Washington’s Iran problem just got bigger. Over the weekend, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, warned that Iran might resume uranium enrichment-related work this week. A day later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, said the next Iranian president would not relinquish the country’s nuclear program. At this point, it’s clear that a nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat to American security—so what should Washington do about it?
At present, the two most widely discussed methods in Washington for dealing with Iran’s WMD ambitions are appeasing the Iranian regime through economic incentives or taking some form of military action against it. But on April 14, speakers at the 2005 National Convention for a Democratic, Secular Republic in Iran insisted that there is a third option which all Iranians and Americans can rally behind.
Hundreds of Iranian-American delegates traveled from across the United States to attend the event, which was held at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Speakers included Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, all of whom encouraged religious tolerance and expressed support for the rights of those fighting against intolerance in Iran. The convention’s participants included family members of persons executed by the Iranian government, scholars, scientists, academics, and professionals. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO), joined by Congressmen Bob Filner (D-CA), Ted Poe (R-TX), and Dennis Moor (D-KS), also spoke at the event.
In a mood reminiscent of American campaign conventions, the high-energy crowd held placards declaring their aspirations for a democratic and secular Iran; they also made reference to the people and organizations they believe are the ones to make their aspirations reality.
A common image at the convention was that of Maryam Rajavi, the president elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a major Iranian opposition coalition. The NCRI was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State in 1999. State contends that the NCRI is an alias for the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) that is intensely focused on overthrowing the current Iranian government.
The MEK’s addition to the terror list coincided with the 1997 election of President Mohamed Khatami, a figure the Clinton administration was depending on to peacefully reform the Iranian regime from within. Many in Washington believe that the MEK’s terror designation was a diplomatic concession to Iran.
Khatami’s term will conclude in August of this year and will leave behind a legacy of disappointment. Sadly, there is no reason for Washington to be optimistic about Iran’s next president. Whoever holds the office next will merely serve Iran’s theocratic oligarchy at the pleasure of its Supreme Leader.
With Washington bewildered as to how to deal with the current Iran crisis, President Elect Rajavi and the NCRI seized what they saw as a golden opportunity.
Mrs. Rajavi addressed the convention via a live satellite broadcast from her home in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Unable to attend the event in person due to her organization’s status in the United States, she took full advantage of her virtual presence in Washington to challenge the Bush administration to drop her organization from the terrorist list.
Ms. Rajavi pointed out that her organization officially calls for a "referendum for peaceful regime change in Iran and rejects any terrorism, violence and illegal and unjustified taking up of arms" and also "fully respects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Quoting both President Bush and Thomas Jefferson to emphasize her vision, Mrs. Rajavi developed a strong case for her organization's removal from the FTO list.
To be sure, the group consistently advocates for secular democracy in Iran, has made the world safer by revealing Tehran’s secret nuclear weapons program and has identified Iranian government agents directly responsible for acts of terrorism in Europe and the Middle East.
It’s inclusion on the FTO list limits the amount of progress the U.S. might make by partnering with a major Iranian group like the NCRI. Two former U.S. army officers who had recently served in Iraq and are personally familiar with members of the MEK residing in Ashraf city echoed the same concern during their address to the convention.
Regardless of the obvious constraints the FTO list puts on the organization, the NCRI's plans for Iran remain ambitious. Mrs. Rajavi's position as an interim president is planned to last for only six months after the fall of the current Iranian regime. At the end of her interim term, free and monitored elections would be held throughout Iran.
In the meantime, Mrs. Rajavi and the NCRI are pursuing what many of the convention's speakers referred to as "The Third Option." The third option as stated by the NCRI suggests that change in Iran should be initiated by the Iranian people and sustained indigenously. This, too, is likely the method that a war-weary American public would prefer.
Two recent Gallup polls show that Americans believe the current Iranian government is a significant threat to the United States, but they do not support a military solution to the Iran problem. That said, the third option may be exactly what the American public is looking for—however, it will likely come as a shock to them to learn that the idea came from a group the U.S. government has branded a terrorist organization.
The Iranian-Americans who attended the National Convention for a Secular, Democratic Republic in Iran showed sincere enthusiasm for the third option and did not appear deterred by the NCRI’s terrorist label. The Iranian-American delegates at this event represented an impressive American subculture that has a clear understanding of the American political process and the situation on the ground in Iran, as well as a definitive vision for the future. Most importantly, they are willing to dedicate their resources to peaceful political activism in the U.S.
Policy makers in Washington would be wise to recognize the role of these Iranian-Americans in facilitating democracy in the Middle East. The National Convention for a Secular and Democratic Republic in Iran emboldened and legitimized the democratic process here in the U.S., which is something the religious extremists and terrorists currently running Iran would never do. Policy makers should also keep in mind that if these Iranian-American democrats were to have held their peaceful political event in Tehran, every organizer, speaker and participant would be likely have been sentenced to long prison terms, tortured and possibly executed.
The time has clearly come to confront the Iranian threat head on. The third option may be the best option our policy makers have.