The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate challenged conventional thinking about Iran’s nuclear program. However, it still failed to explain whether Iran could eventually assemble a nuclear weapon. Washington remains determined to continue with its cocktail of diplomacy, threats, and sanctions, including possible follow-ups to the October U.S. Treasury designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). However, none of these measures has achieved the desired impact.
One tool not yet used is U.S. engagement with Iranian opposition groups—both in Iran and the Iranian Diaspora. These groups include the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), which is based in Iraq and operates in Iran, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the Iranian parliament-in-exile based in Paris, of which the MEK is a member.
The United States can learn from European countries, which are reluctant to adopt the tough financial measures Washington encourages to isolate Iran, but see wisdom in working with the Iranian opposition to gain leverage against Tehran.
Why Engage with the Iranian Opposition?
Engagement with Iranian opposition groups remains controversial, particularly since the MEK has been largely characterized as a militant organization. But cooperation presents vast opportunities for intelligence collection. Opposition groups were responsible for an August 2002 intelligence report that yielded information about the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. The MEK’s intelligence apparatus could inform about Iran’s Middle East terrorist network, including insurgency activity in Iraq, and Hizbullah actions in Lebanon. Opposition intelligence reports could also provide a better grasp of the Iranian domestic landscape as Washington attempts to manipulate public sentiment against the regime.
Additionally, engaging the opposition could be a coercive measure against the Iranian regime. Specifically, recognizing the opposition would send a signal to the Mullahs that Washington is no longer limited to sanctions and diplomacy, which are defensive measures. Indeed, working with the opposition is one of the few offensive measures immediately available to the United States. In recognizing these groups, Washington would also signal to Iran that there is a stronger, more unified transatlantic approach to the Iranian crisis.
Finally, American recognition of the Iranian opposition could energize anti-regime activists in Iran who have been waiting for indications of international support. Recognition of the opposition might even inspire those who oppose the regime, but are too intimidated to take action. This is critical if democracy is ever to take hold in Iran.
Why Were MEK & NCRI Designated?
One reason why Europe has been able to engage with the Iranian opposition, while the United States has not, stems from the fact that in 1997 the State Department designated the MEK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), added the NCRI to the FTO list in 1999, and the NCRI-US in 2003. In contrast, the European Union elected not to designate the NCRI, even though the E.U. likely had similar intelligence about the group.
A case can be made that the U.S. listings were part of a politically motivated, Clinton-era effort to appease the clerical regime in Tehran during a time in which the regime of President Mohammed Khatami appeared to be warming to Washington. After years of research and examining available evidence, the Iran Policy Committee has concluded that these groups do not deserve to be listed for either prior terrorist activity or present capability to conduct terrorist actions.
The October 1999 designation of the NCRI by the State Department appeared to be based on a direct request from Tehran. As then-Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk stated, “The Iranian government had brought this to our attention. We looked into it and saw that there were good reasons for designating the NCR[I] as an alias for the MEK.”
The August 2003 FTO designation by the State Department of NCRI-US appeared to be the result of intense negotiations between Tehran and Washington about the Iranian opposition in Iraq and al-Qaeda in Iran. Tehran pledged that in exchange for a crackdown by the U.S. military against the MEK, the Iranian regime would refrain from sending its Iraqi proxies to exploit the chaos that could result from a U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. However, after the U.S. military invasion, Tehran dispatched thousands of proxies, contrary to its promises to the United States.
It is also worth noting that the State Department ordered the August closure of Iranian opposition group offices in Washington amidst negotiations with Tehran about a possible transfer of Iran-based al-Qaeda members to U.S. authorities in exchange for a U.S. crackdown on the MEK in both Iraq and the United States. Although Washington fulfilled its end of the deal, there is no evidence that Tehran held up its end of the bargain.
Today, there are a handful of organizations that seek to press the U.S. Department of State to review the listing of these Iranian organizations. Thus far, their efforts have been met with skepticism. But after the recent National Intelligence Estimate, the political landscape in Washington may be shifting toward a review of the designations.
Norway, Belgium, and the NCRI
Successes in Europe have been far greater than in the United States. While the E.U. followed America’s lead, adding to its terrorist list the MEK, or PMOI (People’s Mujahedin of Iran), as it is known in Europe, the E.U. has not designated other groups listed in the United States.
For example, European countries have not designated the NCRI, based upon findings that the group is purely political. Norwegian parliamentarians met in November 2006 with President-elect of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI) Maryam Rajavi, despite a threat from Iran’s ambassador to Norway (which is not an E.U. member state). The ambassador warned Oslo that there would be “serious consequences” for Iran-Norway bilateral relations. Norwegian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee members bristled at these threats and defiantly hosted Madame Rajavi for two days of productive meetings.
