Obama, Iran and a push for policy change

February 25, 2011

Could the administration of President Barack Obama hasten the downfall of Iran’s government by taking an opposition group off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations? To hear a growing roster of influential former government officials tell it, the answer is yes.

The opposition group in question is the Mujadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) and the growing list of Washington insiders coming out in its support include two former Central Intelligence Agency chiefs (James Woolsey and Michael Hayden), two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Peter Pace and Hugh Shelton), former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and former FBI head Louis Freeh.

The MEK was placed on the terrorist list in 1997, a move the Clinton administration hoped would help open a dialogue with Iran, and since then has been waging a protracted legal battle to have the designation removed. Britain and the European Union took the group off their terrorist lists in 2008 and 2009 respectively after court rulings that found no evidence of terrorist actions after the MEK renounced violence in 2001.

In Washington, initial support for “de-listing” came largely from the ranks of conservatives and neo-conservatives but it has been spreading across the aisle and the addition of a newcomer of impeccable standing with the Obama administration could herald a policy change not only on the MEK but also on dealing with Tehran.

The newcomer is Lee Hamilton, an informal senior advisor to President Obama, who served as a Democratic congressman for 34 years and was co-chairman of the commission that investigated the events leading to the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York.

“This is a big deal,” Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two prominent experts on Iran, wrote on their blog. “We believe that Hamilton’s involvement increases the chances that the Obama administration will eventually start supporting the MEK as the cutting edge for a new U.S. regime change strategy towards Iran.” The Leveretts think such a strategy would be counter-productive.

But speakers at the February 19 conference in Washington where Hamilton made his debut as an MEK supporter thought otherwise. Addressing some 400 Iranian-Americans in a Washington hotel, retired General Peter Pace said: “Some folks said to me … if the United States government took the MEK off the terrorist list it would be a signal to the Iranian regime that we changed from a desire to see changes in regime behavior to a desire to see changes in regime. Sounds good to me.”

The Obama administration’s policy is not regime change but the use of sanctions and multi-national negotiations to persuade the government in Tehran to drop its nuclear ambitions. So far, that has been unsuccessful. Two rounds of talks between Iran, the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany in January ended without progress and did not even yield agreement on a date for more talks.

That did not change Washington’s “no regime change” stand. What has changed is the tone of public American statements on Iran since a wave of mass protests swept away the authoritarian rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and forced the governments of Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and Saudi Arabia to announce reforms. In contrast, Iran responded to mass demonstrations with violent crackdowns.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the U.S.  “very clearly and directly support the aspirations of the people who are in the streets” of Iranian cities agitating for a democratic opening as they did in 2009, when Washington stayed silent.

Like the U.S., Iran labels the MEK a terrorist organization and has dealt particularly harshly with Iranians suspected of membership or sympathies. In the view of many of its American supporters, the U.S. terrorist label has weakened internal support for the MEK. How much support there is for the organization is a matter of dispute among Iran watchers, many of whom consider it insignificant.

At last week’s Washington conference, however, speaker after speaker described it as a major force, feared and hated by the Iranian government. General Shelton called it “the best organized resistance group.” Dell Daley, the State Department’s counter-terrorism chief until he retired in 2009, said the MEK was “the best instrument of power to get inside the Iran mullahs and unseat them.”

The decision to give legitimacy, or not, to the group is up to Hillary Clinton. Last July, a federal appeals court in Washington instructed the Department of State to review the terrorist designation, in language that suggested that it should be revoked. Court procedures gave her until June to decide.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)


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At the time that Iranian people are once again in the streets in big numbers and show their desire for freedom maintaining the main iranian opposition in the Us terror list does not make any sense. Tehran has had the last laugh with this bizzare US policy. Time to fix it.

Posted by kramer2010 | Report as abusive

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett and their views on Iran; Uum. Let’s pause for a second please. Didn’t I read somewhere that they visited Iran as a guest of Iranian foreign Ministry in Iran? I do not think they mentioned it in their blog “race for Iran” and I do not think that would add to one’s impartiality as an expert to be guest of Ahmdinejad’s retinue, especially when they would comment on Tehran’s opposition. Let’s think about it and seek some explanation from the Leveretts.

Posted by kramer2010 | Report as abusive

Debusmann is spot-on.

We have wasted 14 precious years in trying to reach out to the cunning mullahs of Tehran. That has been an abject failure.

Look where the mullahs are now: on the threshold of going nuclear; in the driver seat in Iraq and Lebanon, making life miserable for the US in Afghanistan, extending their tentacles to North Africa and Latin America and reaping the benefits of the upheavals elsewhere in the Middle East.

Yet, the mullahs are most vulnerable at home. This is where US focus should be, taking a non-selective approach to all Iranian opposition groups, including the MEK.

Whatever the wisdom of listing the group in 1997, there are no bases in law and fact in maintaining that designation.

One democratic stalwart Debusmann did not mention was Bill Richardson, known for his penchant to engage rogue regimes. Even he is saying that delisting the MEK makes sense.

I hope the President and Secretary Clinton are listening.

Time is running short and we must act now, not tomorrow.

Posted by qlbert2011 | Report as abusive

Bernd Debusmann | Analysis & Opinion | Reuters.com…

Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

Posted by World Spinner | Report as abusive

So now we will make it official: terrorists are guys who are against us, but if the same people and methods are useful to us, then they are no longer terrorists. We are not terrorists or terrorist supporters: we are the good guys?

I think the world will understand this pretty well. Let violence rule, just let it be ours.

When more “terrorists” come to get us, just remember that we brought it upon ourselves: how sick we are!

