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Obama’s Strategic Mistake in Iraq: Abandoning Iran’s Opposition

May 7, 2014 3:24 pm 7 comments

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, assigned to the "Sea Horses" of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron Two Six Five (HMM-265), flies near the Iraqi/Syrian Border. Photo: wiki commons.

It has already been established, including in my recently published book The Lost Spring: U.S. Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid, that Washington has undertaken two global mistakes in its regional policies. One was the partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers in the Arab world, a policy that caused a major popular uprising in Egypt against the Ikhwan regime – and the rise of a block of moderate Arab governments in the Gulf and beyond in opposition to the Brotherhood’s power.

The other global U.S. foreign policy mistake was the deal struck between the Obama Administration and the Iranian regime based on the idea that engagement would moderate the Ayatollahs’ grand designs. But as one can clearly see, all Khomeinist promises have been evaporating as their military and militant machines grow by the day, despite the so-called “interim nuclear deal.” In short, Tehran has been outmaneuvering the West, particularly the United States, in regards to its long term strategic goals. And this is not a new phenomenon.

Iran has been practicing this astute deception for years, particularly since 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. As we look back at the major triumphs for the Khomeinist regime over the past decade, it is painfully apparent that the single most dangerous move by Tehran’s services and supporters has been implemented inside Iraq and, unfortunately, right in front of the Americans’ eyes.

As is true for all totalitarians in history, the Iranian regime’s greatest fear comes from any potential opposition that is able to mobilize the masses and organize them, demonstrating a capability to shake the very foundation of the regime. For decades, the Khomeinists have clearly exhibited a zero-tolerance for any form of meaningful opposition and have successfully rebuffed any serious challenges to their regime. Since the implementation of the Islamic Republic, thousands of citizens have been executed and tortured. The arm of the regime went so far as to assassinate political opponents in foreign countries – with no regard for international law. In 1999, the regime clamped down on a widespread student revolt on campuses. Such suppression of demonstrations continued relentlessly over two more decades, culminating in the crushing of the June 2009 popular revolt.

The most dangerous of all known oppositions to the regime, however, has undoubtedly been the exiled Iranian community and its organized forces in Iraq. Since year one of the Khomeinist takeover in Tehran, thousands of citizens – mostly members of the revolutionary group “Mujahidin Khalq” (known also as the MEK) – flocked to neighboring Iraq as they fled the bloody repression in Iran. Naturally, the Saddam regime – at war with Khomeini – gave them safe haven and allowed them to stay.

The notion of “Saddam protection” was used by the Iranian propaganda machine to tarnish the group’s legitimacy. The latter, stuck in Iraq, had two options: leave Iraqi exile and lose the only strategic territory contiguous to Iran from where they could reach out to their people – or run the risk of being painted as Saddam’s protégés. Their choice was to weather Iraq’s regime and create a base from which to launch their return. That base was called Camp Ashraf.

Iran’s regime used all possible tactics to harm the exiles, but the fall of Saddam finally gave them an opportunity to move directly into Iraq. Under the Bush Administration, U.S. protection of the Iranian exiles was fair, generating years of MEK assistance in intelligence and counterterrorism. The exiles, considering themselves as allies of the Americans facing al Qaeda and Tehran’s militias, advised U.S. forces on an array of defense and human rights related issues.

Washington’s partnership with the Ashraf community, however, resulted in one mistake between 2003 and 2009: it did not build a serious strategic alliance that could have enabled the Iraq-based Iranian opposition to grow to a point where it could have mobilized the masses inside Iran with full backing of the U.S. and the Coalition. Seven years of properly engineered Western support to the exiles could have generated a massive geopolitical challenge to Iran’s regime and, by ripple effect, to its nuclear menace.

In 2009, the Obama Administration changed course with Iran. In June of that year, President Obama sent a letter of engagement to Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. That same month, the U.S. president signaled his administration would not side with the demonstrators in Tehran and other Iranian cities. U.S. policy regarding the Iranian opposition has also changed since. Funds that had been authorized to Iranian dissidents by the previous administration were cut off. Ashraf was abandoned, leaving MEK vulnerable to attack by pro-Iranian security elements, as of 2009, even under the watchful eyes of the U.S. military. All signs indicated that the Obama Administration had agreed to abandon the exiles in return for Tehran’s willingness to engage politically.

