Chances of War With Iran Just Went Up

President Obama had been doing an admirable job in recent weeks of keeping the chances of war with Iran from rising, notably in rebuffing Bibi Netanyahu's efforts to get America to lower the threshold for a military attack. But on Friday the chances of war rose, and that's Obama's fault.

A government official said the U.S. will remove the "terrorist" label from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, a group that got onto the list of terrorist organizations decades ago by, among other things, killing Americans. I've argued before that such a "delisting" of MEK would empower hardliners in Iran who want to block a negotiated solution of the nuclear issue. After all, not only is MEK devoted to overthrowing the Iranian government, and not only did it side with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war--MEK has recently, according to NBC News , served as Israel's proxy in murdering Iranian scientists. So America's delisting of MEK will be used by Iranian hardliners as evidence that America is too hostile to be a reliable negotiating partner--just as American hawks highlight evidence of Iranian hostility to argue that negotiations are futile.

Of course, my argument could be wrong. (Hard to believe, I know!) But last night on Twitter I elicited the opinion of someone who knows much more than I do about Iranian politics--Bahman Kalbasi, a correspondent for BBC Persia. Discussing the prospects for compromises by America and Iran that could lead to a resolution of the nuclear issue, he wrote, in two consecutive tweets, "Compromise is possible, but powerful elements in Iran benefit from the tensions. Delisting gives those elements the upper hand to block such compromise."

And, as if this weren't bad enough: the delisting of MEK will apparently weaken reformers in Iran. Hooman Majd--an Iranian-American who has advised and served as a translator for Mohammad Khatami, Iran's former reformist President and a leader of the Green Movement--dropped in on that Twitter conversation. He said that Iranian "hardliners will use it [the delisting decision] to label anyone in opposition as a traitor." When I asked him if by "opposition" he was referring to the Green Movement, he said, "Absolutely, plus anyone inside Iran that may not specifically be Green, but opposed to status quo..."

So two birds with one stone: We set back the cause of democracy in Iran and increase the chances of war (which itself will probably set back the cause of democracy)! What's not to like?

[Postscript: For more testimony on how counterproductive the delisting of MEK is, and more background on MEK, including the sleazy lobbying campaign that preceded the delisting decision, see this piece and this piece by Jim Lobe and Jasmin Ramsey.]

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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