U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's September 21 announcement that she will remove the Mujahideen-e Khalq from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations is an important step toward correcting Washington's Iran policy and an occasion for Jerusalem to adopt a fresh approach toward the Iranian opposition.
Delisting Iran's primary opposition organization that rejects clerical rule is, in and of itself, a threat to the Iranian regime. Removal from the list is therefore an opportunity to assess and reset American and Israeli policy toward Tehran.
Removing the MEK's terror designation plays on Tehran's suspicions that an "unholy alliance" of Jerusalem, Washington and the MEK is colluding to launch covert attacks against Iran's nuclear program. If there were such an alignment, it would also contribute to deterrence of Iranian assaults against Israeli diplomats and serve as a check on Iranian aggression.
In a September 23 Washington Post article that proposed a fictive scenario involving an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, analysts imagined how Israel might be accused of working with the MEK. They speculate that the MEK will be widely perceived as reinforcing Israel's air assaults with military operations on the ground in Iran: "Within hours, Twitter is alight with reports of explosions in various parts of Iran. All seemingly can be traced to one source: the Iranian opposition group Mujaheddin-e-Khalq."
That the group stokes the regime's fears by mobilizing broad political support in the expatriate community and holding massive rallies around the world does little to quiet the regime's anxieties. A 2005 study found that the MEK was given 350 percent more attention by Iranian state-run media than all other opposition organizations challenging the regime.
The disproportionate number of protesters who were arrested or sentenced to death during the 2009 uprising because of their association with the MEK is also indicative of the regime's intent to block the group's political influence on the Iranian street.
The MEK is the largest dissident organization in the Paris-based de facto parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It has long failed to meet the statutory criteria necessary for terror tagging under U.S. law. That it remained on the list can be attributed to persistent lobbying by the Iranian regime and miscalculation by successive U.S. presidents that concessions would appease Tehran's theocrats and eliminate state-sponsored proxy violence.
If Clinton had failed to delist, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington would in any event have removed the organization from the list on October 1. By taking the initiative rather than hiding behind the judiciary, Washington signals to Tehran that regime change from within is on the table. Iran has threatened to curtail its negotiations with the West when it takes actions that favor the MEK; Clinton's removal of the group's designation thus acknowledges that engagement with Iran is no longer a top priority, although sporadic and unproductive nuclear talks might continue.
Removal of the terror designation in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election confirms that U.S. counterterrorism policy remains unpoliticized. Strong bipartisan support for the MEK on Capitol Hill, where Israel also commands strong backing, is further indication that the shift was not partisan.
American and Israeli officials should follow the delisting of the Iranian resistance with efforts to empower the opposition and support calls for democratic change. Free of the terror label, supporters can now put their money where their mouth is and embrace the opposition in its campaign for democracy.
In light of last week's announcement by Secretary Clinton, here's what can be done to help reset policy toward Tehran.
First, the worldwide pro-Israel community can help push back against the Iranian regime's disinformation campaign against removal of the MEK from the State Department's terror roster. The Iranian lobby in Washington is as well funded as it is deceptive and the opposition is enemy number one. Consider the unsubstantiated allegation made by Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior aide to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. On February 9, 2012, Larijani alleged to NBC-TV News that the Mossad and the MEK were jointly responsible for the targeted killing of Iranian scientists. Though never backed up with evidence, this sensational accusation was frequently repeated to justify the group's terror designation in the lead-up to the delisting.
Second, because the heat will be turned up by the pro-Iranian Iraqi government on the 3,000 MEK dissidents housed at Camp Liberty in Iraq, the pro-Israel community should speak publicly about the safety of the residents and press humanitarian concerns.
Third, in the wake of Secretary Clinton's decision, Jerusalem and Washington should reset their Iran policy by embracing regime change in Iran as a priority. Support for the Iranian opposition would give further credence to threats to take military action and complement sanctions meant to coerce Tehran. Unless the survival of the regime is on the table, Iran will continue to pursue its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons as well as threaten Israel and the United States. The removal of MEK's terror classification rings an alarm bell among the theocrats in Tehran that their illegitimate reign is coming to an end.
Prof. Raymond Tanter served on the senior staff of the National Security Council in the Reagan White House, and is president of the Iran Policy Committee. Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the negotiation and conflict management graduate program in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.
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