Blowback: In Aiding Iranian Terrorists, the U.S. Repeats a Dangerous Mistake

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A New Yorker article reports that U.S. special forces funded and trained a group called MEK, extending a long history of short-sighted, enemy-of-my-enemy foreign policy.

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Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell speaks to a pro-MEK crowd in front of the White House. AP

American foreign policy can get complicated. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein because he was the greatest enemy of our enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. He's dead now because the U.S. invaded his country in 2003, a war heavily premised on claims that he was supporting terrorism, namely al-Qaeda. He wasn't supporting al-Qaeda. But he did support another terrorist group, called Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK. Now many leading American officials want the U.S. to support MEK because they are an enemy of Iran. According to a new New Yorker article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration gave MEK money, guns, and even training at a Nevada base starting in 2005.

In other words, if Hersh's story is true, then the U.S. supported the terrorist ally of its enemy, whom we killed in part because we thought he supported some other terrorists that he actually didn't, because those terrorists are the enemy of our other enemy. Got it?

Even if Hersh is wrong, there is a long list of U.S. leaders and officials who would like to make him right. Members of the "MEK lobby," as it's often called, support at least removing the group from the list of officially designated terrorist groups, and often some combination of arming or funding the fighters. They include: two former CIA directors, a former FBI director, a former attorney general, Bush's first homeland security chief, Obama's first national security adviser, Rudy Giuliani, and Howard Dean. A House resolution calling for MEK to be de-listed as a terrorist group has 97 co-sponsors.

It's not a coincidence that the pro-MEK position can seem confusing, even contradictory. The world is too complicated and interconnected for "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to work as a foreign policy mandate. It leads the U.S. to work against its own long-term interests, "solving" short-term problems by creating bigger, longer-term problems. For example: supporting Arab dictators to suppress the Arab Islamist parties that may soon take over, supporting Latin American rightist who ended up being murderous dictators, supporting anti-Soviet fighters who later turned against us, and so on. Sometimes, the U.S. even supports enemies-of-our-enemies who are actively and currently also our enemy: Afghan drug ring leader Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, or, starting in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Still, let's assume, for the purposes of discussion, that American MEK enthusiasts are right in arguing that the radical Marxist group, which assassinated six Americans in the 1970s, has since become, and always will be, as American as apple pie. Supporting this terrorist group is still likely to do far more harm than good.

The U.S. has a long history of arming rebels, insurgents, and outright terrorists who want to fight our enemies for us. Even when it works -- and it often doesn't -- the U.S.-sponsored fighters often spread small arms, exacerbate anti-American attitudes, and entrench a cycle of violence that can continues for years and sometimes spin out of control. When Congress shoveled millions of dollars into CIA programs to support anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, much of the guns and money by design went to the extremists. A December 1984 CIA memo identified "fundamentalists" such as Mujahideen leader (and current American enemy) Gulbidden Hekmatyar as "the best fighters" and thus best recipient of American backing. Even the Afghan extremists who didn't turn against the U.S. did use their arms and money to rampage across Afghanistan, sowing the chaos, violence, mistrust, corruption, crime, and poverty that has plagued the country for now 30 years.

Again, let's give the MEK and their American backers the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the group, though it has long behaved as a terrorist organization, will now act more like freedom-fighter rebels, combating the Iranian regime without harming Iranian society. (This would be mostly new for them, and most Iranians don't see them this way.) Supporting the group is still likely to backfire and do more harm to U.S. interests than good.

The 30-year U.S.-Iran conflict can, generally speaking, take one of four paths: regime change from within (a revolution, which the failed 2009 protests show is extremely unlikely), regime change from without (a U.S.-led war, also extremely unlikely after the Iraq debacle), a "grand bargain" where both sides find acceptable terms for peace, or the status quo. The first two options are too unlikely to plan around and the status quo, most observers seem to agree, isn't working so well. That leaves a grand bargain. This logic is as obvious in Washington as it is in Tehran, but a combination of mutual mistrust and the domestic politics of both countries have stymied three attempted peace deals in a row.

The Iranian leadership is far from monolithic, and some of Iran's leaders have desired and even sought peace with the U.S. Those pro-detente officials are increasingly sidelined within the regime, in part because their past outreach is increasingly viewed as a costly mistake. The idea that the Americans can't be trusted is ascendent in Tehran, as are the officials who would rather bunker down for a protracted conflict than risk another attempt at detente. And nothing helps a country bunker down like a nuclear program.

The revelation that the U.S. supported MEK (despised within Iran not so differently from how Americans despise, say, al-Qaeda) will probably make a "grand bargain" for detente less likely because Iranian officials will face higher domestic political risks in pursuing peace. If you're an Iranian leader who thinks detente might be a good idea, pursuing it was already politically risky for you, and it probably just got even less desirable.

This will probably also worsen popular Iranian perceptions of the U.S. and popular appetite for detente. How can the U.S. say it stands with the Iranian people, Iranians might ask, when it funds the terrorist group that attacks Iranian people? Anti-American nationalism is perhaps the best tool that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his faction still have for maintaining domestic support. This news -- not to mention photos from the big pro-MEK that Congress holds every year -- will likely drive the Iranian public and regime closer together, entrench the hardliners within the regime, and set back American "soft power" outreach to Iranians.

There might be some short-term gains for supporting the MEK. The group may have supplied valuable intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program and has been linked to the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists (though it's not clear if this actually does much good). But the long-term effects, though impossible to predict, could be far worse. No matter which militant group we're supporting in what corner of the world, that history always seems to repeat itself.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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