Refocusing Washington's Policy Lens on Iran

04/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ali Safavi Member of Iran's Parliament in Exile; President of Near East Policy Research

On a chilly October day in 1981, after returning home from the
University of Michigan campus, I answered a phone call. On the other
side of the line was my step mother from Iran. She rarely called those
days because of the reign of terror imposed by the regime some five
months earlier. In tears, she gave me the distressing news. My older
brother, Hossein, had been executed a week earlier.

She told me she had just returned from Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran's main
cemetery, where she had laid a wreath on his grave. When I asked the
reason for his execution, she simply replied, "Moharebeh" ("waging war
against God").

Hossein was a prolific writer and an aerospace engineer from Northrop
University, California. We shared an apartment for seven years in west
Los Angeles before I left for Michigan to work on my post graduate
degree in sociology, and he left for Iran hoping to help rebuild a new
democratic country after the Shah's overthrow. A supporter of the
Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK), the main Iranian opposition movement,
Hossein was executed along with 57 others on September 27, 1981.

Last week, almost 29 years later, when I read reports from Iranian
state-run media that 11 protestors are on death row and two others
executed on charges of "moharebeh," I felt a chill in my spine and the
bitter memories of October 1981 came back. Not only the very people
who executed tens of thousands on the charge of moharebeh in the 1980s
have once again assumed the reigns of power, but they have also
expanded the definition of moharebeh to encompass acts such as hurling
stones at security forces!

This comes on the heels of the regime's eight-month long campaign of
killing, arresting, torturing and even raping activists in prison to
curb protests. Unfazed, millions of disenchanted Iranians are
determined to bring about democratic change.

This was most evident on commemoration of Ashura on December 27. The
worn-out regime forces were on the retreat and the people more
fearless and organized. Considering that the regime has harnessed
almost all of its menacing power, the simple act of attending a rally
has a profound political meaning.

The people's persistence has cultivated widespread anxiety in the
regime, partly manifested in the rising number of defections,
deepening rifts, and a reported exodus of capital. The position of the
regime's number one authority, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has
significantly diminished, weakening the regime as a whole.

The question now is not if but when the regime will be overthrown. To
his credit, President Obama has offered supportive rhetoric to the
large-scale opposition against the regime. He has also pushed for
tougher sanctions to prevent the regime from acquiring nuclear
weapons.

In the eyes of the Iranian people, however, these attempts, though
laudable, are insufficient in and of themselves. Worse yet, the
administration's supportive rhetoric is significantly belied by its
unfavorable attitude toward the main Iranian opposition.
Since 1997, the US has blacklisted the MEK at the behest of the
mullahs. This has severely undercut the organizational strength of the
opposition inside Iran while excluding a large portion of the movement
from public debate, which explains the poverty of policy decisions
toward Iran.

Similar politically-motivated listings against the MEK were nullified
by the highest judicial bodies in Europe and the United Kingdom
because they are legally baseless. The MEK is not blacklisted in the
UK and the EU, which shows that the US is now out of sync on Iran with
its closest allies. To the people of Iran, Washington's attempt to
stifle the progress of a crucial part of the opposition seems not only
suspect but diminishes the power of the President's moral support.

MEK members and supporters, who have lost more than 120,000 of their
friends and relatives to the Iranian regime, form the biggest
organized social network in Iran and a decisive factor for leading the
opposition. Restraining them by a politically-motivated label at this
crucial moment is a great injustice to the Iranian people.

As the administration grapples with its Iran policy, it should realize
that the dichotomy of either military conflict or direct negotiations
is a false one. There is a third option presented by the Iranian
people and their organized resistance, which avoids the costs of both
other options while offering added strategic benefits.

Such refocusing of the American policy lens on the third option will
also empower Washington to grasp the facts on the ground in Iran more
clearly, enabling it to calibrate its policy more realistically and
pragmatically.

Ali Safavi, is a member of Iran's Parliament in exile, National
Council of Resistance, and President of Near East Policy Research, a
policy analysis firm in Washington, DC.