Empowering the Democratic opposition in Iran

During the Cold War, the free world was threatened by a nuclear-armed state based on a radical, all-encompassing and discredited ideology, a regime that projected an aggressive agenda of global domination even as it struggled to keep its own dissatisfied citizens in line back home. While America and her allies maintained a resolute posture of military strength to keep Soviet expansionism in check, ultimately it was our example of freedom that inspired the restive peoples living under the Evil Empire to tear down the wall.

Taking a leaf out of history’s notebook, there are striking similarities between the dangers now emanating from Tehran and those fueled by Moscow during the Soviet era. Iran’s regime is also based on a radical, all-encompassing and discredited ideology, and projects an aggressive, destabilizing international posture while suppressing the will of its own citizens. The good news may be that, like the totalitarian ideology before it, the extremist fundamentalism of the Iranian mullahs could best be attacked by the power of an idea called freedom.

There is currently no shortage of high-level American attention to Iran. My former colleagues in Congress are working to impose tougher economic pressure and bans on investment in Iran, while the Bush administration is working to marshal stronger international will to enforce the sanctions.

But the other part of the Iran equation must be to encourage the kind of peaceful revolution inside Iran that not only Americans desire, but that a majority of the Iranian people themselves want.

Military intervention is not a viable option.  “Engagement” may seem like an appealing alternative. But the diplomatic history of the past 30 years provides a chronicle of successive setbacks suffered by the West while the regime continued its relentless march toward nuclearization while bankrolling terrorists and expanding its power and reach.

Current efforts at “engagement” have done nothing to advance the cause of freedom inside Iran. The regime has recently resorted to a crackdown on internal dissent and personal freedom, targeting everything from community organizations to the nation’s burgeoning private banking system — pillars of civil society and a free market economy. Visiting Iranian-American scholars are detained on absurd, trumped-up charges and made to “confess” their “crimes” on television.

Like the captive peoples of the Soviet empire a generation ago, today’s Iranians are receptive to ideas that challenge the ruling orthodoxy. Indeed, the popularity of America in Iran seems to rise the more the regime demonizes us.

One of the best assets working for reform is demographics — nearly 70 percent of Iran’s 68 million citizens are under the age of 30. They are impatient for change, and they are the future.

America and our partners should work with and empower freedom-loving elements within Iran and among the Iranian Diaspora, broadcasting messages of democracy and providing support, moral and otherwise, to the brave dissidents. While we must avoid doing this with a heavy hand, lest our efforts backfire, there are ways we can help level the playing field and give the opposition a fighting chance.

Supporting the democratic opposition holds great promise for promoting the cause of freedom and democracy in Iran, particularly the group feared most by the regime: the Mujahedin-e  Khalq (MEK), for decades demonized by the regime for its efforts to encourage “soft” revolution.

Never has the old adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” been more true than in the case of the MEK, whose members residing in Ashraf City, Iraq, are protected persons under the Geneva Convention.  But, in a stark example of failed “engagement,” the organization was placed on the list of foreign terrorist organizations by the Clinton administration as a way of placating the so-called “moderates” in Iran.

Attracting world attention in 2002, the MEK first revealed the existence of Iran’s secret nuclear facility at Natanz. Today it is providing useful intelligence that is saving the lives of Coalition soldiers in Iraq. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the regime is eager to use the next round of “engagement” with American officials to further isolate the MEK, as part of Iran’s certain-to-be-unfulfilled pledge to reduce its influence in Iraq.

Two of my former congressional colleagues, Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.), are leading a bipartisan effort to urge the State Department to remove the MEK from the terrorist list, where it was wrongly included in the first place.

Removing the MEK from the list represents one concrete step we could take to help the Iranian people forward on the long road to achieving freedom and real democracy in their country.


Armey is the former House majority leader (1995-2003) and is currently senior policy adviser for DLA Piper US LLP.  MEK is not a client of DLA Piper US LLP.

More in Op-Ed

Spirit of Israel lives in Democratic Party

Read more »