The people of Iran have suffered human rights abuses and resisted the ruling theocracy for almost four decades. The international community, for the most part, has done little to support that struggle for freedom.
That indifference was not to be seen in Tirana last week, when Senator John McCain exchanged warm and eloquent greetings with Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
U.S. moral and political support for Iran’s opposition freedom fighters makes sense. It is a cost-effective means of pressuring Iran to change its belligerent regional behavior.
While the Iranian regime is infamous for its terrorist activities and nuclear weapons program, much less is known about Iranian opposition to that regime. In fact, the people of Iran and their organized resistance movement were the first to stand against the mullahs, and have paid the highest price. It is estimated that more than 120,000 advocates of democracy have been executed since 1979.
Because of their shared values of freedom and democracy, the Iranian resistance should have been considered as a natural ally in countering the threat of Islamic extremism. Instead, U.S. administrations and their European partners have been courting illusory “moderates” inside the mullahs’ regime.
During the Reagan administration, the official U.S. policy was isolating the mullahs’ regime. But in secret, the U.S. sent arms to fictitious “moderates” in return for help in releasing American hostages taken by Hezbollah. As a result, America lost the trust of its regional partners, while Iran received the weapons it badly needed for its war with Iraq and was encouraged to expand its role in hostage-taking.
The Europeans went down a similar path, in 1992 opening their “critical dialogue” with Tehran and offering the “moderate” Rafsanjani various economic and financial incentives to persuade Iran to change its behavior. Evidence at the Mykonos trial in 1997, however, made it crystal clear that during the same period, the mullahs were expanding their terrorist activities in Europe.
EU states recalled ambassadors from Tehran and ended the dialogue. But after the election of the “reformist” Khatami two months later, the European Union immediately restarted its engagement policy under the name of “comprehensive dialogue”.
At the same time, the Clinton administration embraced engagement with Khatami, and as a gesture of goodwill, listed the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) as terrorist organizations. That designation was finally revoked after a thorough review by the second highest court in the United States in 2012, which ordered the Secretary of State to make a decision or it would delist the MEK.
When in 2009 millions of Iranians poured into the streets to voice their opposition to the ruling regime, the Obama administration looked the other way. Supposedly, they reasoned that American support would only make it easier for the regime to crack down on the dissidents. But in reality, the people of Iran needed America’s moral and political support, and voiced that demand in one of their most popular slogans: “Obama, you are either with them [the regime] or with us [the Iranian people]!”
In this historical context, Senator McCain’s meeting with Maryam Rajavi signals a shift in the right direction. Past U.S. administrations have all tried and failed to change Iran’s behavior by appeasing the mullahs. But there are no U.S. allies within the regime. That role can only be filled by Iran’s people and their organized resistance movement.
In addition, Iran’s heinous record of human rights abuses needs to be addressed as part of a comprehensive U.S. Iran policy. Violations of human rights, as Ambassador Nikki Haley observed, “are not the byproduct of the conflict - they are the cause of the conflict.” The Iranian regime is not only a threat to regional peace and stability, but is also the main source of strife and suffering in Iran.
Engaging with the Iranian resistance movement is in line with American values, and sends a strong message to Tehran. The mullahs continue to destabilize the region, support Assad, and terrorize their own people. In response, America should back Iran’s dissidents in their fight for regime change.