The opposition group, attacked again in 2011, was relocated from Ashraf to another site farther from the borders, known as Camp Liberty in 2012. But the harassment by the Baghdad-led pro-Iranian authorities escalated as Tehran refused to tolerate any presence of freedom activists in the country just over their border. Though MEK was removed from old U.S. and European terror lists, which had handicapped the resistance group, Iran’s offensive against them proves that Washington’s abandonment of this organized force in Iraq is turning into a victory for the Ayatollahs. Free from an active challenge to their power, whether it be inside or outside the borders, the Iranian regime is now concentrating on consolidating its domination in Iraq – and from that country, its influence in Syria and Lebanon.

Washington’s strategic error is enormous… it would be the equivalent of the British removing General De Gaulle and his Free French Forces from England while Hitler was preparing for his onslaught.

Dr Walid Phares is the author of The Lost Spring: US Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid. He advises lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic


  • I’m unfamiliar with Algemeiner’s protocols or shorthand remarks. So…

    …who’s (or What’s??) “Leonard Moscowitz”??

  • The problem for your theory is that the MEK has no support in Iran. They sided with a brutal dictator (Saddam) who invaded their country in order to annex its oil producing province bordering Iraq. They sided with the enemy, so I don’t think that Iranians are quick to forget that, no matter how much the MEK is paying you and other politicians for support

    • Again, the Iranian regime “talking points” surge in a comment posted by “Joe.” He writes “that the MEK has no support in Iran.” Of course “Joe” doesn’t say how can find out about who has support in Iran. No support among the regime partisans? Of course MEK has no support among them. So didn’t De Gaulle among the pro-Nazi French Government. “Joe” said “they sided with a brutal dictator (Saddam) who invaded their country in order to annex its oil producing province bordering Iraq.” In fact MEK fled to Iraq, the closest country, as any opposition would do. When MEK was in Iraq, the latter was backed by the US and moderate Arabs. The choice of MEK was to be decimated by the Ayatollahs or to cross the borders to a country ruled by a dictator. They preferred to live for another day. They sided with an enemy of the Iranian regime as De Gaulle did in WWII. “Joe” doesn’t think that “Iranians are quick to forget that.” Well we saw clearly that most Iranians consider their own regime as the enemy of the people not the MEK. Finally, the traditional argument made by an Iranian regime propagandist is to claim that analysts are “paid” to express their opinion in liberal democracy. “Joe” needs to understand: his talking points are not convincing.

  • pinchas baram

    Leonard, did you really read this article by Walid Phares, a recognized American expert (originally from Lebanon) who knows whereof he speaks? I doubt it,and your rant suggests you have less than a high school education. Phares is making the point that Obama abandoned the Iranians (in Iraq) who could have helped Iranian dissidents in Iran to possibly topple the Khoumeini regime. Is all this relevant to Jews like you and me interested in Israel and the existential threat it faces from a nuclear Iran? You bet it is– and I’m glad the editors of Algemeiner printed this essay, just as I’m glad that an ignoramus like you is not one of the editors.

  • Good try “Leonard Moscowitz,” but it failed. Your talking points are the Iranian regime talking points, one by one. Nice name you’ve got but it won’t give you an advantage. The Iranian propaganda is all over your posting. The article is barely 800 words, it aims at exposing the Obama Administration’s abandonment of the Iranian resistance in Iraq. That is clear. What could have been done instead, is another article. In fact there many pieces on this, even books. Your tactic didn’t work. As for the nuclear deal with Tehran, it is fully manipulated to give the Ayatollahs a time advantage. By the way, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime have many operatives who speak good Hebrew…

  • leonard moscowitz

    why does the algemeiner exhibit such contempt for klal yisroel that they ply us with garbage fake opinion pieces. this article claims that obama didn’t do something equivalent to helping hitler mateirally prepare for war against the world. However the article doesnt even hint at what obama could have done to support the overthrow of iran or even what obama could have done in supporting the opposition that would help prevent iran from getting a nuclear weapon! not one thing. On the other hand it goes without saying that a chance exists to cut a political deal based on the current sanction and negotiation.

    Who is the incompetent deciding which of the limited number of articles are actually published?

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