It’s been over two months since the toughest Iran sanctions ever approved by Congress were signed into law, three months since the UN’s latest resolution, and 15 months since Iran’s post-election demonstrations began. Despite all of this, Iran’s clerical government is not crumbling, nor has Iran shown any sign of giving in to the West on its nuclear program.
Recent weeks have seen a renewed discussion of military options for stopping Iran’s nuclear program – kicked off by Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover article in the Atlantic. But there is also a campaign underway to promote a different option on Iran: regime change, via Iranian dissidents in exile.
Members of Congress led by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) have introduced a resolution calling on the Secretary of State and the President to throw the support of the United States behind an exiled Iranian terrorist group seeking to overthrow the Iranian regime and install themselves in power. Calling the exiled organization "Iran’s main opposition," Filner is urging the State Department to end the blacklisting of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — a group listed by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The resolution currently has 83 cosponsors and is gaining significant ground.
According to a letter from Filner to his House colleagues:
Neither war nor appeasement is a solution to Iran’s threats. Change can only be sought through reliance on the opposition which pursues a democratic, secular, and nuclear-free republic. Accordingly, American should empower the Iranian people by eliminating obstacles that impede the opposition.
The MEK — a sort of Ahmed Chalabi for Iran — calls itself a government-in-exile, with a huge public base of support and a powerful megaphone both in the US and Europe to promote its anti-mullah agenda. Counted among the groups supporters are former Ambassador John Bolton, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and countless others in positions of prominence. Capitol Hill staffers have long known (and for many, come to dread) the familiar faces of MEK activists pounding the pavement in the House and Senate office buildings. One House staffer told me that the MEK is "the most mobilized grassroots advocacy effort in the country — AIPAC included." And though it’s impossible to keep up with the various names and aliases the group or its supporters go by, the agenda is clear: to be removed from the terrorist list and to gain US backing in their fight against Iran’s clerical government.
According to former members, though, the MEK is a cult-like organization where members are required to divorce their spouses and hand over their children to be raised by others — a powerful disincentive to potential defectors. Its ideology blends elements of Islamism with Marxism, though its public face has evolved over time to become much more appealing to Western backers. The group now places a strong emphasis on its vision for a secular, democratic, and nuclear-free Iran. According to the group’s supporters, the MEK abandoned terrorism in 2003.
The designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization stems from its activities inside Iran aimed at overthrowing both the Shah’s government and, later, the Islamic Republic. According to the State Department’s description included in the FTO listing, "[d]uring the 1970s the MEK staged terrorist attacks inside Iran and killed several US military personnel and civilians working on defense projects in Tehran," and their activities continued through the 1990’s and after.
For Americans, perhaps nothing about the group is more offensive than its support of the takeover of the US Embassy in 1979, during which its members strongly denounced the hostages’ ultimate release in January 1981. But for Iranians, the MEK’s betrayal came during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, when the group sided with Saddam Hussein in the fight against their home country. The group bombed Iran’s parliament in 1981, killing both the president and the Prime Minister, and regularly assassinated and bombed Iranian governmental officials up until the 2000’s.
Thus, the MEK organization has literally zero support among the Iranian people. The closest thing to how Iranians feel about the MEK is how Americans feel about al-Qaeda. It’s not even a subject of debate.
Which is why it’s bizarre that members of Congress would want to lend US credibility to such an organization. Iran’s hardliners already justify repression and executions by accusing their opponents of siding with the MEK; and another favorite refrain from the clerics has to do with a foreign conspiracy to carry out regime change. So wouldn’t de-listing the MEK hand Iran’s hardliners precisely the pretext to crack down on dissidents that Rep. Filner ostensibly seeks to deny them?
The fact is Congress fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Iran’s opposition. Although the Green Movement has largely subsided, it held a lot of political weight in the aftermath of the election last year — but at no time was the MEK a part of the Green Movement. Zara Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, sought to put an end to the confusion by saying:
The MEK can’t be part of the Green Movement. This bankrupt political group now makes some laughable claims, but the Green Movement and the MEK have a wall between them and all of us, including myself, Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Khatami, and Mr. Karroubi and all of us within the Green Movement do not consider the MEK a part of the Green Movement.
Rep. Filner and his congressional colleagues are wrong to support this group. Regardless of whether the MEK has abandoned terrorism, they continue to call for American bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iran. De-listing the MEK would signal US backing for the group’s agenda, including regime change operations, and would confuse some of the most hated Iranians in the world with the millions of true Iranian democrats who supported the Green Movement.
Nor should the US be in the business of actively pursuing regime change in Iran. It was to President Obama’s credit when he entered office signaling a willingness to live with the current regime in exchange for a change in its behavior. For the first time, a US president learned from our past mistakes and intended to back up America’s promise not to interfere in Iran’s internal politics. To suggest that the US should back an exiled terrorist organization as our last best hope would not only endanger the lives of scores of innocent Iranians; it would wreck any chance President Obama has in dealing credibly with Tehran.
If the US has learned anything from its recent history in the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that there is a right way and a wrong way to prom
ote democracy. It should go without saying that Rep. Filner’s proposal is the wrong way for Iran.
Patrick Disney is the former Director of the Campaign for a New American Policy on Iran, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Relations at Yale University. Disney publishes the blog Talking Warheads.