President Obama’s short speech to the nation on September 10, addressed the urgent need to take action against the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL). The speech began with a description of ISIS and the danger it poses. Of course Obama used his own potent words to talk about ISIS, but the organisation which he described has the characteristics of a group that:
Recruits by deception; pretends to embrace religious precepts but in reality pursues an extremist political ideology.
Holds such simplistic and erroneous beliefs that it can only prevent its members from seeing through them by preventing them from thinking and therefore fills every minute of their day with activity, whether military training or peeling carrots or cleaning latrines.
Indoctrinates recruits with thought stopping fears and certainties so as to create a stark, unassailable ‘us and them’ mentality, a sense of innate superiority which obliges followers to ruthlessly eliminate all enemies.
Uses cruel, arbitrary punishments, extra-judicial killings, and example killings to warn against disobedience.
Demonstrates its abilities through terrorising acts, then boldly advertises that it has killed tens of thousands of people.
Has a leader who arrogates all rights and knowledge to himself, who dictates the sexual behaviour of his followers and has a hareem of women for his own use.
A leader who dictates the minutiae of the followers’ lives and operates a strict hierarchy of control with obedience to his whims as the guiding principle for promotion or demotion.
Is universally hated by ordinary people.
This, however, is not a description of ISIS, it is a description of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the exiled Iranian terrorist group. While ISIS claims to be Sunni, and the MEK claims to be Shiite, there are such significant similarities they can both be defined as destructive cults. The major distinguishing difference of course is the incomprehensible savagery of ISIS, which even the MEK never aspired to.
The MEK operates as a totalitistic, destructive mind control cult which harms its own members as much as its victims. Its past is littered with death and destruction; the MEK has publicly boasted of killing 12,000 during its terrorist campaign against Iran, and it also killed 25,000 Iraqis for Saddam Hussein during its 30 year sojourn in that country. But in spite of this history the MEK now has some high profile advocates in Washington. Some, like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Hillary Clinton, choose to ignore the unsavoury aspects of the group’s behaviour and embrace its vehemently anti-Iran stance instead.
This was only possible because the MEK were brought under control during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The militant group were bombed, then disarmed and corralled into a single camp, effectively rendering it impotent as an armed force. The MEK’s means of surviving this was to focus on a new identity and present itself under the guise of a political opposition. Fronting Maryam Rajavi as a democratic, feminist leader the MEK used its apparently unlimited financial resources to court western policy makers with a vague promise of engineering regime change in Iran by acting as the vanguard of a counter revolution. The MEK’s advocates support it not because of its potential as a terrorist force or even because of its numbers which at present comprise fewer than a thousand loyal, active members. Instead, it is as a cult that it has value. The MEK’s ability to deceptively recruit and manipulate people into doing just about anything is its chief asset; an asset that could not be bombed out of them or confiscated along with their weapons. The fact too that MEK followers are not paid and are effectively enslaved, makes it even better value.
This is also why the IRI is still cautious of the group. Observers express themselves puzzled by the sensitivity shown by successive Iranian governments to this apparently toothless tiger. But Iran has a sophisticated understanding of the dangers posed by cultic terror groups born from experience. Iran also understands that simply waging war on such a group, fighting fire with fire, will not destroy it. Iran has been successful in reducing the MEK to nothing more than a lobbying group because its approach to the MEK is as a cult, not just a terrorist organisation. Inside Iran, a country wide attempt is made to educate against the dangers of such cults and controlling groups. It is their way of inoculating the population against deceptive recruitment.
There can be no doubt that ISIS at present is like a mad dog running wild. There can be no comparison between the old defunct MEK and the 30,000 young fanatics who are ISIS. It must be either destroyed completely or brought under control. Like the MEK, ISIS has made sophisticated use of the internet to create a massive cyber presence for itself, on its own terms, which then translates into mainstream media coverage becoming part of its recruiting tool. The immediate concern of western governments is that ISIS must be stopped because it poses a threat to their own populations as much as regional ones; a lesson bitterly taught by Al Qaida.
As a consequence, President Obama has gathered a coalition of forty countries willing to take on IS militarily. But, for all their bravado, the central, unspoken dilemma for all of them is that ISIS has the potential to do precisely what most of these coalition countries want – oust the Assad regime in Syria and push back Iranian influence in Iraq by strengthening the Sunni tribes in the north. This is why, behind the belligerent threats of bombing, the will to actually destroy the group completely is weak. This is why, instead of negotiating a tough pax with the Syrian government, America proposes to flout international law to launch illegal aerial bombing raids into that sovereign country.
In northern Iraq, Iran has shown itself as the US’s natural ally in any effort to contain ISIS. Iran is the one country with the greatest experience of dealing with this kind of cultic terrorist threat, and could perhaps help formulate a comprehensive plan to bring ISIS under control just as the MEK is now under control. Yet Iran remains the US’s greatest nemesis.
What is preventing cooperation on this vital issue is the continued enmity between America and Iran. But the stark fact is that an American policy of threats and sanctions have yielded nothing in the way of stopping or reducing Iran’s regional standing.
Realistically, if America and Israel together could have defeated Iran and forced the country to submit either through sanctions or war, then this would have happened by now. This has not and cannot now happen – not through pre-emptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, not through engineering civic riots and insurgency, and certainly not through proxy terrorist groups. But American policy toward Iran, based on what Gareth Porter describes as a manufactured crisis, has ensured that the US is incapable of acknowledging that after Israel, Iran is her natural strategic partner in the Middle East. This is not to say that America has to like the Islamic Republic of Iran, or to stop criticism of its policies or to not drive a hard bargain on nuclear issues. But to continue the hopeless pursuit of regime change at the expense of diplomatic engagement and potential cooperation is self-defeating to say the least.
Already as a result of this misconstrued policy, Iran will certainly enter the next round of nuclear negotiations significantly stronger, rather than weaker. American leverage will be practically null: America’s belligerence toward Russia over the Ukraine has severely, if not permanently, alienated the two countries; Congressional sanctions have forced both Russia and China to pursue separate trade deals with Iran; Germany and France are coolly weighing their economic losses against any political gains in continuing to follow America’s intransigent position toward Iran. Even the plucky, loyal little UK may keep at arms length an American negotiating team which has gone behind their backs before. Without lifting a finger itself, Iran will benefit from these fractures in the P5+1. On top of that, its popular (in the rest of the world), support for the Palestinian cause, its success in helping Iraqi Shia militia repel ISIS, and its principled insistence on Iran’s inalienable right under the terms of the NPT to a civic nuclear power program, will all lend the Iranian negotiators gravitas on the world stage. Perhaps the only option left is for the talks fail, for one side or the other to be forced to walk away from the table. In that case, everyone loses.
Clearly it is controversial to attempt even a neutral description of the Iranian position. To go further and suggest that the US needs to find a way to cooperate with Iran in order to find a way to curtail the horrors of ISIS, is perhaps beyond the pale for many. But when this overwhelming and self-defeating enmity prevents sound political analysis from understanding and acknowledging the real problem, and when this prevents the creation of real, effective solutions, then we need to question where American interests really lie, and who is prepared to serve them.
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