Commentary: Will Obama, Romney meet the Commander-in-Chief test?

Special to McClatchy NewspapersOctober 22, 2012 

Monday's presidential debate is a chance for the candidates to meet the commander-in-chief threshold and address foreign policy matters before an expected audience of more than 60 million viewers in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

Middle East issues are likely to be of particular concern and immediate problems in Iran, Iraq, and Syria will take center stage. The temptation will be to address the challenges in each country separately. In fact they are inextricably intertwined.

The nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran leads some to think that it will be the most difficult to solve. It may be the easiest. And solving the Iran problem has significant implications for peace and stability in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East more broadly.

Tehran's clerical rulers are increasingly on shaky ground with an angry and restless population. With their currency in free-fall and a domestic economy hampered by international sanctions imposed to curtail uranium enrichment to weapons grade levels, many inside the country are asking whether there isn’t a better way.

The realization that there is a viable political alternative in the Iranian opposition has only increased calls for democratic change.

But as Iran's internal woes have heightened, the regime has dug in by closing ranks with Shiite officials in Baghdad and expanding their violent arc of influence to include Damascus.

Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki maintains a strong grip on his fledgling country but the emerging realization that he is a puppet of the Iranian regime has diminished his stature on the world stage and led to criticism of his continued leadership by U.S. lawmakers.

Positive relations with Tehran have also made Hafez al-Assad's twenty-month crackdown of domestic protest in Syria possible. Iranian shipments of weapons, munitions, IRGC officers, and tools for monitoring domestic dissent have facilitated Assad’s brutality, led to the displacement of more than one hundred thousand people, and resulted in more than thirty thousand causalities.

Increasingly aggressive denunciations of the U.S. and Israel have also become a means of distracting attention from Tehran's mounting domestic woes.

The candidates can demonstrate facility with contemporary Middle East issues by indicating that their administration will support regime change in Iran. Such change is the only viable means of addressing problems in Iran, Iraq, and Syria in a sustainable way and realizing U.S. and Israeli security interests.

The recent removal of the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) from the State Department’s terror roster was a preliminary acknowledgement that Iran's aggression must be checked.

The group is an integral component of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of opposition organizations that reject clerical rule and stand for democratic change. No coalition is more capable of exacerbating Tehran's current troubles and promoting grassroots change from within.

The de-listing of the groups signaled the world that the Clinton-era policy of political engagement designed to appease the regime through concessions had come to end and that all options would be considered to manage the Iran threat.

On the heels of this diplomatic shift, however, more must be done to support the democratic cause in Iran and harness the opposition's current momentum in support of U.S. security objectives.

Here's what the candidates need to know about the Iranian opposition group:

• PMOI/MEK's removal from the State Department's foreign terrorist organization list was an acknowledgement that the group failed to meet the statutory criteria necessary for the designation. It was also an illustration of the bi-partisan consensus that the group's resistance represented a useful internal check on the regime’s regional influence and the best hopes for a more peaceful and stable Iran.

• No opposition organization stokes the regime's fears more than PMOI/MEK and U.S. support for the group does little to disabuse Tehran's anxieties. In this regard, the U.S. embrace of the group provides a source of leverage to force the regime to comply with international obligations.

• Academics that have studied the group have long known that, vis-à-vis other opposition movements in the Middle East, including those that have received recent U.S. support, no group is more capable engendering broad worldwide confidence than PMOI/MEK. Neither does any other opposition group have such a vast and intricate network inside Iran.

• The group has been a valuable source of intelligence on Iran's emerging nuclear weapons program and their new-found legitimacy is likely to reveal even more information that is useful to the west.

• A 2006 study carried out by the Iran Policy Committee found that the group's positions were consistent with democratic principles. That the group stands for a non-nuclear Iran that upholds human rights, gender equality, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and positive relations with regional neighbors and the west provides further justification for the group’s embrace.

The candidates can meet Monday's commander-in-chief test by demonstrating that they are committed to preventing Iran's nuclear pursuits by further weakening the regime internally and rejecting the false choice of military confrontation or prolonged political engagement with Iran.

By calling for regime change in Tehran from within and linking broader security issues in the Middle East with the Islamic Republic's current regime, the candidates can demonstrate leadership, a belief in peace through strength, and a willingness to support those who seek freedom and human rights.


Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the Director of the Negotiation and Conflict Management graduate program in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. The opinions expressed are his own. He can be reached by email at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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