In his speech last month about the seismic shifts unfolding in the Middle East, President Obama referred to the "shouts of human dignity... being heard across the region" and said, "The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds."
The ousting of several dictators in recent months, the latest being Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and calls for democracy echoing across the region, are clear signals that change is inevitable. That is partly why the president stressed, "There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity."
That sort of laudable attitude, however, must also encompass calls for genuine democratic change in Iran. The United States needs to do much more to stand by the "shouts of human dignity" in Iran, since it has not been as welcoming, perhaps unwittingly, of the sort of fundamental change that will advance the cause of the Iranian people's self-determination.
The Iranian regime is a repressive and totalitarian state, which systematically and barbarically violates the Iranian people's most fundamental and universal rights. It not only brutalizes the Iranian people, but also is trying to exploit the unrest in the broader Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, America's approach vis-à-vis Iran is doubly crucial, owing to the profound regional dimensions.
The Iranian people have shown extraordinary courage in the face of such savagery. The 2009 nationwide uprisings seriously undermined the regime's hold on power. Indeed, as Obama said, we must "remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran." The protests, however, need the power of an organized and able leadership.
The president said that the U.S. will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights. Rhetoric alone will not suffice, however. We remember that the first peaceful protests were in Iran but we also remember that the United States did not take the opportunity to fix a policy that obviously has done little to curb the Iranian threat or support the aspirations of the people. If anything, the prevailing policy has sadly aided the regime unwittingly, most notably by unjustly branding the main opposition as "terrorist."
In an attempt to open dialogue with Tehran, the State Department has blacklisted the principal opponents of the regime, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The group, which is the most organized resistance movement in and outside Iran, and is credited with blowing the whistle on the regime's nuclear program in 2002, has been a thorn in the mullahs' eyes for three decades. Restricting its activities has been a staple demand and a priority for the regime.
But despite U.S. attempts to encourage more responsible policies by Tehran -- which of course should never have come at such a cost to the Iranian people and the MEK -- the regime has defied the international community and brutally suppressed its own people, in many cases justifying its actions by the very label affixed to the MEK in the U.S.
As a result, not only has the MEK borne the brunt of an atrocious crackdown inside Iran, it also has had its assets frozen in the U.S., its activities severely restricted, its supporters unjustly blocked from participating in the public debate on Iran, and its members in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, perennially harassed by a government deeply sympathetic to Tehran.
America's allies across the Atlantic have delisted the group after several high-profile courts vindicated the MEK against terrorism charges. To say the least, the designation puts the United States out of touch with its allies, its ideals, and its laws. Now for the first time, the Obama administration will have a chance to vacate the hold-over designation from prior administrations. But the State Department has so far delayed the delisting of the MEK even though a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling last July cast considerable doubt on its evidence, strongly suggesting that the designation should be revoked.
The MEK has broad social support in Iran, as evidenced by its ability to access the most carefully guarded state secrets regarding the regime's nuclear program and terrorism. It is well-organized, and ready to lead a broad-based and deeply-rooted opposition against an increasingly vulnerable but dangerous regime.
In addition to pressuring the regime through sanctions and offering moral support to the Iranian people's legitimate demands, the US should follow a two-pronged approach in dealing with the opposition. First, a large bi-partisan group of Members of Congress believe that the State Department should delist the MEK. Some 80 of them have cosponsored H.Res.60, which calls for delisting the MEK. In addition, dozens of senior officials from the last three administrations have called for the delisting of the group, including three former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, President Obama's former national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, former Governor Bill Richardson, former DNC Chair Howard Dean, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Wesley Clark, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh. In a recent symposium in Washington, DC, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey reiterated that call. "It's long past time for this country to act based on its principles, to delist MEK and thereby encourage those in Iran who are struggling for regime change," he said.
Secondly, the United States should ensure the protection of some 3,400 MEK members in Camp Ashraf who are being brutally suppressed by the pro-Tehran Iraqi government. The people of Ashraf are a source of inspiration for young activists within Iran. In April, thousands of Iraqi troops stormed the camp at the behest of a regime desperate to curb popular dissent inside Iran, killing 35 and wounding hundreds, all of whom are being denied basic medical care. The residents of Ashraf should be protected both on moral and legal grounds, especially because Washington signed written agreements with the residents promising them protection.
Too much is at stake in a restive Middle East to allow a nuclear-armed Iran to exploit a power vacuum. The least the U.S. should do is to empower democratic forces by removing obstacles that benefit no one but vanishing tyrants. That is where the long-term interests of a hopeful region and an inspired West forcefully converge.