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Beware of Exiles and Their Promises

Emma Ashford points out [1] some of the dangers of making policy with the guidance of self-interested exiles:

Policymakers in Washington are not blameless in this. A recent invitation by Congress to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group, to testify before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism on issues relating to Iran and ISIS highlights how little scrutiny such groups sometimes face. Though certainly a vocal opponent of the regime in Tehran, MEK was only removed by the State Department from the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012, after heavily lobbying Congress. The group is communist and is often described as a cult. It is so extreme and so unrepresentative of the Iranian opposition in general that other regional experts testifying before Congress refused to appear on the same panel.

Ashford is right about all of this, and she had more to say along these lines in her excellent presentation at our conference [2] in November [3]. I would just add that the failure of policymakers goes beyond the lack of scrutiny applied to exile groups and individuals. Many policymakers are so preoccupied with hostility towards a certain regime that they will be go out of their way to find and promote the exiles that share their position, and they will do so knowing that the exiles aren’t what they claim to be. They will then boast that a position held by a few Westerners and an extremely unrepresentative exile group represents “the will” of the nation in question. The support of the exiles “legitimizes” the hawks’ desire for regime change by providing “evidence” that U.S. interference will be welcomed (useful for P.R. purposes if for nothing else), and the hawks’ backing gives the exiles a stamp of approval in Washington.

The ongoing rehabilitation of the MEK is a good example of this. Most Iranians in Iran and around the world detest the MEK for good reason, but to listen to their many fans in and out of government one would think that they area democratic government-in-waiting and that cult leader Maryam Rajavi is Liberty incarnate. That allows many Iran hawks to align themselves openly with a group that is rejected by Iranians everywhere while presenting themselves as champions of the “Iranian people” against their government. The views and preferences of the people in the other country are of no concern for the hawks except insofar as they can be misrepresented to support their preferred policy. The exiles pretend to speak for their country, and their patrons here pretend to believe them. Maybe a few are genuinely gullible enough to believe that a totalitarian cult is Iran’s real “secular, democratic opposition,” but most can’t be that clueless and are cynically indulging a horrible organization for their own reasons.

Something similar happens with political oppositions in other countries that don’t have much representation in Washington. Instead of accepting the promises of exiles, many interventionists will claim to know the goals of a foreign opposition movement because those happen to be their goals. They will cite the opposition’s imaginary preferences in our policy debates to insist that the U.S. ought to be doing what they claim the opposition wants. Iran hawks adopted the Green movement protests because they wrongly saw them as an opportunity to destabilize and even topple the regime, and they faulted Obama for “missing” that opportunity by not “doing more” to support them. It didn’t matter to them that most protesters didn’t want U.S. help, and it also didn’t matter that the protesters weren’t seeking regime change. Iran hawks deemed the protests worthy of U.S. support in large part because they perceived them to have the potential to bring down the regime, and once it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen they lost interest in the Iranian opposition until it was time to draft them into the campaign against the nuclear deal very much against their will.

In all of this, U.S. interests are entirely neglected, and more often than not the interests of the exiles’ country are also ignored, and both countries end up being ill-served by the ambitions of exiles and the delusions of hawks.

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9 Comments To "Beware of Exiles and Their Promises"

#1 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 28, 2015 @ 9:19 am

The whole idea of trying to enact regime change to install in power an exile group is insanity. Just because we like an exile group, this does not give them any legitimate status to power. Perhaps we should try to re-install the Russian monarchy via some Russian exile “prince?” We should stop this foolishness.

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 28, 2015 @ 9:28 am

Cuban exiles have been instrumental in pushing for stupid policies as to that island, and promote general hawkery. Beware Cruz and Rubio.

#3 Comment By Prester John On December 28, 2015 @ 9:51 am

Uncle Billy; whilst I would certainly be amenable to Mister Obama rolling into Moscow and installing the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna into the Kremlin, at the moment it looks like Putin will beat him to it.

My thoughts naturally drifted to the Royal Option here. I’ve read first hand accounts of MEK fighters (including Persian-Americans who were recruited), and they are an altogether horrifying group. A far better alternative would be the exiled Pahlavi Imperial House. Unlike the MEK, they are not a cult, and still have significant (though not overwhelming) support within Iran. And unlike the MEK, they most certainly do have a legitimate (I would argue the only legitimate) claim to power.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 28, 2015 @ 11:16 am

There is of course the option of allowing states to figure out how they choose to govern themselves, even if said management system is not preferred by the US.

Unless the state is a threat to the US\, her allies or otherwise engaged in behaviors that warrant me type of intervention

#5 Comment By Slugger On December 28, 2015 @ 11:46 am

Congress may be trying to express their opposition to the Obama administration which recently engaged in talks with Iran. When Congress gives a podium to a foreign leader, it is largely with an eye on domestic politics. It does not matter that the hands of these foreign leaders are somewhat untidy as long as we can get our picture taken with people that criticize Obama.

#6 Comment By icarusr On December 28, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

Prester John:

The exiled dynasty has no support inside Iran; nostalgic support outside; and having lost the country to an Islamic revolution, no claim to power, legitimate or otherwise.

In Iran, reform will not come from the past or from exiles. There is considerable pressure inside Iran for the constitution to be respected, as a minimum; once it is – and it has been, sporadically at any rate – then Iranians can move on to trim the excesses of the regime. But reform in Iran has to come from within and will come within the constitutional framework – it is delusional in the extreme to think that the masses of Iranians who have lived under this regime for the last forty years will turn to the two institutions – the Pahlavis and the MEK – who where directly and indirectly responsible for the Islamic Revolution as deliverance from that regime.

“most can’t be that clueless and are cynically indulging a horrible organization for their own reasons”

Factoring in ideology and ignorance, they are both clueless and cynical.

#7 Comment By Myron Hudson On December 28, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

What the hawks want us to forget is that the last movement we “should have supported” in Iran – the “Green Revolution – won the last election, and is the one the P5+1 negotiated the nuclear deal with.

#8 Comment By Misty On December 29, 2015 @ 9:44 am

Anyone who believes returning the former Iranian monarchy to power would be popular is clueless. Seriously, why would people who have not had a monarchy in 30 years be nostalgic for it? Moreover, said monarchy was installed by a CIA coup in the 1950s, replacing a democratic government. That same monarchy was infamous for its human rights abuses.

#9 Comment By sglover On December 29, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

The title and photo gave me the happy, fleeting impression that John Bolton had fled these shores. Sadly, I guess he’s still in America…