Upheaval in the Middle East and Challenges to Obama’s Policy Options for Iran


By: Guest Authors

By: Dr Sharam Taromsari

A fierce debate is raging in Washington on whether to lift the main Iranian opposition group, known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK) from the list of terror organizations or not.

For the average person this may be obscure. Why on Earth should one care about removing the terror tag from an Iranian opposition movement? What makes the case so sensitive in Washington is that what is at stake is big. The continued designation of the MEK, the most organized and largest Iranian opposition movement, or rescinding it is the yardstick of US policy on Iran. To accept the status quo or go for regime change in Iran with the Iranian people, this is the question.

As an unprecedented wave of change is sweeping the greater Middle East and as anti-government demonstrations have sprung up again in Iran, this time targeting the regime’s supreme leader, Khamenei, the issue has become more sensitive than ever for Tehran’s ruling clerics.

The MEK was placed on the US State Department terrorist list in October 1997. As the senior US official stated explicitly at the time it was done to send a goodwill gesture to the Iranian regime and its newly elected “moderate” president.

The fallacy of this approach is evident. Tehran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons intensified the anxiety over its meddling in the affairs of other countries permeated throughout the region and its human rights abuses at home got worse.

For years Tehran reaped the fruit of the stigmatization of its arch opponents. The terror label hamstrung the opposition’s potential and capabilities. It was an excellent enabler for Tehran to execute MEK activists in Iran under the pretext that they supported a “terrorist” organization. All the while the MEK, an Islamic movement that seeks a secular, democratic government in Iran and has lost 120,000 of its members and supporters at the hands of the Ayatollah’s henchmen in the past 30 years, acted as the eyes and ears of the world to expose Tehran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. Its network played a pivotal role in fomenting anti-government demonstrations in Iran. It was no coincidence that all those executed for their role in the anti-government uprisings of 2009 were affiliated with the MEK.

The UK and European Union took the MEK off their terrorist lists in 2008 and 2009 respectively after court rulings that found no evidence to back its inclusion. The Washington appeals court in July remanded the case to the State Department calling for a thorough review and expressed doubt about the reliability of evidence provided by State. More than 110 members of the US Congress urged the delisting of the MEK in a bipartisan initiative.

In recent months, a growing roster of Washington heavyweights and senior former officials who realize that current policy on Iran is at a dead end, have called for an end to this injustice.

That sounded an alarm in Tehran since it is fully aware that rescinding the terror label would not only herald a policy change on the MEK but also on dealings with Iran. It would be a big boost (at least morally) to Iranians who would see this as a firm sign that the world is not against regime change in Iran and no longer accepts the status quo.

The Tehran mullahs fully realize that if their role in preventing the removal of the terror label is revealed, this would backfire. They work through front organizations that purport to be oppositionist and individuals under the cloak of academia.

Tehran advocates include individuals like Mullah Mohsen Kadivar who was part of the regime until recently, and who still adhere to the principle of velayet-e faiqh (the absolute rule of the supreme leader), or academics such as Ahmad Sadri.

Sadri, who is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Iranian- Americans (the NIAC which strongly lobbies against sanctions against the regime and keeps pushing for engagement with Tehran even under Ahmadinejad), is in contact with Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi in Qom. Mesbah Yazdi, known as Ahmadinejad’s mentor, advocates crushing any opposition to the regime and the supreme leader, has been an unequivocal supporter of Sadri as a great philosopher.

MEK bashers argue that, by removing the terror label, mullahs will be able to call the opposition pro-US and will find more excuses to suppress the opposition (as though Tehran has had any qualms in brutally suppressing the opposition until now) and this is ultimately against the interests of the US and Iranians.

The time for a reality check is now. The same logic pushed seeking accommodation with Tehran and the “moderate fantasy” of the regime for the past 25 years. The murderers in Tehran loved this argument since they could call the US the Great Satan and enjoy putting obstacles in the way of its main opposition. They had their cake and ate it too.

Enough is enough. Allow Iranian politics to play itself out in tandem with big changes in the region. Remove the terror label and do not let Tehran keep Iran’s main opposition in shackles. It is at this historical juncture that Iranians need the help of their resistance the most.

Dr Sharam Taromsari is formerly a lecturer in International Relations and Middle Eastern Security, University of Salford, UK

Consultant of Middle Eastern affairs

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