Keep Tehran in check

THE HILL(Congress Blog) – By Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas)
The Middle East is experiencing its most tumultuous wave of political change in decades. From Egypt to Syria to Yemen, the people of the Arab World are rejecting the status quo dictatorships and demanding democracy. Those who have been silenced for their whole lives are standing up to their oppressive leaders. Their cries for democracy, human rights and dignity are ringing loud throughout the Middle East and we hear their voices loud and clear. The United States must stand with the freedom fighters in the Middle East and support their desire for the basic values and principles that Americans enjoy every day.

However, there are legitimate reasons for concern about the rise of political unrest and instability in the Middle East. Paramount among them is the fear of the establishment of an Islamic Republic instead of a democratic government. For example, in 1979 popular discontent with an authoritarian Iranian ruler was exploited by Islamists who ultimately imposed their own cruel brand of tyranny. In a chaotic political environment riddled with popular loathing of the status quo and lack of ingrained democratic institutions, free elections provide the ideal setting for even a small group of organized and well-financed Islamic radicals to take control. The rise of a new radical Islamic regime would be dangerous for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

We must not underestimate the threat of Iran. While most Muslims in the region are Sunnis and Iran is ruled by Shiite fundamentalists, we must not oversimplify the situation by assuming that Tehran could have no influence. Exporting Islamic extremism is a pillar of Iran’s foreign policy. It is even enshrined in the regime’s constitution that Islamic rule recognizes no borders, and it should include the entire nation of Islam. Make no mistake; the little tyrant in the desert would jump at the opportunity to conquer a damaged or weak nation. Tehran’s covetous plans were evident in a February 4 speech by Ali Khamenei, the regime’s leader. He called for an Islamic regime to be installed in Egypt, saying the wave of Arab revolts is an “earthquake” triggered by the 1979 Iranian revolution. “Today, developments in North Africa — (including) Egypt, Tunisia and some other countries — have a special meaning for the Iranian nation,” Khamenei said.  “This is what was always referred to as the Islamic awakening created by the victory of the great revolution of the Iranian nation.”

In reality, the mullahs were the first to witness the rolling thunderstorm of change through massive anti-government demonstrations in 2009. Khamenei fully realizes that the cry of millions of Iranians, particularly the youth, is freedom and that any opening in Iranian society will lead to an immediate explosion. The outward looking policy of Khamenei is his line of defense to keep the crisis away from his turf.

On the same day, Ali Khamenei, the regime’s supreme leader revealed his attempt to usurp the popular uprisings in the region and leading them towards fundamentalism and exploiting them to the interests of the clerical regime. While calling the popular movement in Egypt “the Islamic movement of Egypt,” he said the unity of demonstrators should be preserved based on Islam and according to Tehran: “this movement has been initiated from the mosques and its slogan is ‘God is great’ and people of Egypt would allow this Islamic movement be derailed.”

The real question for the West is: How do you support a sudden change in the Middle East while at the same time making sure it does not fall in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists?

One answer is to keep a close eye on Tehran. As long as Tehran does not have to focus on quashing a movement for democratic change in Iran by the Iranian people, the precarious prospect of Tehran fulfilling its policy of dominating the Arab World looms on the horizon. Stopping the evil tyrant in Iran does not entail empty verbal condemnations of his conduct, providing concessions or negotiations. It requires a heavy hand and the exertion of stronger pressure on Tehran. For the West, in general, that certainly includes firm steps to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. There is a need for more sanctions on the regime, particularly regarding the purchase of its oil, to prevent it from attaining the means to finance and support its fundamentalist agenda. Actions, not words, will stop Iran.

The United States must also recognize and support the freedom fighters in Iran who are faced with this oppressive dictatorship. Their drive for freedom is the only viable policy in the long run, one that will stop Tehran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Western nations should be much more vocal on the rights of Iranians and in condemning the grotesque human rights violations by the regime. The regime does not protect human life; they destroy anyone who dares to get in their way. Three political activists from the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the primary opposition group, who were charged with playing a role in the popular 2009 uprisings, were hanged in March. Many more are on currently on death row.

Finally, the United States must remove the MEK from its list of terror organizations. Placing it there was done to placate the mullahs at a time when appeasement seemed to be an option. The fallacy of that approach is now obvious. Stifling the work of the MEK has blocked the process of change in Iran, enabled the execution of dissidents, and provided an excuse for the mullahs to put inhumane pressure on residents of Camp Ashraf, where 3,400 of its members reside in Iraq. On April 8, 36 unarmed residents were murdered by Iraqi soldiers who invaded the Camp out of acquiescence to Iranian pressure. Last month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously adopted my amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act to oppose any plan to relocate the group within Iraq, which would all but guarantee further persecution, and make sure the United States does all it can to protect the residents.

With Tehran waiting for the opportunity to hijack the Arab world’s rejection of Islamic fundamentalism, it would be wise to realize that the United States policy on Iran must move to a new phase that pushes hard for democratic change in Iran.

And that’s just the way it is.

Rep. Poe is a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee. He sponsored H.Res.60 urging the Secretary of State to take the MEK off the FTO List. He also sponsored an amendment to HR 2583 Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2012 that passed unanimously to make it the policy of the United States to protect the residents of Camp Ashraf, prevent the forced relocation of the residents inside Iraq, and to facilitate the robust presence of UNAMI inside Camp Ashraf.

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