his doctorate at the University of Indiana. He belongs to the school that introduced the use of mathematical models and quantitative studies in international relations. He has taught at top American universities, and in 1974 he spent his sabbatical at Hebrew University's Institute for International Relations (in the interest of proper disclosure, I was his student at the time.)

Between one academic job and the next, Tanter filled several positions in the White House and the Pentagon, mainly during Ronald Reagan's presidency. For two years (1981-1982) he was a member of the National Security Council, in charge of Libya and Lebanon (among his other assignments, Tanter followed Israeli policy which led to the invasion at the time.) He is identified with the Republican Party and has for the most part held conservative opinions. In his opinion, however, President George W. Bush's administration is not sufficiently conservative.

And here is his viewpoint in a nutshell: "Israel does not have the military strength to attack Iran's nuclear installations. For that there is a need for aerial strength that will enable continuous and prolonged attacks against unknown sites, and the Israel Air Force does not have such capability. Only the United States can do that. In the final analysis, the United States will attack, on condition that there isn't a Democratic president in the White House. A Republican administration is more likely to attack in the absence of a political regime change policy, whether there are good military opportunities or not.

"But attacking will not provide a fundamental solution to the problem. It will not eliminate Iran's nuclear program, but will only delay it. In order to bring about a halt to the nuclear program, there has to be a regime change there. Such a change is possible and can take place within a short period of time. From the moment that the Mujahideen-e-Khalq is removed from the U.S. State Department's list of terror organizations, they will bring about regime change in less time than it takes the regime of the ayatollahs to obtain nuclear weapons."

How much time are we talking about?

"I tend to accept the assessment of Israeli intelligence rather than that of the CIA, that Iran will have nuclear weapons within one to three years."

And during such a short period of time will you be able to give Mujahideen-e-Khalq control over Iran? How? With the support of the Mossad and the CIA?

"No. Intelligence organizations must under no circumstances be involved. Otherwise it will be a repeat of 1953 and the Mossadegh affair [the CIA and the British MI6 organized a coup that removed prime minister Mossadegh, who had nationalized the oil industry, and brought back Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah - Y.M.]. Our 10-point plan has clear guidelines: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should declare the removal of Mujahideen-e-Khalq from the list of terror organizations, Congressional leaders should invite Maryam Rajabi [the head of the political arm of the organization, and the wife of its leader - Y.M.] to testify before the congressional committees; and the Pentagon should allow the organization to operate from Iraq against the regime in Iran."

But the regime in Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were elected in democratic elections.

"The elections were democratic only de jure. The council for the defense of the Islamic regime rejected hundreds of candidates and allowed only its own candidates to participate in the elections. That's how Ahmadinejad was elected by default when the corrupt candidate, former president Rafsanjani, opposed him. It was a choice between a killer and a crook. Eighty percent of those eligible to vote did not participate in the elections. We believe that the moment the organization is able to operate from Iraq it will gain public favor in Iran.

"People will go into the streets to demonstrate. That happened already in 1981, when half a million Mujahideen-e-Khalq supporters did that. The regime will order the demonstrators dispersed by force and suppressed. Those who will try to carry out the order are the Basaji, the armed street militia of the Revolutionary Guards. They will shoot at demonstrators, a civil war will break out, and then in the heat of the events the army will intervene, stop the bloodshed, remove the ayatollahs and take over."

But even then there will be no guarantee that Iran will stop trying to obtain nuclear weapons. We know that this is an Iranian national ambition, regardless of ideology and world view.

"Mujahideen-e-Khalq have already declared that they are not interested in manufacturing nuclear weapons. But no one cares if a democratic Iran has nuclear weapons. Who cares if Israel or India has nuclear weapons?"

Mujahideen-e-Khalq was founded in the 1960s by Iranian students with Marxist views, who were opposed to the Shah's pro-Western policy. They joined Ayatollah Khomeini in the Islamic Revolution, but the combination of Marxist ideas and the principles of Islam did not accord with his plans, and in 1981 the group was expelled from its bases in Iran. The members of the group came under the wing of Saddam Hussein, who gave them bases and weapons and enabled them to operate from Iraqi territory during the Iran-Iraq war. This act was seen as betrayal by most of the Iranians, even opponents of the regime.

At the end of the war, the members of Mujahideen-e-Khalq established headquarters in Paris, and since then they have been activating thousands of activists and underground fighters from there. They have guerrilla and terrorist activities to their credit, such as the elimination of senior officers, including the chief of staff of the Iranian army, and an attack on the presidential palace in Tehran (in 2000, during the term of President Khatami.) In addition, it was members of the organization who discovered the two secret plants for enriching uranium that Iran had not declared, and which were therefore not under international supervision. When the U.S. Army invaded Iraq, it disarmed the organization and prohibited it from operating.

The reason why Mujahideen-e-Khalq is defined as a terror organization is based on several incidents. The group's activists are suspected of the murder of U.S. citizens on Iranian soil during the period of the Shah. Prof. Tanter and his associates claim that those who carried out the acts were Maoist activists who did not obey the leadership of the organization. Another reason is its support for the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian students and holding its 52 employees as hostages.

Tanter believes that Israel can help legitimize Mujahideen-e-Khalq: "I'm not asking the Mossad to join them and cooperate with them. They should not be involved, and Israel should stay out of the picture. Mujahideen-e-Khalq do not wish such a tie with Israel. But Israel has influence in the United States. It has supporters and a lobby and it can ask them to have MEK removed from the State Department's list of terror organizations.

Instead, Israel is taking a neutral stance, and that's a pity. Mujahideen-e-Khalq is the only game in town if we want to bring about regime change in Iran. To paraphrase Churchill's words about democracy, I think that Mujahideen-e-Khalq is the worst option, except for all the other alternatives."

Your support for the MEK seems like putting all your eggs in one basket.

"No, I put my eggs in the Iranian people, not in a single group."



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