On May 16, as the news of an official meeting between the 70th United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Maryam Rajavi, was made public, critics and advocates exchanged words on how to interpret the occasion. With strong views on the subject, I believe that our distinct perceptions rely on interests rather than principles.
Since the Declaration of Independence of the United States was read to the world on July 4, 1776, until this proud nation established itself as a frontrunner of prosperity after World War II, the outlook of western leaders towards political movements in other countries has fluctuated in accordance with leanings or political interests. The White House has hosted hundreds of leaders as well as many wishful figureheads. At times, American presidents have defended autocrats on the edge of being overthrown and there were also those who called on a foreign tyrant “that the time has come for him to go”.
In July 2011, then U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford risked his own safety and took to the streets of Hama to join protests against Bashar al-Assad that was already under a brutal government crackdown. The State Department said Ford is there “to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change.”
At a news conference on November 14, 2012, former US President Obama called the Syrian Opposition Coalition “a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people”. On December 12, 2012, at the Fourth Ministerial Meeting of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in Marrakech, Morocco, as 130 state representatives, members of the Syrian opposition, and officials of several international and regional organizations stood witness, the United States announced officially that it acknowledges the SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The main reason for this recognition was the SOC’s opposition to the brutal Assad regime.
Nine years, five months, and 17 days on, with at least half a million human lives lost, if anyone were to question the decision of President Obama, he or she is either naively engaged in partisan politics or has the Syrian dictator’s interests at heart. The very fact that the full-fledged support of the world’s most powerful nation on earth, along with dozens of other UN member states, failed to change the tides in Syria should be a lesson for historians that the fate of a nation is not determined on foreign shores, but through the people’s own sacrifices, blood, sweat, and tears.
The war in Ukraine today is another testament to that fact. Obviously, Washington and its allies have all the reasons to stand behind Ukraine against the Russian aggression, but we should not forget that if Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had picked a ride over ammunition, the geopolitical map of Europe and perhaps the future of the European Union would have been completely different.
As leaders of the Western world, we preoccupy ourselves with inspiring speeches and rally public support for our goals. We like to present ourselves as people who recognize the distinction between just and unjust and we always side with the truth. With public awareness at an all-time high, it’s not a secret that political support comes with strings attached. But sometimes, one must judge a friend when there is nothing to gain.
Almost 20 years ago, when I was Vice President of the European Parliament, I decided to put my political weight and add my voice in favor of a small group of colleagues from various political factions in the EP who supported the main Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The movement had vocal critics in the United States and Europe, not to mention a full-fledged and well-orchestrated lobbying network against it controlled by the Iranian regime.
The democratic coalition’s main constituent group is an organized movement inside Iran, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). They had everything an opposition group would dream of. But still, even though Tehran was considered a pariah state in the West, supporting them was an uphill battle.
In the post-Soviet era, it was incredibly tough to clear your mind of convenient political cliches and stereotypes. Siding with the Iranian opposition that had never surrendered its beliefs or practices to become more likable by Western leaders was anything but Machiavellian.
When the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami came to power as president in Iran and the Clinton administration in the US thought the clerics might be worth talking to, the opposition was sidelined and marginalized. However, the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and its geopolitical consequences turned the world upside down.
In the last twenty years, even though this group won legal battles on both sides of the Atlantic against its “terrorist” label, some called it a PR campaign. Those of us who braved the storms and risked our entire political capital to support the MEK were branded as “paid advocates”.
Regardless of the number of strategic blows, the MEK dealt against the regime in Tehran and no matter how much the Iranian state plotted, conspired, and terrorized them, for some people short-term political and economic interests prevailed over the democratic ambitions of the Iranian people.
This week, as former Secretary of States Mike Pompeo visited Camp Ashraf and met with the NCRI President-elect, I couldn’t help but think back to all those years and how the tides failed to change our understanding. I believe that Mr. Pompeo has been and still is among the many political figures who remained consistent in supporting the democratic Iranian opposition and chose principles over political gains.
Mr. Pompeo is bravely standing on the right side of history today. Not because he shares the exact same set of values with the MEK, but rather because he understands that the fate of a nation is not decided on safe shores abroad, but it’s written with sweat, tears, and blood on the ground. And if you are serious about changing things in the Middle East, you should start by measuring acts and merits in the real world instead of virtual claims. When there is a true understanding of developments on the ground, change becomes inevitable.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)