Empowering Iran’s Opposition for Regime Change from within

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8 June 2012

To facilitate regime change from within Iran, it is critical to remove the terrorist designation from the MEK, and to protect and resettle its members.

To bring about regime change from within Iran requires a dissident organization with the kind of leadership skills that helped create a coalition to overthrow the shah of Iran. Only one viable group that rejects clerical rule in Iran remains from the days of the Islamic Revolution – the Iraq-based Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the largest group within the National Council of Resistance of Iran (the Paris-based parliament-in-exile ). Although primarily based in Iraq and France, both groups exercise considerable influence within Iran.

In a study of several formal Iranian opposition organizations during 2005, the Iran Policy Committee concluded that the MEK and the NCRI have the expertise and means to join and lead a coalition for political change in Iran; and in a follow-up study, the IPC found that despite the law and facts, these two dissident groups were hampered from doing so because of being tagged as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Government. In addition, the terrorist tag harmed the ability of the MEK and NCRI to collect intelligence on the Iranian regime, information that had been instrumental in bringing about international inspections and sanctions.

Regarding the origins of the inspections-sanctions link, The New York Times reported that upon coming to office in 2009, President Obama gave the order to speed up a wave of cyberattacks against Iran. The article states, “Tehran sensed his vulnerability, resumed enriching uranium at an underground site at Natanz, one whose existence had been exposed just three years before.” But, in fact, The Washington Post correctly credited, “An exiled opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, [which] first publicly revealed the existence of Iran’s much larger uranium facility at Natanz in 2002.”

Indeed, during August 2002, the NCRI reported the existence of a secret nuclear facility near Natanz. An independent think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security, confirmed the revelation, identified the site as a uranium enrichment facility, and that December, released imagery of Natanz.

In a 2006 study, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, (CSIS), a Washington, D.C. think tank, found that “The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear program did prove to be the trigger point in inviting the IAEA into Tehran for inspections…”

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine US strategic objectives towards Iran. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On 3-4 June 2012, David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, was in Israel, where he discussed additional sanctions against Iran with the heads of both the Mossad and IDF Intelligence. On 8 June, UN nuclear watchdog agency chief Yukiya Amano met in Vienna with Iranian representatives to negotiate access for inspectors to a suspect nuclear site, but such talks failed to reach agreement and reinforced the need for sanctions to coerce Tehran to negotiate seriously. The Cohen and Amano visits highlight the nexus of inspections and sanctions.

Considering the continued blacklisting of the MEK (and NCRI), it’s worthwhile to examine essential aspects of the organization: its ideology, support within Iran, and how the group relates to Israel.

In IPC research, we have interviewed most of the MEK leaders in both Iraq and France, as well as analyzed their foundational statements and documents. We determined their positions to be consistent with democratic principles. Tehran seeks to delegitimize and link Israel and the MEK, partly because both are committed to the rule of law rather than reign by unelected clerics. We found that leaders and rank-and-file of the MEK support a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem and Israel’s right to exist. In contrast, other dissidents have called for the annihilation of Israel, as well as preservation of the nuclear program.

Abroad, no other dissident organization can mobilize similar numbers of expatriates at its rallies. (See two references to the work of Daniel Pipes below this post.) On June 23, MEK supporters will hold their 9th annual rally in Villepinte, France. The event regularly draws upward of 80,000 supporters, including many Arabs, Christians, and Jews.

Back in Iran, the disproportionate number of summer 2009 protesters arrested, sentenced to death, and hanged because of their association with the MEK also indicates the organization’s significant presence on the Iranian street. And the vast majority of an estimated 30,000 political prisoners massacred in summer 1988 belonged to the MEK. Risking one’s life to divulge highly classified intelligence is a clear indication that even in the most sensitive field of national security, there are MEK supporters.

The IPC conducted a content analysis of references to all formal Iranian opposition groups in regime media during 2005, in both Farsi and English. The team found that state-run media paid 350 percent more attention to the MEK than all other organizations combined.

And yet, since 1997, the MEK has been on the list of foreign terror organizations compiled by the State Department. The designation almost paralyzes a group that operates openly, and makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to provide it with material support. The more recent roots of this ongoing aberration go back to the summer of 1997, when a “moderate” cleric, Mohammad Khatami, was elected as Iran’s new president. The Clinton administration saw inclusion of the MEK on the terrorist list as a goodwill gesture to the new regime, with which it was hoping to open a dialogue.

On June 1, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington informed the State Department that it had until October 1 to make a decision on the status of the MEK; otherwise the court would order its revocation from the list. The Department can be expected to allow that full period to pass to delay delisting out of a desire to keep alive the moribund nuclear talks with Iran, which threatens to end talks if the MEK were delisted.

To facilitate regime change from within Iran, it is critical to remove the terrorist designation from the MEK, and to protect and resettle its members who are under constant attacks and threats from Iran and its proxies in Iraq. The Iranian people, as well as Jerusalem and Washington, all have an interest in empowering the Iranian opposition. The current policy does just the opposite; it empowers the regime in Iran.

Prof. Raymond Tanter served on the senior staff of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, and has been a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His most recent book is “Terror Tagging of an Iranian Dissident Organization” (Amazon Kindle).