For the past three weeks, tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in Iran once again, demanding democracy and an end to the regime. Popular protests continue to haunt the fundamentalist rulers at a critical time in the region's history. But without offering support to the Iranian people and their main opposition, this critical window of opportunity will be closed, and it will be much harder and too late to deal with the Iranian regime's threat.
For the West, the expression of legitimate demands for freedoms and human rights across the Middle East has meant that the era of choosing tyrannical stability over democracy as a matter of foreign policy has ended.
To alleviate concerns about the role of religious fundamentalism in the region's future, Washington should stop talking to the fundamentalist mullahs and start listening to the Iranian people.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have offered encouragement to the protestors. But, if not translated into tangible actions, words and concerns are simply benign.
Washington should stay ahead of the curve in the Middle East and update its policies faster. The Iranian regime's nuclear intransigence, suppression at home and terrorist support abroad are outracing US policy.
Appeasement or threat of war are not the only options on Iran. There is a third alternative: supporting democratic change by the Iranian people and their resistance movement.
Since June 2009, the Iranian people's uprisings have clearly targeted the whole regime and its highest authority, so-called Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. During the recent demonstrations, protestors chanted, "Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it is the turn of Seyyed Ali."
The depth and magnitude of the protests on the streets, coupled with the deepening fissures at the apex of power within the regime, present new dynamics, no longer deserving to be overlooked.
By taking a tougher stance against the regime and supporting democratic change, the US will not only welcome the imminent democratic change in Iran, it will also muffle the preventable growth of fundamentalism in the region.
As Egyptians protested in early February, Khamenei urged the establishment of an Islamic regime in Cairo, while celebrating an "Islamic awakening" modeled after his own tyrannical regime.
For the West, it makes absolutely no sense to expect a democratic outcome for the popular discontent in the Middle East while at the same time engaging the fundamentalists in Iran.
The third option of democratic change should no longer be the third rail of America's Iran policy. It should be the first priority.
There are a number of practical steps that need to be taken to that end.
First, more comprehensive sanctions, especially an oil embargo, should be imposed against the regime, depriving it of the means to fund terrorism and extremism abroad.
Second, in contrast to its tepid reaction to the regime's crackdown in 2009, the US must stand tough against rights abuses, by taking the regime's case to the UN Security Council, for example, in pursuit of more punitive measures. In January alone, the mullahs executed close to 100 people, a 400 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
And last but certainly not least, even in the current environment, the US is curtailing the activities of the principal Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), by keeping it on the blacklist at the behest of Tehran.
A number of distinguished former high-ranking officials from the past three administrations, including not one but three former joint chiefs of staff, seasoned US diplomats, counterterrorism experts and veteran security and intelligence officials like former CIA and FBI directors have called on Washington to delist the MEK and protect Camp Ashraf, home to 3,400 MEK members in Iraq.
The US must immediately delist the MEK, as both a Federal Appeals Court in DC and dozens of bipartisan lawmakers have called for. That should be done, not tomorrow, but today, as former Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton said at a conference last month.
Congressman Lee Hamilton, vice-chairman of the 9/11 commission and former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "I do not understand why the United States has kept the MEK on the terrorist list for all of these years."
Stressing that he has had "access to classified information," Congressman Hamilton noted, "I am not aware of any facts that require the MEK to be on the terrorist list."
And just last week, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Brad Sherman, the ranking Democrat on the Sub-committee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade, told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "I asked for a classified briefing of the relevant subcommittee, the State Department refused because of the litigation, the intelligence community provided it. And frankly, after that classified briefing, I thought that perhaps there was nothing done this century that justified the MEK being on that list and it provided substantial ammunition to the belief that the MEK is on the list as part of the peace offering or concession to Tehran."
It is a sad irony that the US is accommodating the demands of the fundamentalist rulers in Tehran by restricting the anti-fundamentalist MEK. Delisting the MEK will strengthen the entire opposition in Iran, serving to suffocate Tehran's nuclear drive and expansionist agenda.
Washington's Iran policy must include the third option as its most fundamental parameter. The stakes are high and the window of opportunity is closing fast.
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