Looking for Enemies

Nir Boms and Shayan Arya

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 

Policy experts continue to debate the best approach that should be implemented with the current Iranian leadership – but before getting there, they need to answer a key question regarding the strength of their potential adversary in Tehran.

Many believe that the Islamic regime in Iran is strong. That it is there to stay and – perhaps thanks to the misguided American policies in the Middle East – it is going even stronger. They point to the growing influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. They also look at the high prices of oil and the Islamic Republic’s ability to make life very difficult for America and its allies.

But is another view possible? “The World Was Going Our Way” is the title of an interesting book by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, the most senior KGB archivist ever to defect to the West. Mr. Mitrokhin brought with him a series of intelligent reports covering a few decades of KGB analysis. The documents clearly show that the KGB believed that the world was going their way. And they were not only convinced, but also convincing. Americans at the highest levels of government lived in fear of the Soviets and their apparent gains in the Third World – and feared that the battle over the Third World was lost. But it wasn’t. The Soviet Union had a series of internal flaws that no external gain could fix. And these flaws eventually led to its downfall. Can the same case be made about the Islamic Republic of Iran? Consider Drs. Arash and Kamiar Alaeis’ case for example.

Last June, security forces detained two of Iran’s most prominent physicians, Drs. Arash and Kamiar Alaei whose work on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs have won international recognition. They are reportedly charged with subversive activities to overthrow the regime! For the past 20 years the Alaei brothers worked tirelessly to address problems related to drug use with a focus on the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, and have played a key role in putting these issues on Islamic Republic’s national health-care agenda. They convinced the authorities that it was in their regime’s interest to deal with this problem before it gets out of hand. They even worked closely with religious leaders to ensure support for educational campaigns on HIV transmission targeting youth.

Neither of the brothers is known to have any involvement in political activities. It is surprising to see that they have been arrested and kept incommunicado in an undisclosed location charged with subversive activities to overthrow the regime.

Under a regime with an abhorrent human rights record and with a Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whom to the astonishment of the world declared during his speech at Columbia University that “there are no homosexuals in Iran” – nothing should come as a surprise. Nonetheless, the Islamic regime’s paranoia and the fact that it sees enemies everywhere, even amongst those who are doing it a favor, is quite astonishing.

Last year, the arrest of a 68-year-old Iranian-American scholar, Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, who is the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, grabbed international headlines. She worked tirelessly for many years to make a bridge between American officials and their counterparts in Iran. They charged her with similar charges. She was later released after international pressure was put on the regime by her many influential friends around the globe.

The list of similar cases goes on. Earlier this month Balouchi civil-rights activist and journalist Yaghoub Mehrnahad was executed in the city of Zahedan. The 28-year-old was also charged with subversive activities to overthrow the regime. In reality he was only trying to peacefully draw attention to and help the deprived Sunni population of Baluchistan province.

From 68-year-old scholars to 28-year-old journalists, from AIDS activists to peaceful advocates of women rights, the Islamic regime appears to find dangerous spies and enemies everywhere.

Our policy-makers should seriously pay attention to the Islamic regime’s internal behavior and not just to its threatening words designed to project strength. For as Mark Twain famously said: “Actions speak louder than words.”

For the sake of the Alaei brothers and the countless innocent Iranian victims of the Islamic regime’s paranoia – and for the sake of all of us – let us hope that our policymakers will not be intimidated by the mullahs’ words and will formulate a policy that aims at their Achilles’ heel – their internal weakness.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist, member of Constitutionalist Party of Iran and associate researcher at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.

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