In the past few weeks, Washington has been abuzz with a heated debate over the main Iranian opposition, the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
On the face of it, the debate is on removing the MEK from the list of the State Department's foreign terrorist organizations - a decision that reportedly will be made soon by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In reality, to delist or not to delist Tehran's arch-opponents is the battleground for a more profound debate in Washington on how to deal with Iran's mullahs. The clerical regime's egregious behavior includes facilitating operation of al Qaeda in the region through an agreement with the vicious terrorist group (as established by the U.S. Treasury Department last week), its unimpeded drive to acquire nuclear weapons, meddling in affairs of other countries - Iraq, in particular - acting as the most active state sponsor of terrorism, and its ruthless crackdown of Iranian citizens.
For Iranian-Americans, the issue, in addition to national security, has another important aspect. It is about life and death for 3,400 Iranian exiles in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. The residents, members of MEK, voluntarily handed over their weapons to the United States in 2003 and were accorded the status of "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention. But they face increasing threats from an Iraqi government that has been doing the mullahs' bidding in dealing with the residents. That government's only excuse for its mistreatment of Ashraf residents is the inclusion of the MEK on the U.S. terrorist list.
Over the years, those who believed that providing incentives and limited sanctions could do the trick vis-a-vis Tehran had the upper hand within the U.S. bureaucracy. The opposition to Tehran theocracy had to be sidelined, since that would have been an irritation to this approach.
But that is changing. There is a growing momentum in Washington among former senior national security, diplomatic and intelligence officials and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that this is a dead-end policy and a recipe for a huge crisis. These realists cite some basic facts: The MEK was placed on the terrorist list for political reasons to curry favor with Tehran's mullahs, the MEK has renounced all violence since 2001 and there is no merit in maintaining the "terrorist" status.
What's the response by the other side?
The Iranian regime's lobby and the apologists for Tehran have resorted to a typical tactic: "If you don't like the message, attack the messenger." This is a distraction to overshadow the main issue and main argument, since they fully realize that removal of the MEK from the U.S. terrorist list would make it more difficult for them to hide their real objective, which is aiding the central banker of international terrorism.
One notion that they are propagating is attacking former officials for speaking in favor of a firm policy toward Iran as well as supporting protection of Ashraf residents and delisting the MEK, suggesting that they have received speaking fees from Iranian-Americans.
The idea that the views of three joint chiefs of staff of the U.S. armed forces, a former commander of NATO, a former national security adviser to the president, a former attorney general, two former directors of the CIA, two former U.S. ambassadors to the U.N., a former Homeland Security secretary, a former White House chief of staff, a former commandant of the Marine Corps, a former policy planning director of the State Department, a former FBI director, and even a director of Counterterrorism at the State Department could be bought off collectively is simply outrageous.
If that is true, then the Iranian regime, with all its oil money and resources, could have bought hundreds of luminaries to disseminate Tehran's propaganda that the Iranian regime is the champion of human rights, a victim of terrorism and the biggest promoter of peace in the Middle East.
Former President Bill Clinton has made more than 200 paid speeches in 48 countries in the past 10 years as a private citizen. Former President George W. Bush has also made scores of paid speeches since leaving office. If this line of argument were valid, the integrity of the entire political leadership of the United States would be under question. This is not the issue of one or two individuals but it is a part of a well-established lawful and transparent political process.
Can anyone imply that even former presidents were compromising their views and national security interests because they were making paid speeches in support of an issue? Or that they took positions against a misdeed because they were paid to deliver a speech on the issue? Absolutely not.
It is time that the tune that sounds so pleasant to the mullahs' ears be stopped and the voices of Tehran opponents be heard. They are the very same people who could not be heard in Iran, and because of the wrongheaded policy of seeking accommodation from Tehran, they have been marginalized by the United States during the past few years as a result of their designation as a foreign terrorist organization.
Instead of trying to shoot the messenger, let's hear the message. It is about time.
Zahra Sadeqpour is a doctor of pharmacy, a human rights activist and executive director of the Iranian-American Society of Massachusetts. Her younger brother, age 25, was executed by the Iranian regime.
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