The U.S. Court of Appeals decision on June 1 ordering Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to act on the petition for removal of a prominent Iranian dissident group's designation as a terrorist organization is the first step toward unleashing the Iranian opposition. The court's ruling holds that Mrs. Clinton's delay in acting on the petition for removal of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) from the list of foreign terrorist organizations constitutes an "egregious" failure and a violation of PMOI's due-process rights. The court admonished Mrs. Clinton for failing to act for more than two years on a matter that the U.S. Congress gave her 180 days to address.
Mrs. Clinton's choice is clear: Act decisively to remove PMOI's terrorist label or run out the clock on the court's four-month timetable and allow the designation to expire automatically.
Justification for removing the label rather than allowing it to lapse can be found in next month's direct talks with Iran in Moscow.
Prolonged diplomatic meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad to address Iran's uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels failed to result in concrete proposals beyond the establishment of dates for more talks. The efficacy of diplomacy as a means of addressing Tehran's nuclear plans is now a matter of skepticism. The growing bipartisan consensus in Washington is that no package of concessions or incentives will dissuade Iran from its current course.
Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta's recent claim "that neither the United States nor the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon" notwithstanding, the Obama administration's reluctance to use force to curtail Tehran's nuclear pursuits leaves few options for managing the Iran problem.
Conventional discourse frames the options available to the U.S. government in terms of diplomatic engagement or tactical military strikes. But support for PMOI's organized resistance makes a third path forward. Enhanced support for PMOI would provide a check on Iranian influence as the U.S. negotiates concessions in continued talks.
There are sound arguments for pursuing such a course.
First, PMOI fails to meet the legal criteria for listing as a terrorist organization required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. It was placed on the terrorist list by then-President Bill Clinton in an attempt to curry favor with the Iranian regime. The olive branch was meant to temper the influence of a group deemed a threat to the theocratic order in Tehran. It backfired. The matter has been used ever since as a bargaining chip in Iran's grand campaign to counter American interests.
Tehran's sustained misinformation campaign to the contrary, PMOI has not engaged in any verifiable violence in recent years. No recent incidents credibly linked to the group are documented in open-source terrorism databases. If there is a classified case against PMOI, it's so flimsy that it's rarely even implied. That Mrs. Clinton would take more than 600 days to make an attempt at outlining it in her court-ordered response speaks volumes.
There also is no proof that PMOI harbors the capability or the intent to engage in terrorist violence. Neither does the group pose a threat to U.S. nationals or security interests. In fact, the group's secular, democratic goals are consistent with U.S. foreign-policy objectives, and the organization could serve as a valuable partner to the United States at a time when Iran is expanding its regional sphere of influence.
Second, the removal of the group from the State Department's roster of terrorist organizations is necessary to ensure that the list remains a credible tool for countering actual terrorist threats. Allowing the list to be politicized by implying that rogue regimes can bargain for placement of groups on it ill serves U.S. counterterrorism interests and threatens State Department credibility.
Third, as the appeals court decision notes, there are significant costs associated with being tagged with the terrorist label. PMOI's current listing curtails the group's ability to raise funds, manage its own assets, maintain a lobby, travel freely and receive virtually any type of assistance or support without fear of prosecution. The label also broadcasts an illegitimacy that undermines the social mobilization necessary for resistance.
Finally, the ongoing detention of the Iranian opposition at Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty in Iraq is posited on the illegitimacy of the group in the United States. The pejorative association of the terrorist label provides cover for deadly assaults by Iraqi forces and others doing Tehran's bidding. These attacks constitute human rights abuses of the worst order. Legitimizing and humanizing the group by removing the terrorist label and recasting the inhabitants of these camps as refugees is a necessary means of protecting them against arbitrary displacement, forced extradition and continued mistreatment.
The Court of Appeals' decision to chastise the Department of State for failing to heed its obligation to review the PMOI listing marks a turning point in the treatment of an organization that has been a consistent, determined and courageous voice of opposition to the most significant state sponsor of terrorism in the contemporary world.
Allowing for the continuation of the terrorist listing at a time of high-stakes negotiations over Iran's nuclear pursuits telegraphs weakness on the part of the United States and an inclination toward accommodation when none is necessary.
The expeditious removal of the terrorist label and a broadening of U.S. support for the group would send a clear message of support to the Iranian resistance and lay the groundwork for grass-roots change in Iran. Now is the time for Mrs. Clinton to demonstrate leadership by removing PMOI's terrorist designation and helping unleash the Iranian opposition.
Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the negotiation and conflict-management program at the University of Baltimore.