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STANGO: Directing the winds of change toward Iran

It’s time to stop blacklisting the opposition

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As popular protests in the Greater Middle East crack the decades-old walls of suppression, the prospect of change in the region seems no longer to be a distant dream but an inescapable eventuality. No one knows this better than the dictators in Iran, who are frantically trying to prevent the wildfire from consuming their own fragile theocracy.

Tehran has failed to tame prolonged popular protests, and it is weakened by intractable schisms at the helm of power. Now, after the experiences of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, clerical rulers in Iran are not remiss about the fact that given the right circumstances and impetus, change is only a matter of time.

The impetus and the right circumstances depend primarily on the unrestrained capabilities of the genuine democratic opposition in Iran facing the regime's "fierce suppression," as President Obama referred to it in a speech on Thursday.

However, for the past 14 years, the United States has stood shoulder to shoulder with the regime by restraining and designating the main opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) as a terrorist organization, thereby depriving the opposition of its true potential.

The MEK was listed in 1997 as a "goodwill gesture" to open dialogue with the mullahs. The lack of factual evidence for the listing has become more apparent through the years, especially after a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last July, which strongly called for its revocation.

The MEK's terror label is the biggest barrier to change because it unjustly enchains the main component of the opposition to clerical rulers. The regime knows that rescinding the label will provide a major morale boost to the Iranian people at a crucial time. So, understandably, the prospect of an unfettered archnemesis in today's regional landscape terrifies Tehran.

The regime has launched a desperate campaign to prevent the delisting. But because it knows that if its direct role in this regard were to be discovered, it could backfire, the regime uses front organizations and its lobbyists. Prominent among them is a notorious pro-Tehran lobby group in Washington called the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). But the campaign is also advanced by figures that were, until recently, working in the regime as well as "academics" extolling the hidden marriage of democracy with the Iranian theocracy.

These apologists have rushed to the blogosphere to "advise" Washington against the MEK's delisting. Their strategy is to demonize the group using stale allegations as a basis essentially to argue that it is more prudent to deal with the evil you know than the one you don't. Their motive is to preserve the status quo by marginalizing forces that could upset it.

This peculiar group of lobbyists has an even more peculiar logic. By delisting the MEK, they argue, Tehran would find an excuse to suppress the opposition (as if until now Tehran has been highly tolerant of the opposition). Interestingly, in reality, the mullahs use the terror label as an excuse to intensify their suppression by labeling dissidents as "terrorists" and then hanging them to scare others.

The truth is that for the past 14 years, the mullahs have refused to reciprocate America's generous "goodwill gestures," have continued their nuclear and other aggressive policies, while at the same time enjoying the benefits of a hamstrung opposition. Put simply, they have had their cake and eaten it, too.

Many high-ranking former U.S. officials serving in the past three administrations have strongly criticized the MEK's listing. Among them are distinguished military leaders, including three joint chiefs of staff, former Obama National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and other senior diplomatic, security and intelligence officials.

They all have called on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to delist the MEK not tomorrow or next month, but today. Some even have noted that they have been briefed on the classified material against the MEK but have not come across a scintilla of evidence justifying the group's designation.

Aside from the legal aspect, it is an undeniable fact that by blacklisting the MEK, Washington has tilted the balance of power in the regime's favor. Is that the right policy at a time when Tehran seeks to exploit historical changes across the region for its own nefarious ends?

Iranian Americans, joined by dozens of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, have told the State Department simply that enough is enough; delist the MEK.

The MEK is not asking for money or weapons, and it strongly opposes a military confrontation. It is simply asking for the proper application of U.S. law and for a grave injustice to be undone.

Washington should allow Iranian politics to play out its natural course instead of interfering for the benefit of the mullahs. Time is running out and a critical window of opportunity in the Middle East is closing fast.

Antonio Stango is president of the Italian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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