An E.U. founding member, Belgium, also invited Madame Rajavi for an unofficial visit in October 2006. During her visit, Rajavi met with senior Belgian senators. She presented the case for U.N. sanctions against Iran, delivered a plea to lift the terrorist designation of the MEK, and called for an official European dialogue with the NCRI. The visit occurred despite protests by the Iranian regime to the Belgian and Finnish (representing the rotating presidency of the E.U. at the time) ambassadors in Tehran.
The U.K. and the MEK
The PMOI, a.k.a. MEK, was one of 46 international organizations proscribed under the U.K. Terrorism Act of 2000. Yet, in 2007, with a better understanding of how the Iranian opposition could be a useful tool in deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a British Court ordered the Government to de-list the MEK. The British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom organized a conference on June 14, 2007. Three-dozen members of parliament and peers discussed the removal of PMOI from the terrorist list.
Based on the research of the Iran Policy Committee, Counsel Nigel Pleming argued that the PMOI does not maintain the intent or capabilities to conduct terrorist activities, which was the ostensible reason for proscription. Leading the effort for “de-proscription,” as it is called in the U.K., was Lord Corbett of Castle Vale and the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom.
On November 30, 2007, the Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission ordered the British Government to de-list the PMOI/MEK. While the government promised to appeal the ruling, the court’s decision marks an important political turning point in the global effort to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The E.U. is also questioning its listing of the MEK. Indeed, the European Court of Justice in December 2006 ruled that the E.U. proscription, based on the British listing, was flawed. That ruling actually annulled an E.U. order to freeze the funds of the MEK. The Court found that, “The contested decision infringes the right to a fair hearing, the obligation to state reasons, and the right to effective judicial protection.”
Despite the court ruling, the European Council (the executive branch of the E.U.) announced on January 31, 2007 that it would “provide the PMOI [MEK] with a statement of reasons for keeping it on the E.U.’s ‘asset freeze list’ of persons, groups and entities involved in terrorist acts, and to give the PMOI [MEK] one month to present its views, together with any supporting documentation.” A number of European parliamentarians concluded that, “Violating the rule of law and placing the Council’s opinion above that of the highest E.U. courts in yet another pathetic attempt to appease Iran is both scandalous and shameful.”
E.U. Outreach to the Iranian Opposition
Several Norwegian officials have been particularly outspoken about the need to engage the Iranian opposition. Notably, Norwegian First Vice-President Carl Hagen, stated, “We are going to make every effort to remove the name of the Mojahedin [MEK] from the terrorism lists of the European Union and the United States.” Similarly, Bjorn Jacobsen, a member of the Defense Committee of the Socialist-Left Party of the ruling coalition in Norway, stated that, “It is regrettable that a number of countries had put the Mojahedin [MEK] on the terrorist list for economic and political reasons.”
Iran experts and officials in many other E.U. countries have followed Norway’s lead, expressing interest in reaching out to the MEK and NCRI, including France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in particular, has indicated that he is willing to adopt a more coercive approach to the Iranian regime with or without E.U. consensus. Germany and Great Britain have also indicated that they might be willing to take unilateral steps.
Will U.S. Policy Remain the Same?
The U.S. designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist entity, the British court order to de-list the MEK, and prospective E.U. delisting of the MEK could foreshadow delisting of the MEK by the State Department. With the aim of weakening the Iranian regime, deterring Iran’s support for terrorism, and thwarting Ahmadinejad’s nuclear designs, de-listing the NCRI and MEK is a potentially powerful tool in Washington’s diplomatic arsenal.
Of course, Washington must ensure that all of its criteria have been met—namely that these groups do not engage in terrorist activity. If this is the case (and research conducted by the Iran Policy Committee finds that it is), delisting them—or even the threat of taking both off the list—could be used to extract concessions from Iran.
It is widely believed that Europe must do more to implement coercive economic sanctions against Iran, but Washington must also do more to engage the Iranian opposition. If the U.S. does takes steps to engage the Iranian opposition, they must be taken in tandem with our European allies. Such a move would likely strengthen a unified transatlantic cocktail of diplomacy, threats, and sanctions. It might also help the international community avoid having to choose between an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran.
Raymond Tanter, a former senior staff member of the National Security Council, is a visiting professor at Georgetown University and the President of the Iran Policy Committee.