As western powers and the Iranian regime plan for more talks in January, policymakers in Washington are left to deliberate on what exactly the White House's engagement strategy is supposed to accomplish. Both engagement and the non-comprehensive sanctions, of course, have thus far failed vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program. Time is running out fast and options are dwindling.
To avoid seeing the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism equipped with the world's deadliest weapon, which could then be transferred to terrorists targeting the West, Washington and her allies need to act fast by rectifying past policy mistakes and standing with the Iranian people for democratic change.
To characterize the West's current level of engagement with Iran as "dialogue" would be a misnomer. The attempt could actually better be summed up as a "monologue," to borrow from the President-elect of Iran's parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Maryam Rajavi.
This was made abundantly clear when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out on a limb not once but three times during a conference in Bahrain last month to say a friendly hello to the Iranian regime's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki. She was embarrassingly snubbed on all three occasions. Tellingly, Mottaki was himself sacked a couple weeks later apparently for not being radical enough!
After years of negotiations and sanctions, the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that Tehran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of UN resolutions. Meanwhile, regime officials continue to emphasize that the talks in January will not involve their "right" to produce enriched uranium. What will they be about then?
Sanctions, moreover, are at best an external source of pressure that must be complemented by internal forces in order to result in fast and painful effects on the mullahs' calculus.
So, what should be done?
Instead of the failed policy of engagement, and to avoid military action, the US should focus on democratic forces that are already engaged in bringing about fundamental regime change in Iran. The first advantage of this approach is that it is underpinned by the consistency and forceful message of America's ideals and values, such as human rights and democracy. A democratic order in Iran is the best long-term and strategic answer.
The most important step in this direction would be for the US to remove the barriers it has placed on the path of the main opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
As countless officials and press reports have said, the MEK was placed on the terrorist list in 1997 by the State Department as a "goodwill gesture" to what was then perceived to be a "moderate" drift in Tehran's ruling circles. That notion turned out to be a complete myth, but the restrictions on the mullahs' arch nemesis have remained intact.
Dissidents in Iran are regularly jailed, tortured and even killed by the regime under the pretext of the "terrorist" label. Just this month, a 63-year-old political prisoner, Ali Saremi, was inhumanely executed at Evin prison for having visited his son in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, home to 3,400 members of the MEK, many of whom survived Tehran's repression before they sought refuge at this Camp.
In Iraq, the residents of Ashraf face the same sorts of threats by regime proxies there, who primarily rely on the terror label to justify their heinous deeds. This month, a cancer patient, Mehdi Fat'hi, died unnecessarily because Iraqi forces doing the Iranian regime's bidding denied him timely and necessary medical treatment.
The US should immediately end shackling the MEK in order to dispel the perception that it is an unwitting accomplice of the mullahs in committing such crimes.
Recently some officials from the George W. Bush administrations admitted that the government made a horrible mistake in continuing to blacklist the MEK. Frances Townsend, the former White House Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, described it as a "bad judgment" during a speech in Paris earlier this month, and added, "I know we were wrong not to delist the MEK, because of Iran's reaction... The tyrannical regime in Iran believed that the failure to delist the MEK was a weakness not strength."
At a December 17 symposium in Washington, Former Secretary for Homeland Security Tom Ridge echoed the same sentiment regarding the FTO designation of the main Iranian opposition movement saying, "If the goal was to improve engagement and to solicit a different response from the Iranian government, that has not worked out very well."
Looking at the MEK's conduct, which deeply contradicts its branding as a terrorist organization, former US Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, has asked the State Department, "If the MEK has renounced violence, as it has; and in fact presents no threat to any US personnel or interest; and in fact has been of affirmative assistance to the United States, as it has; and is not regarded as a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom or the EU, then why was it placed on the list and why does it continue to remain on the list?"
The growing consensus on the need to delist the MEK is bipartisan. A resolution in the House of Representative, H.Res.1431, garnered 113 cosponsors, 70 of them democrats. Chair of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, Brad Sherman (D-CA), said in a Congressional briefing earlier this year, "I have difficulty understanding what has the [MEK] done, anything remotely, in recent times, that causes the [MEK] to be on that list. I do know there is no entity more feared, more hated by the mullahs who run Iran than the [MEK], which is perhaps the finest compliment that could be paid to that organization."
In July, the US Federal Court of Appeals strongly suggested that the MEK's designation should be revoked because it relies on unreliable evidence and rumors and has violated the group's due process rights. This, along with overwhelming congressional backing for delisting, as well as acknowledgments by senior Bush Administration officials that they exercised bad judgment in keeping the MEK on the terrorist list gives Secretary Clinton the legal, moral and political rationale and responsibility to delist the MEK.
Delisting the largest Iranian opposition force will undoubtedly encourage dissent in Iran against the regime, allow the democratic opposition to more freely articulate its views in the US, take away one of the regime's pretexts to execute political prisoners and MEK supporters, while also helping the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq to obtain a more secure fate. Most importantly, delisting would allow the MEK to devote its political and social wherewithal as well as resources, mostly used to challenge its designation in past 13 years, towards promoting change in Iran.
MEK members in Camp Ashraf, moreover, need to be protected by the US and UN forces to avert another humanitarian catastrophe there.
As former Attorney General Mukasey put it, "Quite simply, the MEK is the only organization of Iranians, both inside Iran and outside Iran, that opposes the current regime and favors a government in Iran that is organized as a democratic, secular, non-nuclear republic." It deserves to have its rights respected.
The West will get the attention of the regime, even during talks, once the Iranian people have been given enough breathing room to step up dissent and make the prospect of democratic change in Iran more visible than before. That is how the United States can avoid another military conflict and turn a monologue into a dialogue. But more importantly, that is how the regime's host of threats will give way to a free and more peaceful Iran and Middle East.