Recent uprisings in the Middle East provide an opportunity for the US to support indigenous and authentic opposition movements, thereby advancing the US's foreign policy goals.
The Obama administration's ongoing support of the Libyan resistance in Tripoli highlights the valuable role that opposition organizations play in support of US security interests.
This month, a bipartisan chorus of voices is rising in support of another dissident group and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an opportunity to correct US policy toward Iran. Removing the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) will send a clear signal that continued Iranian aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq will be met with support for grassroots change in Tehran.
The removal of the MEK, a prominent Iranian opposition organization in exile, from the State Department's FTO list will redress an error made by President Clinton in 1997.
Delisting the organization is necessary to meet the statutory requirements established by the US Congress for FTO listing. The change also serves US security interests in the region. With almost a decade of counter-terrorism now behind them, the Obama administration is wise to revisit the political calculation underpinning the decision to place MEK on the FTO list in the first place. The decision by then-president Clinton was designed as an olive branch to moderates in Tehran.
Last week’s State Department report on MEK further confirms the group’s ineligibility for FTO listing based on statutory language used to label terrorist organizations under US law. That the designation undermines a valuable non-military option for promoting change in Iran is equally worrisome.
Secretary Clinton can correct US policy on Iran and set the stage for a bold new phase in US counter-terrorism policy. US President Barack Obama’s increasingly firm stance on Syria, his support for change in Egypt, and his decision to support opposition forces in Libya comes at a time when the administration is already making difficult decisions about how to engage governments that launch assaults on unarmed protesters, violate human rights, and deny basic civil and political protections.
Recent uprisings in the Middle East provide an opportunity to support indigenous and authentic opposition movements. The cultivation of such alliances, with both native and exiled organizations, is sometimes consistent with US security interests.
Consider MEK: Since 2001, not a single, open-source terrorism database has recorded an incident of violence by MEK directed at the US or its allies. Notwithstanding the massive disinformation campaign waged against them, MEK has proven itself to be a legitimate political alternative to the current government in Iran, a valuable source of information about Iran’s rogue activities, and an organization with global currency.
Delisting MEK would telegraph consistency, transparency, and allegiance to the rule of law on the part of the Obama White House. It would also ensure that the FTO list remains a current and useful tool for countering terrorism.
The State Department’s FTO list is a valuable tool for denying organizations that threaten the US an opportunity to operate freely. The designation curtails a group’s ability to raise funds, maintain a lobby, and receive virtually any type of assistance or support. The label also broadcasts an illegitimacy that serves as a scarlet letter and undermines the social mobilization necessary for resistance.
Organizations that pose a direct threat to US interests are unquestionably dealt a blow by application of the designation and the list should be maintained as a chief instrument of US counter-terrorism policy. But US interests are ill served when the terrorist label is applied for political reasons or used as a bargaining tool. Such application damages US credibility and undermines effectiveness in combating terrorism.
The State Department’s policy of reviewing organizations with the FTO designation every five years to determine their suitability for continuance on the list is a sensible one. So too are allowances made for removal of organizations from the list by the Secretary of State in circumstances where there is no evidence that an organization continues to meet the necessary criteria and in instances where a continuance threatens US national security.
Such discretion is necessary to ensure that the list remains up to date. But no credible list can be maintained if the decision to name organizations is made for purely political reasons.
The time has come for Secretary Clinton to exercise the discretion afforded her by Congress and demonstrate leadership by removing MEK from the FTO list. Correcting the list to reflect existing realities in the Middle East will set the stage for a new era in US counter-terrorism operations and it will send an unmistakable message to Tehran that the instability and violence promoted by the Iranian government will be checked with support for a grassroots movement that can challenge its authority.
The writer is the Director of the graduate program in Negotiation and Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.
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