When I served as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, I could proudly say that U.S. policy mitigated serious threats to international security and democratic principles in many areas. However, there was one area of foreign policy in which the United States always seemed to somehow fall short, and as a result, I found myself watching in horror as the threats emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran grew more serious year after year.
Sadly, that trend is still ongoing today. Yet now that I am no longer in Congress, I feel more hopeful than ever that the correct officials and policymakers will soon respond to my advocacy for a change in Iran policy, not just in Washington but also in most European capitals. More specifically, I feel hopeful that Western leaders will soon begin paying due attention to crucial missing factors in most prior discussions at the Foreign Affairs Committee, namely the role of the Iranian people and opposition activists in the future of their country.
Of course, the relevant advocacy is not merely my own. It has been offered in equal measure by a number of my colleagues, and many American and European foreign policy experts besides. Some of them enjoyed positions of even greater influence than my own, including our previous vice president, Mike Pence. Last week, I was pleased to see that he persisted in his calls for a change in the focus of U.S. policy toward Iran, and also that he was prepared to lead by example.
Last week, Mr. Pence made a highly visible trip to Albania to visit Ashraf 3, the compound established in recent years by exiled members of Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the MEK. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a similar trip in May, thereby underscoring the depth of the impression the MEK has left on serious decision-makers in Washington. I had the privilege of serving in Congress at the same time as Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo. But I can also say from experience that the organization has left a similar impression on a number of my Democratic colleagues, and that support for the Iranian resistance is one of the most powerful outlets for bipartisanship in the U.S. today.
Mr. Pence himself said as much in a speech to the residents of Ashraf 3 which confidently declared that the American people as a whole, without distinction according to political ideology, “support your goal of establishing a secular, democratic, non-nuclear Iranian republic that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.”
I believe that is correct, and I also believe that such unequivocal popular support makes it almost unfathomable that the United States could fail for so long to establish an Iran policy that coordinates appropriately with that resistance, or even acknowledges its existence. Then again, I and my like-minded former colleagues generally understand how the neglect of that movement came about. Since the early days of the Islamic Republic, far too many Western policymakers have unwittingly fallen victim to Iranian propaganda which suggested there was no viable alternative to the Islamist regime and that the ouster of that regime would only lead to chaos.
Mr. Pence said, there exists, “a well organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative.” He further elaborated, “Maryam Rajavi’s Ten Point Plan for the future of Iran will ensure the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, freedom for every Iranian to choose their elected leaders.”
Though Tehran’s propaganda persists to this day, near-constant unrest in recent years has made it far more difficult for Iranian authorities to credibly claim the MEK is merely a cult without the organizational strength to mount a serious opposition. Thus, the regime has also adopted an alternative strategy, as Mr. Pence noted during his trip: “Tehran wants to trick the world into believing that the Iranian protesters want to return to the dictatorship of the Shah.”
When the uprising started in 2018 in over 100 cities people were chanting “death to the dictator.” Those slogans remain in circulation even now, and are often accompanied by clarifying chants of “down with tyranny, be it the Shah or the mullahs.”
In light of these developments, there should be little doubt left regarding what I understood for much of my political career. Western leaders are wrong to assume that the existing Iranian regime is stable, or that they have no choice but to work with it. In fact, the regime has never been more vulnerable. The opportunity now exists for the U.S. and its allies to work together with the Iranian people to exploit that vulnerability.
As Mr. Pompeo said during his May visit to Ashraf 3, “a serious missing factor in U.S. policy towards Iran has been the lack of political support for the organized opposition.” Mr. Pompeo concluded, “to correct the Iran policy, no matter who is in the White House, it is a necessity for the U.S. administration to reach out to the Iranian resistance and take advantage of its tremendous capabilities.”
Mr. Pence offered a piece of advice for President Biden, during his Jan. 23 speech before 3,000 members of the Iranian opposition, “immediately withdraw from all nuclear negotiations with Tehran, voice support for the organized opposition in Iran, and make it clear that America and our allies will never permit the regime in Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
• Judge Ted Poe represented the 2nd Congressional District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2005 to 2019 and is the former chair of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.