Who's afraid of the Iranian opposition?
The West has spent more than thirty years looking for incentives for compromise with the Islamist regime in Iran. After the takeover of the alleged reformer Khatami in 1997, things looked brighter than ever before. In what U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk described as a "goodwill gesture," the Clinton administration put the Iranian opposition group the Mullahs fear most -- the "Peoples Mujahedin Organization of Iran" (MEK) -- on their list of "Foreign Terrorist Organizations."
The European Union followed suit with a similar decision in 2001, but had to remove the MEK of their list of terrorist organizations in 2009. The many accusations that have been brought forward against the MEK could not bear examination. Several verdicts of the British and the European Courts of Justice considered the listing as a violation of the rule of law.
Only the U.S. government keeps the MEK on its terrorist list, despite the obvious failure of the engagement policy with the Iranian regime. Now a revision of the decision to keep the MEK on the list or remove it is expected in the near future.
The MEK was founded in 1965 as a group based on a leftist-Islamic ideology, fighting the rule of the emperor Mohammad Reza Shah. In 1979 they supported the Islamic Revolution, but their refusal of Khomeini's totalitarian principle of the guardianship of the Islamic jurists led to the rupture with the new regime. Thousands of MEK members have been killed by the tyrants of Tehran since then. In 1981 the MEK took up arms against the Islamic Republic; their leaders fled to Paris. After their expulsion from France they accepted the invitation of Saddam Hussein to build their headquarters in Iraq, called Camp Ashraf. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, the MEK surrendered its arms to the U.S. Army and their members were closely monitored by American military personnel. The U.S. finally granted the Ashraf inhabitants the status of protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention based on the United States investigators' conclusions that none of them had committed a crime under any United States laws.
For the mullah regime, the terrorist designation of the MEK has been a priceless tool against the whole Iranian opposition. Anyone who speaks up for the end of the religious dictatorship in Iran can be easily labeled as terrorist by the regime and its apologists regardless of his ideological background. Executions of dissenters in Iran have been justified with an alleged MEK membership of the victims. The regime countered Western protest by the claim that it just killed people who are seen as terrorists even by the American government.
The same argument is used by Tehran's ally in Iraq, president Nouri al-Maliki. His soldiers have murdered dozens of Iranian expats in two attacks on Camp Ashraf in 2009 and 2011, which enraged Iranians regardless of their attitude towards the MEK. The justification for this slaughter against unarmed members of the MEK has also been a supposed fight against terrorism. Maliki's government has announced to erase Camp Ashraf until the end of the year -- a clear menace to the lives of its 3,400 inhabitants.
U.S. public debate on this topic is divided. On one side of the issue are politicians like John Bolton, Rudolph Giuliani, and Patrick Kennedy, who advocate for an end of the Islamic dictatorship and support regime change in Iran. They spoke out for a de-listing of the MEK as a signal of support to the Iranian people and a clear sign of an end to the engagement policy towards the Islamic Republic.
At a conference in France, Elie Wiesel, political scientist and Holocaust survivor, expressed his solidarity with the residents of Ashraf. He condemned the silence of the Western media about the atrocities committed in Iraq on orders of Khamenei, which appalled him. Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah of Persia and surely the most important competitor of the MEK under exiled Iranians, also voiced protest against the killing of Iranian refugees in Ashraf by Iraqi forces.
On the other hand, there is a campaign to keep the MEK on the list headed by Trita Parsi, leader of the "National Iranian American Council," the "Iranian lobby in Washington" according to Iranian regime media. But also political scientists like Michael Rubin and Kenneth R. Timmerman spoke out against the de-listing of the MEK, claiming that it is an anti-American, anti-Zionist, "Islamo-Marxist" organization. Beyond the question of whether this would be enough to label an organization as "terrorist," this argument ignores the fact that the MEK has provided invaluable information about the Iranian nuclear program obtained under mortal danger to the American authorities and therefore proved to cooperate in a pragmatic way with Western powers. The organization also refrains from the sort of anti-Israeli propaganda that Islamist reformists and old-school leftists still engage in.
The hope that negotiations with the Iranian Islamists could help to stop the mullahs' atomic program or their support for international terrorism has proven to be futile. The leaders of the Islamic Republic have been frank about their terrorist intentions from the beginning, and they do not hide their fears, either: a possible de-listing of the MEK is one of their main concerns.
The question of the de-listing of the MEK is not only and not mainly a question about the future of the organization itself. It goes far beyond and points to two possible scenarios:
An ongoing demonization of the MEK will be understood as a signal of support for the Iranian regime -- a green light for more brutal crimes against humanity in- and outside Iran. This will discourage the Iranian opposition and strengthen the regime, helping the mullahs to become nuclear, with all the catastrophic consequences of that development.
A de-listing of the MEK would lift the taboo surrounding this group and provide the opportunity for a free debate in the West about the political strategies and goals of the Iranian opposition. In Iran, the mullahs dictate the rules of engagement and the suppression of the protests of 2009 highlighted that the will for freedom is not enough to end the dictatorship in Iran. As during the fight against Nazism in Europe, a well-organized and determined coalition will be necessary to bring down the clerical regime. The de-listing of the MEK would be a clear signal of solid support for democracy in Iran.
The writers are founding members of the German chapter of the European coalition Stop the Bomb.