By Tom Ridge, General Hugh Shelton, Patrick Kennedy
To believe that the resumption of negotiations in Istanbul could — or ever will –avert Iranian nuclear breakout and a possible Middle East conflagration, is to believe in the triumph of hope over experience. When it comes to the Mullahs’ intentions, however, we believe that the past is best viewed as prologue.
Consider that on the eve of these new negotiations, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brazenly mocked President Obama’s “last chance” proffer to the Mullahs, declaring that sanctions were a failure because Iran has stockpiled enough hard currency to survive for years without selling any oil.
True or not, the fact remains that the so-called “P5 +1,” (the US, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany) have begun their first talks with Iran in over 15 months after a previous round of negotiations ended without agreement in January 2011.
It is hardly surprising to us that little of substance was discussed and that no concrete proposals or confidence-building measures were agreed to now, either.
After all, ten years of diplomatic efforts have only emboldened the Mullahs’ terrorist regime. These latest talks only enable the regime in Tehran to buy time while building their nuclear weapons program.
But the Obama administration has another option worth trying at its disposal.
Secretary of State Clinton got it exactly right when she focused world attention on the critical distinction between the people of Iran and the Mullah’s oppressive terrorist regime.
Following the April 1 Conference on Syria, Clinton rightly said that, “In the last six, eight months we’ve had Iranian plots disrupted from Thailand to India to Georgia to Mexico and many places in between. This is a country, not a terrorist group…the people deserve better than to be living under a regime that exports terrorism.”
As President Obama struggles to find a solution to Iran’s increasingly threatening nuclear ambitions, he should realize that the most powerful weapon the US can deploy now is not the sanctions of diplomacy, or the missiles of war, but support for regime change in Iran.
Opposition parties in Iran are brutally oppressed and the most viable organized resistance in the country—the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) has been exiled and persecuted relentlessly by the Mullahs for more than thirty years.
The regime in Tehran views MEK as an existential threat because MEK strives to replace the unelected, clerical regime with a liberal democracy that champions a non-nuclear Iranian future, equal rights for women and minorities, and a free press. But the major opposition to the Mullahs is being prevented from realizing these dreams of freedom for the Iranian people because both Iran and the US designate them as a terrorist organization.
MEK is a movement that epitomizes the very spirit of the Arab Spring. By removing MEK from an unjust designation, the Obama administration can create a new political dynamic – one that can effectively undermine the worlds’ leading state sponsor of terrorism.
The Clinton administration initially added MEK to the State Department’s blacklist in 1997 as part of a failed political ploy to appease Iran—mistakenly thought at the time to be moving towards moderation. The Mullahs demanded that the group be listed as a precondition for potential negotiations with the US. Those negotiations never materialized then — and won’t work now either.
Still, the Obama administration outrageously delays removing MEK, a declared democratic ally that has provided invaluable intelligence on the location of key Iranian nuclear sites, from its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO) even though it meets none of the legal criteria.
This folly has given Iran and its proxies in Iraq a license to kill thousands of MEK members, including a massacre on April 8 of last year, that killed 47, including eight women, or wounded hundreds of unarmed members of the exiled MEK dissidents living in Camp Ashraf, Iraq—each and every one of whom was given written guarantees of protection by the US government.
Now that US troops have left Iraq, Iran is determined to extend its influence in the region and has vowed to exterminate the unarmed men and women at Camp Ashraf. The residents of Camp Ashraf have all been interviewed by the FBI and seven other U.S. agencies and there has never been a shred of evidence anyone in that camp was motivated by, interested in, or capable of conducting acts of terrorism.
In a bipartisan initiative, nearly 100 Members of Congress, including Chairs of House Intelligence and Armed Services as well as Oversight and Government Reform committees, have called for MEK to be de-listed.
The unfounded MEK designation only serves as a license to kill for both the Iraqi forces and the kangaroo courts in Iran, which regularly arrest, torture, and murder people because of their MEK affiliation. It shames the State Department’s designation process that has wrongly maintained the blacklist for misguided political reasons and it prevents the safe resettlement of Camp Ashraf residents to other countries, including the United States where many Iranian-American citizens are waiting to be reunited with their exiled family members.
Nearly two years after a US Court of Appeals found that the State Department had violated MEK’s due process rights, and ordered a re-evaluation, Secretary of State Clinton is still “reviewing” this inappropriate and unlawful designation.
Under the agreement brokered by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Ashraf residents are in the process of relocating to a site at an abandoned former US military base known as Camp Liberty, in Baghdad. Despite uninhabitable conditions there, and frequent assaults by Iraqi police, Secretary Clinton told Congress that residents’ cooperation in moving from their home of 26 years to Camp Liberty would be a precondition for delisting MEK.
So far, 1,600 residents have been relocated to Camp Liberty and this “process” has claimed one life and resulted in unprovoked attack by Iraqi police (at Iran’s bidding) that left 29 wounded last week.
MEK members have shown remarkable cooperation and restraint and have been extremely tolerant and peaceful in dealing with Iraqi mistreatment. Still, the State Department continues to stall on de-listing the MEK, which explains why it has been ordered to appear in the US Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, DC on May 8 to publicly explain its reasons for inaction on this vital matter of grave humanitarian consequence.
In the meantime, one can only hope that Secretary Clinton means it when she says that the Iranian people deserve to be free of the mullahs. Unshackling the main Iranian opposition movement from an unwarranted State Department blacklist and honoring US promises to guarantee the safety of exiled Iranian dissidents would certainly be a good place to start.
General Hugh Shelton was the 14th Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge served as the first U.S. Homeland Security Secretary. Patrick Kennedy represented Rhode Island’s 1st District in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2011.