Exploiting Tehran’s Anxiety over Increasingly Powerful Iranian Opposition

Last  week, Senator John McCain paid a visit to newly established centers of the Iranian opposition People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) in Albania, where he met Maryam Rajavi, President of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and Iranian exiles who until recently were living in concentration camp conditions at the former U.S. military base of Camp Liberty, Iraq.

Dozens of members of the exile community died in Iraq in recent years, as a result of Western failure to live up to promises of protection at a time when Tehran’s influence over the Iraqi government and military grew steadily more entrenched and violent. Although the Obama administration was slow in responding to the situation, it deserves credit for helping to secure the removal of the exiles abroad.

That relocation has empowered the Iranian opposition, providing some of its senior most officials with stable bases of operations, where they can freely join with fellow activists and continue their advocacy for the cause of regime change in Tehran. McCain’s visit not only signals collaboration between Iranian opposition and the West, but serves to underscore the fact that these activists enjoy a large and growing collection of allies in Western democracies who recognize the potential for transformative change in the region spearheaded by native Iranians and their families in exile.

It is absolutely unsurprising, therefore, that the Iranian regime was quick to issue a hysterical response to McCain’s visit, levying long-debunked accusations of terrorism against the PMOI/MEK, as well as accusing the U.S. of pursuing “obscene” policies in the Middle East and declaring Washington would “pay” both for McCain’s visit and for “other mistakes.”

As baseless and inexcusable as Tehran’s aggressive rhetoric is, there is good reason for the regime to be concerned about the current trajectory of U.S. policy. McCain’s visit followed several moves by both the White House and Congress to institute a more assertive U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iran. The Trump administration placed Iran “on notice” over its ballistic missile tests and ordered a review of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization.

More recently, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee each put forward bills set to expand sanctions on the Islamic Republic and perhaps specifically target the IRGC, which currently faces few constraints while playing a leading role in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, and also in the domestic affairs of a variety of regional countries.

At the start of a week-long tour of the Middle East, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to cooperation with allies like Saudi Arabia, who feel increasingly threatened by Iranian imperialism and the proliferation of IRGC-linked militant proxies. Mattis explicitly declared an Iranian hand can be seen at work in every Middle East crisis and he specifically called for the U.S. to counteract Iranian influence in Yemen, where Tehran backs Houthi rebels against the country’s recognized government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed Washington longstanding criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Although recent reports indicate Iran generally abiding by the agreement, the White House remains worried about the possibility of cheating but is also more directly focused that even a fully enforced agreement will cause sanctions relief to be channeled into the hands of Iran-backed terrorist groups. In his remarks the past Wednesday, Tillerson focused not only on the nuclear deal, but also on what he called Iran’s “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence.”

The Trump administration acting against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would be positively disastrous for the Iranian regime. The loss of modest but hard-earned economic gains would reinvigorate the dissident sentiments of the Iranian people and create a serious opening for the Iranian opposition to drive out the theocracy.

But the recent economic gains are not alone sufficient to stave off the simmering bitterness of a pro-democratic people whose uprising was quelled by the regime in 2009. Coordinated opposition to Iran’s foreign interventions could have an effect similar to the collapse of the JCPOA, especially if coupled with targeted sanctions against repressive hardline entities like the IRGC. This alone would expose Tehran’s underlying weakness.

This provides good reason for Tehran to worry, first about the recent empowerment of the Iranian opposition and second, the end of the failed engagement policy with Tehran. And of course, Tehran should be particularly worried when these two trends overlap, as they did with McCain’s visit and as they very likely will throughout the Trump presidency.

Such an overlap should be consciously and eagerly embraced by U.S. policymakers and the American people. Iran’s anger over the contact between lawmakers and Iranian activists is indicative of an anxiety that can be exploited for the benefit of Western interests and the improvement of the lives of people living under the thumb of Iran’s religious dictatorship.

The U.S. is trekking the right path by reviewing the JCPOA, moving to blacklist the IRGC, and making Tehran comprehend its ongoing support of terrorism and repression of its own people will not be tolerated.

Once those measures reach their conclusion, Iran’s most hardline political elements will lose their influence, and its most repressive institutions will lack the resources needed to keep a restive population in check. Once these changes give rise to even greater anxieties among Iran’s mullahs, the international community will be able to bring effective political pressure to bear on the regime, so as to convince it to finally listen to the demands of its people and allow true reformists to enter the political process, including officials affiliated with the Iranian opposition.

​Shahriar Kia is a political analyst and member of the Iranian opposition, the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, also known as the MEK). He graduated from North Texas University.