By Tom Ridge and Patrick Kennedy
Recent reports about Saudi troops amassing to secure that country’s border with Iraq underscores the multinational dimensions of the conflicts raging inside both Iraq and Syria. Civil wars that might have initially only threatened the two dictators are now endangering the entire region and global security.
The main culprit for the growing instability is no other party but the repressive theocracy in Iran. This is the view shared by many of our former colleagues in Congress, evident in a series of recent hearings which addressed the destabilizing role of Tehran in the Middle East.
Without the overreaching and destructive influence of the Iranian regime is Syria and Iraq, the Syrian civil war would not have dragged this long and the situation in Iraq would not have spiraled out of control. When the mass uprisings began in Syria back in 2011, the Syrian dictatorship’s fate was essentially sealed. But the tide began to turn in the war when the Iranian regime propped up its ally by sending shipments of arms, equipment, and even soldiers.
Clearly Iran directs its neighbors to establish a repressive regime that mirrors its own and Nouri al-Maliki has succeeded in Iraq. Despite a somewhat myopic perspective on the crisis in much of the media, the problems in Iraq aren’t simply a result of religious differences, and they aren’t merely driven by extremism. They are the end results of Maliki’s decision to exclude large sections of Iraqi society from the political process and to remove all obstacles on the path of his Iranian patrons’ quest for regional hegemony.
This began immediately after American troops withdrew from Iraq. The Sunnis, the Kurds, Christians and other minorities were disenfranchised. Even Shiites who didn’t follow the line of Maliki and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were marginalized. To prove his loyalty to the Iranian regime, Maliki even conducted several massacres of defenseless Iranian political refugees in camps Ashraf and Liberty.
Therefore, it was virtually inevitable the Iraqi people would rise up to protest against Maliki’s authoritarian rule. Many people staged months of sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations in the northern part of the country. Maliki responded with excessive force and an iron fist. One can only wonder why the media and U.S. Department of State that praised such protest at the epicenter of the Arab Spring were silent during the Iraqi cry for justice and inclusion. Maliki’s sectarian policies, supported by Tehran, continue to breed more extremism on both sides of the conflict. The solution is the ousting of Maliki and eviction of his Iranian backers from Iraqi politics.
As much as Iran’s influence poses a threat to the rest of the world, if the world responds effectively, these conflicts could pose a threat to the very survival of the Iranian regime, long considered by the U.S. government as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
What can make a firm international response more effective is the widespread hatred the Iranian people have towards a regime that routinely and systematically violates their fundamental human rights. Despite thousands of executions, torture and imprisonment of political activists, the Iranian people have not given up their fight to uproot the theocratic system and replace it with a democracy.
That deep desire was on perfect display in June at an international gathering of tens of thousands of members and supporters of the main Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Its president-elect, Maryam Rajavi, joined dozens of dignitaries from around the world to declare that the Iranian regime is on the slippery slope of being overthrown.
Engaging the regime would not only harm the prospects of liberty for the Iranian people; it would also legitimize the regime’s regional aggression. It is encouraging to see Congress underscoring the need for imposing sanctions to compel the mullahs to abide by universally-accepted norms of behavior, come clean on their illicit nuclear weapons program, and abandon their state-sponsorship of terrorism and support for rogue regimes, such as the murderous Assad dictatorship.
If that policy is pursued, the pieces will be much easier to pick up if the self-serving, power-hungry Iranian theocracy is no longer there, threatening to knock them down all over again. The Iranian people should be supported in their endeavors to replace this regime with a democratic, secular and non-nuclear republic.
Tom Ridge was governor of Pennsylvania and the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary. Patrick Kennedy represented Rhode Island’s 1st District from 1995 to 2011.