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

The US followed the same tactic in Afghanistan. It armed, trained and supported a group of ‘Mujaheddin’ from the Arabian Peninsula, to make life difficult for the Soviets. These held a pre-Islamic notion of Islam and perpetrated in the name of Allah murderous forays, which the US labeled as a struggle for freedom.

On 9th September, 2001, they attacked the US.

The Iranian terrorists on the US list have been kept and nourished in Iraq by the occupation authorities since the occupation of Iraq, back in 2003. They were grouped in a camp in which they were fed and nourished, and we do not know if they were even armed and allowed to continue their training that Saddam Hussein started.

In the process, they turned to the US, on the same basis as the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan did – the enemy of my enemy is my friend, with the addition of: ‘for the time being!’

If the US now begins using them to established the Iranian regime they would be a party not to a popular revolt as in Egypt, but to an armed conflict with Iran. This is how the world would understand it, and how the world would react to it.

But the US did rather similar things previously in other places. The iterative steps followed in Vietnam, supporting the rebellious Saigon government against that agreed to in the Geneva Conference in 1954 – which included US, France and Britain, the Soviet Union and China concluded framed the New Vietnam (the US of course refused to sign up). The result was an iterative expansion of the US role in Vietnam, leading to its defeat.

President Obama campaigned on the premise of even “meeting with the leaders of Iran and Cuba” to resolve key international impasses. So far, not even overtures to the Iranian regime were made. Instead, the US began a relentless campaign of persuading unbelieving partners, particularly Russia and China, that Iran is out to produce nuclear weapons. The IAEA, while historically ready to do the US bidding, somewhat, could not in its very last report on Iran, state categorically whether Iran is (or is not) working on a nuclear device.

The nuclear cooperation Iran has with China and Russia obviously reflect their view that such a claim is, in their assessment, invalid.

The US administration, very early on, found itself, like its predecessors, being pushed by that troubled and troubling small state in the Middle East to override its national interests and seek to solve the problems that small state continues to have, since its establishment, with close and far neighbors – the last, of course, is Turkey.

Posted by RobertFrost | Report as abusive

Would somebody kindly explain to me who died and made us God? The gall to think that country A should be able to decide that they need to perpetrate “regime change” on country B is pretty imperialistic. The last time we did that in Iran was 1953 when we foisted the Shah on them again. The blowback from that came 25 years later in the form of fuzzface. The US has had a hard on for Iran ever since they kicked our ass out for terminal interference in their country. Can anybody get a clue that meddling in other people’s business might not be appreciated by the meddlee?

And for those of you who will run around waving your arms and shouting Hamas and Hezbollah, let me say I am totally unimpressed. The US supports Israel, a notoriously terroristic country as well as the insurgents in Afghanistan (see Charlie’s war) and subversive groups in a half dozen other countries we want to perpetrate “regime change” on. Hell, we weren’t even willing to recognize that Hamas won the Palestinian election.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

This is how US has always throughout the history backed and nourished terrorists.

“de-listing” means more blasts in Iran; means more assassinations; more aggression; and less peace for Iranian people. This is what MEK wants to do, just like what it did three decades ago.

Is US really looking for peace and democracy?

Posted by Quest4Truth | Report as abusive

Why is US thinking about ‘regime changes’? Last few decades have shown whoever US supports to bring about regime change, eventually turns against US. Example: Al Qaeda. What’s the guarantee in 10 years MEK doesn’t harm USA or Iranian public?

Why not learn from mistakes? USA needs to stop causing ‘regime changes’.

Posted by whistle_blower | Report as abusive

We iranians want freedom, but we dont like the Mujahedin khalqh, they are a crazy sect and also traitors to our nation, but ofcourse the usa only changes a dictator with a nother, if U.s cared about freedom of iranians, this regime would have fallen long ago, and now the u.s plans to let loose terror organization to take over iran….that will not happen we iranians will kill them after we are done with islamic republic. Cant you just leave us alone?

Posted by ahuramazda | Report as abusive

Mr. Obama and his administration should have in mind that acting with double standards will only damage our reputation and raise the US hatred..If this is not acting with double standards, then I’m not sure what is!

Posted by AmirAm | Report as abusive

Obama, Iran and a push for policy change – Analysis & Opinion ……

Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

Posted by World Spinner | Report as abusive

Mr.Obama and his administration must understand that the only practical solution is to support the MEK. The Iranian regime is just afraid of MEK. MEK is well organized and can topple the terrorist regime in Iran. God Bless America and those who support the MEK.

Posted by Tamino | Report as abusive

it is time for Obama’s administration to do the right thing and side with the Iranian people and take the name of MEK off the FTO list. Iranian people want regime change; they have shouted this on the streets clearly and loudly during the past two years.

Posted by homa | Report as abusive

MEK are a known terrorist organization and hated by the Iranian people. Everyone remembers how they sided with Iraqis during the war and helped in capturing Iranians to server as prisoners in Iraqi jails. This is not to mention that they follow their extremist (and fanatical) ideology with total disregard for others.
Removing MEK from the terrorist list only proves that not only the US is not serious about war on terror, but also the American politicians use double standards to further their own short-term agenda.
Mr. Obama, removing the MEK from the terror list and supporting them in any shape will send this clear message to the Iranian people: We do not care about you and we shall unleash hell (MEK) upon you.
This will only increase the dislike (and the hatred) of the US amongst the ordinary people of Iran and indeed the international community.
Mr. Obama, it is time to speak up and reject all terrorist organizations including the MEK.

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Posted by Jae Gooley | Report as abusive