Confront Iran by unleashing opposition – By Patrick Kennedy  February 22, 2012

As the crisis between the West and Iran escalates, one thing seems clear: The U.S. and its allies are running out of leverage to change the regime’s behavior. Twenty-plus years of sanctions have done nothing to stymie the regime’s race to a nuclear weapon.

The latest round – a European Union boycott of Iranian crude oil – looks like a repeat of a familiar cycle in which the regime, under economic pressure, pledges to “talk” with nuclear monitors while their nuclear-weapons campaign continues unabated. Threats of a violent confrontation have mostly served to let the regime whip up nationalism and anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, driving even moderate Iranians to lock arms.

Amazingly, the U.S. has left in reserve perhaps its most powerful instrument of persuasion: unleashing the opposition.

During the Clinton administration, the U.S. designated Iran’s main opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), as a terrorist organization, a move requested by Tehran as a condition for talks that never materialized. The MEK, which has been an important source of information on Iran’s nuclear program and its terrorist meddling in Iraq and elsewhere, subsequently disarmed and worked with the U.S. forces in efforts to bring stability to Diyala province in Iraq.

Moreover, the United Kingdom and the E.U. removed the MEK from their lists and in May 2011, a French investigative magistrate dropped all terrorism and terrorism-financing charges against the MEK in France. It even went further in saying that the MEK’s military operations inside Iran before the group unilaterally ceased its armed activities, in 2001, were not terrorism, but legitimate resistance against tyranny.

Still, the 3,400 members of the MEK encamped in a fragile Iraqi enclave known as Ashraf languish on the “terror” list. The designation has let Iran’s allied government in Iraq ferociously crack down on the dissidents, killing scores and wounding hundreds in deadly unprovoked raids in July 2009 and April 2011.

The regime rightly fears the MEK: The dissidents are secular, while the regime is a radical theocracy; the dissidents are educated and organized; the MEK envisions a non-nuclear Iran, where the regime is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons; the MEK is dedicated to establishing democratic institutions while Tehran violently opposes freedom. And the MEK espouses and practices gender equality, while the mullahs are misogynous in law and practice.

So it’s hard to understand why the Obama administration has yet to unchain and legitimize the group. A federal appeals court has already ruled that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton erred in not delisting the group in 2009 and ordered a review. Some 18 months later, the decision is in sight.

Dozens of top former bi-partisan U.S. national security officials, including former directors of central intelligence and the FBI as well as a significant number of members of Congress, say the designation is unwarranted and counterproductive.

Lifting the designation would achieve several immediate goals:

• It would send the strongest signal yet to the regime and to the Iranian people that a democratic storm is gathering. To the regime, this would be a direct response to intransigence on the nuclear question. To the people, it would potentially be a catalyst for their own “Iranian spring.”

• It would let the MEK leave its besieged Iraqi outpost and to organize safely all over the world.

• It would unblock the tremendous resources of the MEK to step up its efforts as a credible organized voice against the Iranian regime. Iraqi officials have justified their violence against the group by citing the terror designation. This would help deflate the “us-versus-them” argument the regime has used to justify continued quest for nuclear weapons.

The Iraqi government has allocated Camp Liberty as a transit camp for the residents of Camp Ashraf to be resettled in third countries. America must make sure that during the transfer, no one is arrested by the Iraqis and turned over to Iran, or jailed at the behest of Tehran; that Liberty is not turned into a prison; and that the free access of lawyers, families and parliamentarians is allowed by the Iraqis.

The U.S. should address the MEK’s unfair listing as a terrorist organization with no further delay. Not only is it right politically, it is right morally because the designation is not legally valid and has led to the massacre of people who share American values and are willing to fight the most dangerous threat in the world.

Patrick J. Kennedy is a former eight-term Democratic congressman from Rhode Island.

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